Ever since the Bulls remodeled their roster, the primary concern has been how coach Fred Hoiberg can blend his rotations in order to create an efficient offense. Given the fit of the roster, offensive cohesion may take some time to develop, but something that's been overlooked has been the roster build and the potential ramifications on defense.
On first impression, it’s difficult to see how the Bulls will improve from last season in order to build a top-ten defense. The team failed to eclipse this mark over the last two seasons, and it may struggle once more, making it difficult for the new-look Bulls to consistently remain competitive against the league's best.
Here's three issues that may limit the Bulls on defense.
Guarding The Pick-And-Roll
Over the last two seasons, the Bulls' ability to guard pick-and-rolls sets was hampered by Pau Gasol’s inability to hedge on pick-and-roll coverage, which had already been compromised by Derrick Rose’s unwillingness to exert anything more than minimal effort in guarding a ball-handler. Rose and Gasol may no longer be with the Bulls, so it's easy to assume that previous defensive woes may disappear, but concerns should still exist with their replacements.
Though its impact is meager in comparison to quality rim protection, almost all pick-and-roll sets are initiated by a point guard. So why is point guard defense often overlooked?
Rose has been removed from the equation, but his replacement, Rajon Rondo, wasn’t much better defensively last season, either. Despite owning a negative defensive Real Plus-Minus last season and admitting to not giving maximum defensive effort, Rondo still benefits from a defensive reputation forged prior to rupturing his ACL. Given his injury history and 30-year-old body, that no longer seems relevant and should be ignored when gauging his ability to stay in front of his man.
Unlike Rondo, Robin Lopez, who will replace Gasol as the teams starting center, is still a dependable defensive foil. However, he isn’t without limitations. Standing at 7 feet and weighing 255 pounds, Lopez's big frame is best suited dropping back in pick-and-roll possessions to protect the rim, just as Gasol consistently did during his time with the Bulls.
Like Gasol, Lopez will struggle to move his feet if asked to guarded an opponent outside of the paint and, when combined with Rondo in pick-and-rolls defensive assignments, the Bulls will continue to have problems defending the league’s best offenses.
Though Rondo and Lopez may prove to be a better duo in pick-and-roll than those they've replaced, using Rose and Gasol as the baseline may mean an improvement on incompetence may occur, but simply put, if you struggle to guard the pick-and-roll, you'll have a difficult time being consistently good on defense.
An Emphasis On Creating Steals
Where the Bulls can improve defensively on last season is forcing turnovers. Becoming younger and more athletic would have achieved this, but when that plan was abandoned, signing two guards who've routinely figured among the league leaders in steals is a good alternative.
A weakness last season, the Bulls only forced opponents into turnovers 12 percent of the time, ranking only ahead of the New York Knicks league-wide. Though their overall defensive ability may have slipped, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo still have the ability to disrupt an offense's passing lanes, picking up opportunistic steals that can lead to transition baskets. Combining this with Jimmy Butler’s quick hands and elite on-ball pressure, the Bulls’ starting unit will have themselves some of the fastest hands in the league.
So why is this problem? In itself, it's not. But if the Bulls become trigger happy, playing an overly aggressive style of defense that relies heavily on forcing turnovers, it may be a problem if they over-commit and miss on defensive rotations. Should they fail to strip the ball, the Bulls may find themselves out of position, which can creating openings that invite dribble penetration that can compromise the entire defense. If the perimeter layers of the defense begin to crumble, it sets an enormous task for the front court to clean up the mistakes, and can force a rotating defense to find itself quickly out of place.
Is There Enough Defensive Talent On The Roster?
While the intricacies of defending the opposition are important, sometimes it can be as simple as analyzing a roster and making an assessment of how many credible individual defenders exist on the roster. If a team projects to have more weak individual defenders than good, it’s fair to assume that building a good defense will be difficult. As of now, the Bulls only have three reliable defenders on the roster: Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez.
There may be some conjecture to Wade and Rondo being omitted from this subjective list, and while both were better defensively last season than Derrick Rose, their aging bodies may prevent a consistent defensive effort over an entire season.
Of the younger group of players, Cristiano Felicio figures to be the only player who's likely to be a plus defensive player. Big, strong and surprisingly mobile, Felicio should be able to protect the rim while also hedging harder on pick-and-rolls than Pau Gasol ever did, but we still need to see if his Summer League form translates to quality rotational minutes in the NBA.
Nikola Mirotic could join Felicio as a big improver on the defensive side of the ball if he can developing a stronger body and improve his decision making, though the odds of both occurring seems remote given he will be entering his third season in the league as a 25-year-old who is closer to a finished product than raw talent. As for Denzel Valentine, Isaiah Canaan, Doug McDermott and Jerian Grant, all remain unproven defensively, even if a willingness to improve is present.
That doesn’t leave the Bulls with many defensive options. Youth and speed is something neither Wade or Rondo can recall. Lopez’s lumbering frame will prevent the starting unit from being overly aggressive on pick-and-roll coverage. The reserves, while young and energetic, lack the defensive awareness and communication to effectively employ a harassing type defense. Hoiberg will also have very few options where he can experiment with a switching style of defense, which the Bulls tried to do on occasion last season. It didn’t work then and it projects to fall over again with the current group, therefore it should be avoided.
Ultimately, the Bulls will still be heavily reliant on too few to set a defensive tone. Significant defensive improvement will be required from the younger group of players and the newly acquired veterans will need to rekindle their defensive abilities from past years if the Bulls are to have a competent defense. Maybe that would have been possible under the guise of former coach Tom Thibodeau and his heralded defensive assistants, Ron Adams and Andy Greer. But like the Bulls’ once impressive defensive metrics, those days are gone.
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