The Bulls Defense Functions as a Gang and Only Works at High Energy

The Bulls Defense Functions as a Gang and Only Works at High Energy

The Bulls defense was at the top of the NBA this season under rookie head coach Tom Thibodeau, Lee Jenkins highlights in a feature on the defensive guru (Sports Illustrated).

"The Bulls led the NBA in defensive efficiency [97.4], rebounding differential [5.62], opponents' field goal percentage [43%], opponents' three-point percentage [32.6%] and, according to hoopdata.com, opponents' field goal percentage from three to nine feet [33.9%]," he wrote.
They also led in opponents' eFG% (46.2%), which weighs 3-pointers over 2s, forcing opponents to take shots at 16-23 feet from the basket -- the worst shot in basketball -- more often than any other team (28.1%). This is what the defense is schematically meant to do, Jenkins added, along with outlining why it's flawed analysis to judge individual players by the performances of the opposing players at the same positions:
The day before the game Thibodeau attempted to deconstruct his system. "Our defense really starts on offense," he says, with a shot taken when the Bulls are well spaced, so three players can rush back to curb a fast break while two crash the boards, then follow closely behind. When the defense is set, as many as four players have a foot in the paint to deter a drive. The defender on the ball angles his body to funnel the driver toward the baseline. The defenders in the post wrestle for inside position as if they're in a jujitsu match. A center or power forward, usually Noah, hollers descriptions of the screens being set in front of him.
The Bulls look as if they are always trapping, but often they are "corralling," bringing over a help defender who stays close enough to home that he can scramble back to his man after a pass. Chicago wants the ball handler, when he glances up, to see a human wall. The aim is for every possession to end in a contested two-point jump shot. The Bulls can run an above-average outside shooter off the three-point line because they are certain help is behind them. The entire scheme is based on a series of synchronized rotations, each player leaving his man to pick up one closer to the ball. Guards are quick enough to make the rotations look easy. Centers have to be just as swift. Thibodeau asks big men to show on a screen at one elbow and then be able to recover to the other by the time a pass can reach his man. "I've heard guys tell him it's impossible," says Bulls reserve forward Brian Scalabrine. "Then he asks them if they could do it for an NBA championship."
The Bulls have the appropriate personnel--muscular guards like Rose and Keith Bogans, long-armed wings like Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer, hyperactive bigs like Noah and Omer Asik--with the ideal attitude. The principles of the defense, including relentless ball pressure followed by hard close-outs and reliable rebounding, are in no way unique. "What is unique," says one Eastern Conference assistant, "is their energy and intensity. They're the hardest-working team in the NBA by far. They never relax."

Usually conservatism is a principle of great defense in sports and basketball can be, but Thibs; defense is extremely high-risk. It isn't about prevention, but size, athleticism, and reads to aggressively force the opponent into a decision pre-determined as desired by the defense.

Jenkins' article goes on to discuss Thibs' history as a score-first point guard, his early NCAA coaching career, how Jeff Van Gundy illuminated him to prioritizing defense, his work ethic, and how he sells the winning scheme to his players. Read it here.

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