Can The Bulls Improve Their Pick-And-Roll Defense?

Can The Bulls Improve Their Pick-And-Roll Defense?

With the anointment of Fred Hoiberg as coach of the Bulls, much of the attention has been about offense. This is to be expected. Hoiberg’s strengths as a coach during his tenure at Iowa State was clearly on the offensive end of the ball, with many college basketball experts praising the system that was implemented, and how it was executed.

The heir apparent to the coaching role, pundits have labeled the sets used by the Cyclone’s as ‘NBA level’, meaning they were advanced, full of motion, lots of pick-and-roll, dynamic, and with multiple options. Those NBA buzzwords stir up erotic emotions for most Bulls fans. Well, they do for me.

Is that weird? Maybe to a normal person, but to me, I think it’s justified. After watching the team being on the wrong end of 16-0 runs against the Cavaliers, or seeing Rose and Butler take turns in isolation scoring attempts, changes were required.

We all expect a more fluent offense next season. We expect changes. More transition play. More small ball line-ups. More focus and reliance on the three-point shot. This is great, but is that enough to propel the Bulls to the next level?

What about defense?

Tom Thibodeau has been hailed a defense genius, and rightfully so. His defensive schemes, in the most basic sense, aim to force the pick-and-roll action away from the middle of the court, where options are aplenty, and instead move the ball sideways where options are severely limited. Keeping the ball on one side of the floor, whilst trying to mitigate the screen setter by sitting on the ball-handler’s hip and forcing him into the awaiting defensive big man, this defense would reduce the effectiveness of the base foundation of most modern NBA offense’s, forcing poor shot attempts, mainly contested or low percentage jump shots.

For four seasons, the Chicago Bulls would routinely be considered one the best defensive squads, striking fear into even the best and most gifted individual offensive weapons. Missing Derrick Rose for the majority of 2013-14, with Luol Deng also being traded early in the season to the Cavaliers, the only way Chicago would win ball games was to defensively swarm and enclose the opposition. Sounds like a perfect recipe for Thibodeau, and it was.

The Bulls would go onto exceed all expectations. Winning 48 regular season games that year, this success would largely be fuelled by Thibodeau and his defensive schemes, which would rank second in the defensive rating (100.5), only trailing Central Division rival Indiana. They did all this despite playing defensive sieves like Carlos Boozer and the undersized D.J. Augustin meaningful minutes. It was truly impressive. Unfortunately, the Bulls would lose out to the Wizards in the first round of the playoffs.

Though disappointed at the time, I talked myself into thinking it was understandable. We were of course missing Derrick Rose for a second straight season. What more did my selfish bones want than 100% commitment and effort from my team, something I always received? If we could somehow maintain that defense while also adding more offense, we could really be onto something. Or, so I thought.

The following season would come around quickly. Fresh from a drama-filled offseason, which ultimately culminated with the Bulls (again) losing out on their prized free agent target, the consolation prize of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott was an impressive second prize. Despite Photoshop skills being wasted on Carmelo Anthony banners, which beautifully draped the United Center, we had our new players, we had more offense, and we still had Tom Thibodeau at the helm with his brilliant defense. It was championship time.

… Ok, maybe not.

The defensive numbers and standings would diminish for the Bulls, even under the tutelage of Thibodeau. In 2014-15, the defensive rating would slip outside of the top ten, falling to eleventh (104.3). That seemed impossible.

Should we have been so surprised?

Internal turmoil would ensue between coach and management. Often the most talked about story plaguing the team, we all know how that ended. The off-court dramatics would routinely take center stage, allowing the stumbling defense to be overlooked, or at least diminish the focus it deserved.

Previously a terrific pick-and-roll defense, the main cogs in the Bulls defense that would challenge the opposing offense changed dramatically. No longer was the Defensive Player Of the Year utilized as much in these scenarios. Often guarding a smaller opponent, Joakim Noah would be required to man the power forward position in the starting unit. With the addition of the aging, yet resurgent, Gasol to the team, the Spaniard’s feet were not agile enough to play the four spot. He would only be playable at center, where the only defensive benefit he could provide was the occasional blocked shot, followed by anguishing screams that did not seem humanly natural. That’s it.

Forced into guarding many pick-and-rolls pieces, Gasol would predictably ‘drop’ back towards the rim, where he would offer little resistance to either the ball carrier or the roll man.

By doing so, without the ability for Gasol to hedge hard or ‘show’ on defense, this would require the point guard to fight through screens in attempt to catch up to the streaking ball handler. If the Bulls’ on-ball defender could not do this, the lanes to the hoop were clear, often providing a great avenue to the foe, be it for their own isolation scoring opportunity or a penetrating move that would shift the defense and force open shots.

Gasol was a problem in this equation, but so was the on-ball defender, who often would be a Bulls point guard.

Derrick Rose would return to the floor to play the most regular season games he had in years. The floor was low, so seeing him on the court in 51 regular season games would prove to be terrific achievement. The unfortunate byproduct of this was the tentative nature Rose would apply to his game. Often settling for jump shots on offense with very little dribble penetration, his lateral movement seemed lost. Whether this was by design to preserve his knee, or simply what would be going forward, this issue would carry over onto the defensive end. Only providing limited intensity, often only against other high profile rivals, a consistent effort could not be established on defense by the team’s superstar.

So, with both Gasol and Rose laboring on defense, particularly in pick-and-roll assignments, can we expect this area of the game to improve under Hoiberg, even if it faulted under the previous defensive savant?

Gasol turns 35 today. Questions still remain about who the real Derrick Rose is, with true answers only being visible to clairvoyants and Marty McFly.

Is this issue something that can be solved by effort alone, or is it a personnel problem? Has the thirst for greater offensive efficiency severely unbalanced the team’s ability to be anything more than above average on both ends?

Coach Hoiberg is a smart guy. He realizes his weaknesses as coach, and more importantly, has the professional ability to know one’s self. A rare trait amongst high profile figureheads, he knew he required help to coach an NBA defense, and he got it. Instilling Jim Boylen as an assistant coach, a product from the Popovich coaching tree, he will have the assistance he requires. Will that be enough?

Will a starting line-up solve anything?

Further compounding this issue is the untimely injury to Joakim Noah, which appears to be more sinister than initially assumed. Gasol clearly outplayed Noah last season. He deserved his place on the floor, but in doing so, the defense was compromised, with no real fallback position available. That has not changed, and will not, with no addition of a defensive center added to the roster.

Derrick Rose will remain as the starting point guard, an obvious and correct move. If this remains the case, can Gasol remain as starter? Do we have any other option at center if Joakim Noah can never return to his previous lofty heights?

Should the Bulls promote Nikola Mirotic into the starting power forward with Joakim Noah returning to center, in hope that he can rediscover his old self? An interesting and difficult conversation would be required for that to occur.

A mighty challenge awaits for the rookie head coach and his staff. The glamour of a high functioning offense is certainly appealing, but if the Bulls truly want to improve enough to finally get over the speed hump that is LeBron James, the defensive effort and application will need to improve, particularly in pick-and-rolls.

I’m not confident that it will without someone doing a mighty fine Joakim Noah impersonation, preferably Jo himself.


Leave a comment
  • Should be interesting to see what Hoiberg and Boylen can install.

    The big surprise of the playoffs, to me, was how well the Cavs' defense played. Not expected. If healthy, maybe the Bulls could turn their D up a notch in future playoffs, even if it is nothing great in the regular season.

    Maybe their kids, M, M, M and Snell could all learn a bit of D - tho one would have expected this under Thibs if it were possible. Guys were tuning him out last season, maybe because of his stubborn, rigid attitude, maybe because of his constant hard practices - and certainly because of his foolish overplaying of Kirk, underplaying Snell, and playing Noah and Mirotic out of their best positions. All that will, I assume, change now.

  • I would start Noah at C and play him exclusively at that position, but probably close the games with Gasol and split the minutes about evenly between the two players. If Gasol doesn't like it then trade his ass, we have 4 other big men anyways, but I think Gasol would be a pro about it. Niko has to start and play at least 35 minutes if not 40, Taj can play the rest.

  • In reply to Roman F:

    Welcome to the Noah should start at center bandwagon, a small but sure to continue growing one.

    However, both you and Mark have to be careful what you say about Gasol. Pointing out obvious truths, never mind actual critique is considered ridicule and denigration by his lone devoted follower. You risk being attacked and having your intelligence questioned by the Hangdog Hinrich of Bulls bloggers Kraptain Klankaroo himself, the Ayattolah Hgarbellballa, who apparently is on the rampage again, Ramadan must be over, at least for the Somali refugee community in North America.

    Unfortunately I don't think that he(Gasol or Hgarbellballa) will be a pro about it, just go back and look at the turmoil of his last 2 years with the Lakers, he was at the center of much of it.

  • In reply to BigWay:

    Actually, I wouldn't have a problem with Noah starting at center. I challenge you to find any post over the past year where I indicated otherwise.

    Do you actually think I am Gasol's "lone devoted follower?" Other people must think he is a pretty decent player otherwise he wouldn't have been a second team all-NBA center. But it's fun seeing you disintegrate with your babbling, delusional posts.

  • In reply to BigWay:

    Also, please explain to me your reference to the "Somali refugee community?" It just so happens that there is a Somali family on the block where I live and they are the nicest people you would ever want to meet. And do you have a problem with Ramadan? If so, what is it?

  • In reply to hgarbell:

    Since you are the self proclaimed smartest person on the internet, why do I always have to explain everything to you. Perhaps you've heard of the concept of satire or parody. People like you are the reason that even Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have decided that it isn't worth the hassle of appearing on college campuses(or anywhere else where the thought police rule) anymore. After all there is nothing worse than the intolerance of the tolerance movement.

    Also, there seems to be something very wrong with your thinking if you immediately think of something negative when you hear the words Ramadan or Somali(sounds like the definition of prejudice at a minimum). I certainly didn't say anything negative about either. Typical behavior for the hypocritical ultra left wing PC crowd.

    Ramadan is either still ongoing, or just ended. It is supposed to be a time of peace and goodwill toward all your neighbors, in other words the exact opposite reaction that I elicit from you everytime I say anything about Gasol, even when it is something as benign as listing his RPM rating versus his PER rating. How offensive can that be, even to the ayatollah hangdog hgarbellballa, Ramadan or no Ramadan.

    Finally, I believe that one of the largest muslim communities in the US is the Somali Refugee community in Minnesota(your neck of the woods, I believe), so they are either still celebrating Ramadan or just ended doing so. So, I doubt that they appreciate your Usama Bin hgarbellballa act either on the internet or in their neighborhood.

    Got it, genius.

  • If you are looking to institute small ball offense similar to what Hoiberg ran at Iowa you can't have Noah and Gasol on the floor together. Honestly he ran mostly with Stretch Fours playing center. I question Noahs fit but if he has a role its likely exclusively be at center. Fast free fall from grace for Joakim...

    I also wonder how Rose and Butler backcourt fit into a system like this as well. Both lack range and can be a bit ball dominant. Lots of questions.

    I would be surprised if they field a top 10 defense this season. If Thibs couldn't get this group to do it I am highly doubtful a coach focused on offense will. Having lineups featuring a front court of McDermott, Mirotic and Gasol will not be the same as the defensively dominant Butler, Taj and Asik lineup. Which was one of my all time favorite groupings especially in the playoffs against Miami!

  • be interesting to see what Portis brings to the table, he doesn't have great leaping ability but he does have good speed for a big. I think Hoiberg mentioned something about switching on the pick and roll and that will be one of the strategies he uses but you can get burned by that with mismatches. I expect a mediocre defense this year but I hope I'm wrong.

  • In reply to Defense-Rebound13:

    While lacking elite athleticism and explosiveness, Portis looks like he moves his feet really well for a big man, which is a much more effective defensive technique than being the statue of liberty on roller skates.

  • In reply to BigWay:

    "A much more effective defensive technique than being the statue of liberty on roller skates." Comical and true.

    However, I also appreciate what Gasol brings to the O. He did not make the Allstar team for his D! He killed Milwaukee with his 46-point game, so they double-teamed him for much of the playoff series, which the Bulls should have won in 5 had the other guys played better.

    Gasol was and is a steal at $7 million. However, if Hoiberg agrees with you and some fans, it should be easy to trade him for a backup PG. I predict the new HC keeps Gasol.

  • If you truly want to run in the NBA you must control the defensive boards. How can you go " small " and run ? You will need a minimum of 2 guys that can control the defensive boards. I would use a starting 5 of Rose, Butler, Dunleavey, Gibson, and Noah. Your five bench platoon would be Hinrich, Snell, McDermott, Mirotic, and Gasol.

  • In reply to Chicago Aces:

    Welcome to the Noah should start at center bandwagon, apparently it is already growing.

  • In reply to Chicago Aces:

    Mirotic is a better rebounder than Taj.

  • In reply to Chicago Aces:

    I agree, Ace, except I would start Mirotic over Taj and use Moore as the first backup PG. Kirk belongs on 3rd string - or retired.

    Noah needs to play center - as most of us knew last season. Just one of several reasons why Thibs had to go.

    I hope they land G Green.

  • I read that Jim Boylen was hired as "associate head coach"(obviously of the defense). While with the Spurs Pop in games from what I saw used to listen to him a lot. So the defense from a coaching aspect should be in good hands.

    Similar to the winning combination of Doc being the offensive coach and Thibs being the defensive associate head coach with the Celtics, this new Bulls arrangement could allow Fred Hoiberg to focus on what he was really hired for/does best.

    Aside from coaching, Derrick Rose and Gasol are just plain not good defenders and Joakim looks to be losing his mobility to some extent. Then you have speculation that Taj may be on the move to clear the log jam of bigs compared to the lack of depth at guard.

    If Bobby Portis can add some energy with his hedging and recovery quickness, and not get bullied around too much in the post his presence could help. Maybe in limited minutes Jo can supply at least solid mobility. Gasol and Jo platoon could leave both players with more health and energy to help the team win including in the post season.

    At guard though aside from G(Jimmy G) I just don't see a lot of defensive ability between Rose and.. whoever else is going to play in the Bull's back court. God help us if Klank gets legit rotation minutes as the current lack of players suggests he will.

    So who can we get for Taj and will it have to be a mid season trade to assure Gibson's health to prospective trading partners..? It's hard for me to see Gar/Pax getting a quality combo guard for Taj, but we will see.

  • In reply to RoadWarrior:

    I must offer the same caution to you that I did to Roman and Mark above. Negative comments about Gasol(otherwise known as the truth by sane people) are simply not tolerated by a certain party on this site. Suggesting that he is "just plain not a good defender" is blasphemy and punishable by an infantile tongue lashing and perhaps an elementary english lesson. I hope that you can handle the childish abuse that might come your way.

  • In reply to RoadWarrior:

    Gasol may be slow on the switch but to say he is "just plain not a good defender" is not supported by the facts. Consider this:

    1. Pau was 5th last year in "Defensive Win Shares." He was behind DeAndre Jordan, Draymond Green, Marc Gasol, and Tim Duncan. He was one spot ahead of Kawhi Leonard.

  • In reply to hgarbell:

    2. Pau was 19th in the NBA in Defensive Rating.

    3. Pau was 14th in the NBA in "Win Shares per 48 minutes."

    You can find all of these at

    He was also, as you probably know, one of the NBA's best at rebounds and blocked shots. So before this board goes on a frenzy of Pau bashing let's remember he is our best big man. Let's not get mislead by cheerleaders whose only fun in life is to ridicule and denigrate Gasol. The goal is using Noah's and Gasol's talents in the right way to make the the team better.

  • fb_avatar

    Middle of the pack on offense, and a middle of the pack defense. Prediction: 44-38, and 6th seed for the playoffs.

  • What is this about a trade for Jeremy Lin and Jordan Hill with the Lakers? Yardbarker via Mike Adamle as the source?? I'd be down with this trade(assuming we're talking trading Taj) aka getting Lin, but talk of Chicago trading/including a "prospect"?? It sure as hell better not be Bobby Portis. But who then Snell? Not McD?

  • In reply to RoadWarrior:

    Maybe the Lakers are trying to get Gasol back since they don't have any centers on their roster and Kobe needs at least one guy that will be his friend on the roster. Oh no, are you allowed to say "on the(ir) roster" twice in one sentence? Lin and Hill would be nice pickups, but they are both free agents, so it would have to be some kind of sign and trade. I agree with you that it sure as hell better not be Portis. Who else would be considered a prospect, McDNP or Snell like you mentioned, or some Eurostash that we've never heard of(because he doesn't exist)?

    Lakers just agreed to a deal with Brandon Bass, so Taj doesn't really make sense with last years first round pick already there at PF.

    I'm intrigued, but this sounds like a BS type of rumor.

  • Lin's offensive numbers actually are not bad, but defensively I don't know if he's OK at least or a train wreck. To me getting Jordan Hill and Jeremy Lin for Taj and a prospect would be a successful NBA big boy trade that a legit front office gets done. But again that assumes that the "prospect" if there is one thrown in is NOT Bobby Portis.

  • In reply to RoadWarrior:

    I thought I just saw something about Lin going to Dallas?

  • In reply to PaBullfan:

    That's been the rumor because he is supposedly tight with Chandler Parsons who is apparently the number 1 recruiter in the league.

  • There are very few big (7 foot) centers that are excellent defenders on pick and roll. Those that are usually are considered defensive players of the year. Remember this past year how the whole concern Cleveland had about leaving Mozgov in when he could be a detriment on pick and roll. Remember the same thing the year before against Miami when there was talk of having to take Hibbert out. Oh and it happened again in the finals for the champs when they took Bogut out and went small. Big centers just don't have the foot speed and mobility usually to play the pick and roll really well (exceptions Noah when healthy, Tyson Chandler when healthy, others?).

    So you give up that (tight pick and roll defense) for what they do well (rim defender, inside game, etc.). As said, it is really about Hoiberg figuring out how to use both Gasol and Noah. You are going to play both so who starts or not or both is not the question but how you use them both throughout the ebbs and flows of the game.

    If the Bulls want to go small, their best lineup if everyone is healthy is Taj at the center, Niko at the stretch 4 and both Pao and Noah on the bench. I just don't know about Portis yet. Noah is an offensive liability and the whole purpose of going small is to be faster and more productive on offense so why have Pao in there.
    But yes, you have to fight for rebounds. I know Taj will do that if healthy. I hope Portis will do that, too. Otherwise, people like Tristan from Cleveland will eat their lunch on small ball.

    I think another issue is that DRose can be a fair defensive player. As mentioned, he manned up when playing some of the top point guards. I remember two games last year where he was in Curry's face all night and in Kyrie's face in another game and the Bulls won. Hopefully, he still has some of that left and can apply it more now that he is not coming back from a summer of rehab.

    I hope Mirotic comes back with better play because despite his athletic ability, he was a liability on pick and roll defense last year, too. So while talking about Gasol. If you are going to play Mirotic more, then be careful about his defense as well.

    Last item. I have no idea what we are going to do with point guards. CJ signs with Orlando? Joseph signs with Toronto. Lin is still out there but there is talk of him going to Dallas. Stuckey re-signs with Indiana who gives up Hibbert to the Lakers.

  • It depends on what kind of small ball lineup you are talking about. If it is traditional small ball(Thompson at center), then Noah is fine and a better option than Taj at center. If it is ultra small ball with a "stretch 5" type guy at center like Draymond Green, then you go with a guy like Taj at center. Cleveland went with Thompson at center in this ultra small ball scenario, but had some success offensively with
    Mozgov inside against that lineup.

    I know that we haven't even seen the guy play yet, but in ultra small ball, Portis might be the best option, as he is bigger(almost 2 inches) than Taj but still likely to be our most mobile big just due to his youth and health. From the video that I've seen of him, he seems to move his feet very well for a bigman.

    If speed and mobility is the future name of the game, then Gasol really isn't the answer on either end even though he is a good mid range shooter(at least when wide open). Neither is an injured Noah, although he probably still looks better than he did this past season if playing center exclusively.

  • I read a tweet that said the Bulls are going to sign Goudlock (I probably butchered his name). Anyone know if this is true?

    About this trade of Taj for Hill and Lin, wouldn't they still have a crowd of bigs? How is trading one for the other going to solve anything if the point is to make playing time for Mirotic and Portis?

  • In reply to PaBullfan:

    The main point of that trade would be to get Lin. Hill could partially compensate for the loss of Taj.

    However, who else would the Bulls have to throw in? Bairstow? Done! Snell? Maybe. Portis? No way! McDermott? No way.

    I don't think this deal goes down.

  • Goudelock was overseas some where. I remember him playing a couple of good summer league games a few years back. Don't know much about him. I see Mo Williams signed with Cavs. And one story said something about the Cavs trying to get Jamal Crawford from the Clippers. I don't like that. Much better upgrade than JR Smith.

    Can I say I'm not liking the Toronto Raptors right now either? First, they step in and draft a point guard, Delon Wright, to prevent us from getting him in the draft. Now they sign Corey Joseph preventing us from another possible back-up point guard. Do they really need both when they also have NBA all-star Kyle Lowry at point guard, too. I'm not understanding it other than them trying to block us and the Cavs from getting a decent back-up point guard.

  • If that was Toronto's goal, then it was smart GMing. Obviously Toronto will have to go thru both the Cavs and Bulls to win the East.

    I am a bit surprised because I recall reading months ago that there is always a surplus of PGs in the NBA. I guess not!

  • In reply to rustyw:

    I disagree on that. If that was Toronto's goal, that was pretty dumb. They would be far better off focusing on improving their areas of weakness than simply trying to block rivals from getting a rookie backup PG who might or might not pan out. More likely, as far as Delon Wright goes, they simply thought he was the best player available. If they avoided the BPA just to try to hurt the Cavs and Bulls, it won't work out for them.

  • One simple way they can improve the pick and roll defense is to not pair two slow footed centers together in the starting lineup with one hobbled from knee surgery ala-Thibs.

  • How Portis looks in the Las Vegas Summer League + how Noahs and Taj's health improves will lead the Bulls to make a trade of some kind.

    Right now,

    Too many bigs, and NO BACKUP PG. And, little money to spend on one.

Leave a comment