Nikola Mirotic Is Changing The Bulls Defense

Nikola Mirotic Is Changing The Bulls Defense

We knew things were going to change under Fred Hoiberg, we just didn’t know by how much.

Wildly heralded for his progressive nous, a new offensive approach was expected to be the major difference between Hoiberg and the outgoing Thibodeau. Early signs certainly suggest this, with the promotion of Nikola Mirotic into the starting unit a clear symbol that opening the floor offensively and playing 4-out basketball is among the top priorities for the rookie head coach.

So far, Mirotic has responded to the increased role by continuing his terrific preseason play into the first three games of season. Averaging 19.7 points, eight rebounds, and making 50% of his three-point attempts, the young power forward has been the Bulls’ best player to date and has benefited the most from Hoiberg’s arrival.

The Bulls, too, have needed the increased production from Mirotic. As per, with Nikola on the floor, Chicago have scored 105.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have them ranked 13th overall on last seasons offensive rating standings. Though this only suggests an above average offense, surprisingly, with Mirotic off the floor, the Bulls have only managed 84.5 points per 100 possessions.

These numbers certainly illustrate the worth of the young forward this season, even if the sample size alarm is ringing loudly in my ear. Be that as it may, can anyone seriously argue that Nikola Mirotic hasn’t been a necessity for this team?

Whilst his individual scoring prowess has been vital to the team’s offensive makeover, it’s on defense that the biggest shift has occurred with Mirotic, and ultimately, the Chicago Bulls.

Wait, what?

Mirotic…..and defense?

Yes, that’s correct, defense. You’ve read this far, so hear me out and keep going.

We’ve all heard about Tom Thibodeau’s legendary “ICE” defense, right? Whether it’s through reading about his defense, watching play-by-play frames or literally hearing him yelling “ICE!” from the sidelines, we know of its existence and importance to his schemes during his tenure as Bulls coach.

Designed to nullify side pick-and-roll action and minimize the effect of on-ball screens, the guard would position his body away from the screen, forcing the ball handler to use the entrapped space created, which would lead the offensive player straight into the awaiting Bulls’ big men.

Though brilliant and completely revolutionary, times haven’t stood still. Offenses have reacted to most defenses using Thibodeau’s genius scheme as the norm, and in their own way, have provided the league with an equally devastating counter – supreme spacing and passing.

To combat those teams who have been downsizing positions in an attempt to make spread pick-and-roll schemes even more potent, modern defenses are now electing to handle pick-and-roll coverage by constantly switching on on-ball screens.

The Bulls, too, are juggling with the merits of this approach. By using the natural footwork and lateral quickness Mirotic has displayed on offense, Chicago is also experimenting with power forward as a switching option in pick-and-roll.

As an example, using several defensive sets in the first loss of the season to the Pistons, you will notice the constant switching of defensive assignments from Mirotic when guarding opposing teams in their use of pick-and-roll plays.

As the footage indicates, so far, we’ve seen mixed results.

In several possessions shown, Mirotic has showcased his ability to stay in front of teams’ point guards, even if only on segments of a possession. His length and size has challenged shots, and he has done a good job at moving his feet. But, there have also been lapses.

At times, he will get caught out of position. When this occurs, the team defense will help, forcing others to shift their position. In doing so, if communication breaks down, driving lanes are created, offensive rebounds can be swallowed and second chance points can kick start a dying offense. Unfortunately, this is exactly what occurred against the Pistons, a team who is now good enough to capitalize on others mistakes.

For the Bulls, Nikola represents the new wave; a big man who can move like a perimeter player. Using his raw physical gifts and building his defensive guile as a switching option makes sense if they wish to follow trend. It’s a noble idea to start the season with, but the problem is, Mirotic is not a natural defender, even if willing.

Often caught ball watching, he has the propensity to lose touch of his man, which causes flow-on effects that break down defensive rotations. He doesn’t communicate on defense, and as the man who has replaced Joakim Noah in the starting unit, this loss of talk only compounds any potential help defense assignments that are required to cover for Nikola’s frequent mishaps.

As the Golden State Warriors stomped the league in 2015, teams all over are doing their best to emulate the current World Champions. Everyone is busy trying to find their own iterations of Draymond Green, in an attempt to fuel their own small-ball lineups that can be effective on both ends of the floor. Doing so sounds easy enough, but unfortunately, stumbling upon highly intelligent players who are built like line-backers and move like they shouldn’t, is anything but.

Though Mirotic is tough, resilient and versatile like Green, he is also slight, weak and movable. Opposing guards don’t fear being matched up against him, nor do they worry about his additional length and size. His credibility as a power forward who can guard multiple positions is non-existent in comparison to some of the game’s best and most flexible defensive stoppers.

Coaches are also game-planning against Mirotic defensively. They see him as a weakness. Frankly, I would, too. David Blatt sent Kevin Love straight into Mirotic in hopes of exposing him (he didn’t). Stan Van Gundy, as expected, ran a lot of pick-and-roll action for Reggie Jackson. We should expect this to continue, not only because of the perception of Mirotic’s defensive flaws, but because the league is now so reliant on pick-and-roll basketball.

As someone who has had concerns about the pick-and-roll coverage for some time now, this has only intensified when Hoiberg announced Mirotic and Gasol as the team’s front-court starters. Already questioning the potential defensive identity crisis the Bulls were likely to face under their new coach, adding a switching defense and using a noted “poor” defender in a primary role within this scheme has done nothing to curb previous doubts.

Despite my trepidation, surprisingly, the defense hasn’t been an issue for the Bulls. Through three games, Chicago rank 10th in defensive rating and 7th in defensive field goal percentage. The Mirotic and Gasol pairing, too, has been very solid defensively. As per, as a two-man combination, the Spanish duo have held opposing offenses to 98.3 points per 100 possessions. Should this continue, Hoiberg’s decision to start the national teammates will prove to be as effective as it was ballsy.

Mirotic, like the team, has also posted some very impressive numbers defensively. With Nikola on the floor, the Bulls have squeezed their opponents, only allowing a measly 83.7 points per 100 possessions. Without Mirotic, however, the defense has plummeted to 109.2 points per 100 possessions. Put simply, the Bulls need Mirotic on the floor.

Once again, the timely tones of the sample size alarm go off before I can delve too far into these likely meaningless numbers, but nonetheless, the results are encouraging, albeit shockingly. Be that as it may, these statistics haven’t fully convinced me, and I will need to see more before buying completely into this notion that a switching defense can work in Chicago with Mirotic as its main foil.

Should the Bulls continue with this new defensive mindset, they must pick their moments carefully. Despite Reggie Jackson’s huge new contract and his thirst for a starting role, he isn’t an elite point guard. How will this switching approach match up against Oklahoma City in less than a week?

Will it be able to contain Russell Westbrook and negate the pick-and-roll heavy Thunder, or will he thrive when the Bulls send their power forward to guard his relentless carnage?

As the numbers indicate, Nikola’s has been hugely valuable on offense, so much so that any cheap body fouls that he picks up as he tries to check the explosive guards of the league could hurt defensively, but perhaps its largest impact will be felt offensively should he be required to sit with foul trouble.

It will be interesting to see if the Bulls continue with this approach as the season matures. Should that remain the case, I don’t see my skepticism subsiding.

At least, not yet.

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  • Mirotic is probably the biggest surprise so far.

    Gasol has certainly produced in games 2 and 3, which is nice to see.

    I am really pleasanrly surprised at the D figures when Niko and Pau are on the floor together.

    The Bulls should have 6 strong players. Niko and Pau are holding up their end. The other four are a problem!

    The play from Rose and Butler at G has been weak. It stunk against Detroit. 9 of 32 from the field. Less than 30%. If they had shot a measly 40% the Bulls would have won. Plus Rose did not draw a single foul, and he should be getting some with drives to the hoop.

    On the other side, Noah and Taj, supposedly the top defenders on D, should make the bench great. But it seems they cannot stop even the bench of the opposing team!

    That is 4 big disappointments for the coaches to fix - if they can.

  • In reply to rustyw:

    I have to say it again, if you think Butler's play at G has been weak, you really need to lower your expectations.

    A 25.9 PER and .596 TS%? Those are superstar numbers, plain and simple. He has 2 TOTAL turnovers in 3 games. 45.5% FG and 50% from 3, plus over 7 FTA/game?

    With his defense, if he posts those numbers all year, it'll be an All-NBA season for Jimmy, at least 3rd Team.

  • In reply to Don Ellis:

    OK, Don, those statistics look decent. And, hey, the G shooting % was up from the Detroit game, which was under 30%. Tonite, the Gs went 6 of 18 which is 33%! Those are not superstar numbers, plain and simple! I can guarantee that no team will win a title with the Gs shooting so little and so poorly.

    Besides, Butler was poor the entire pre-season too, so this is not just a one-game abberration. It's nice he is making some FTs tho!

    And BTW these two guys are getting over $30 million per year! Nearly half of the team salary! I am telling you, this is a major problem.

    With both Noah and Taj struggling, it seems reasonable to give some of their minutes to Portis.

  • In reply to rustyw:

    Jimmy's updated numbers through tonight's game.

    .444 FG%
    .400 3pt%
    .580 TS%
    .867 FT%
    7.5 FTA/game
    0.5 TO
    6.5/1 ast/to ration

    19.5 pts, 6.0 reb, 3.3 ast, 2.75 stl in 36.5 min

    If that's what Jimmy gives us for the season, I'll be quite happy.

    Rose? He has struggled with his shot, but it's to be expected with no preseason. Unlike seemingly everyone else, I don't care how much Rose scores, as long as he plays good defense, takes good shots, and gets assists.

    Of course Rose isn't doing that now, and I don't disagree at all that he has been pretty poor so far. Suck wouldn't be inaccurate.

    I'd much rather see Jimmy, Niko and Pau do most of the scoring, since they are better and more efficient than Derrick.

    But again, if we are basing things on 4 games, then Mirotic should probably be an All-Star this year.

    And if we are basing things on 4 games, we should be gushing all over McD's much, much better-than-Korver shooting, shouldn't we?

    17.3 min
    8.5 pts
    .520 FG%
    .583 3pt%
    .657 TS%
    .660 eFG%
    17.7 pts/36

    .493 FG and .536 3's and .699 TS and .671 eFG% and 16.8 pts/36 min are Korver's best seasons EVER in each category, and the TS% and eFG% were last season when 75% of his shots were 3's. His 2nd best TS% was .653 and his 2nd best eFG% was .626, lower than Doug's this season.

    Less than 50% of Doug's shots have been 3's,

    Doug has scored in a variety of ways, not just standing and shooting 3's.

    Sorry, but if you're going to judge players based on 4 games, then McD should be getting everyone's huge, giant praise.

    Fair is fair. 4 games is 4 games.

  • In reply to rustyw:

    I'm a little dubious that Mark's numbers include the Detroit game.
    As I noted yesterday, the starting lineup allowed 48 points in a cumulative 15 minute span against Detroit, the first 4 minutes of the first quarter, the first 6 minutes of the second half and the 5 minutes of overtime. That works out to 153.6 points per 48 minutes which has to translate to a similarly high rate per 100 possessions. Had they only allowed 100 points per 48 during those minutes we would have won the game in regulation going away without anybody shooting any better.

    Given that we've only played 3 games that 15 minutes alone would overwhelm any good work done in the other games. Let's say that 15 minutes represents about 1/6th of the minutes played by the starting unit so far(30 minutes per game). The starting unit would have had to allow less than 57 points per 48 for the other 2.5 games(75 minutes) to get the average under 100.

    Also, while Niko is plus 40 something for the season, Gasol is minus 1. This might support Mark's contention that Niko has been important to our defense also, but obviously something interesting is going on when that pairing is split up.

    The Noah/Gibson pairing also produced a lousy(team worst) defensive rating last year. Both of those guys have been banged up and are not what they used to be even if they weren't. However, when you are covering up for Brooks, Hangdog, McUseless and even Moore and Snell you're D rating will suffer. Hangdog routinely produced massive negative plus minus numbers last season in even limited minutes, so anybody playing with him will be severely impacted. Brooks isn't any better(likely much worse) defensively, but at least he throws in some shots to partially make up for it. Rose and Butler are clearly our best defenders at the PG and SG positions, as was Dunleavy last season at SF. Snell as not great as he is, is still better than those other guys. It might be cliche, but defense is a team effort(5 guys on a string as Thibs would say). One or two guys can't make up for the other 60% of the unit being sack of shit horrible.

    Maybe Noah and Taj are done, but I'd still bet that individually they are better defenders than either Niko or Pau. While Niko did a pretty good job staying in front of Jackson on the perimeter the other night, he still had his issues with pnr penetration. Drummond certainly got the vast majority of his 20 rebounds(9 offensive) against our starting lineup. The only Bull both willing and capable of gorilla wrestling with Drummond is Noah, and he saw very few if any minutes against him.

    I'd also say that the only Bulls players that have been overall plus players for the season to date are Niko and Butler, not perfect mind you. As long as Rose is still suffering from a broken face, I will continue to cut him some slack, I just wish that he'd keep his mouth shut. For the most part everybody else has been underwhelming.

    Given the new coaching staff, I still have some hope that things will get better as the season progresses, and perhaps Hoiberg will show enough flexibility in his thinking to eventually get to the best groupings of players playing together. I also hope that somehow that includes Portis(likely at Taj's expense), although it could be at Noah's also. Also, it would be nice if our former MVP could go off for 53 someday soon.

  • In reply to BigWay:

    I don't know about Mark's numbers, but the ones I gave were through the Detroit game. So when Pau is on the floor, the defense allows 91 points per 100 posessions through 3 games.

    I'm not doubting the accuracy of any of your opinions, I just stated facts. Bill Parcells used to say "you are what your record says you are", and the same thing is true here. No matter the deficiencies anyone points out, the team's defense has been outstanding when Pau has been on the floor this season (same with Niko and Jimmy).

    That is a simple, numerical fact that cannot be disputed.

    And I'm 100% down with switching on picks, in fact I just taught my Little League team that philosophy at practice last week. If you have the athletes who can guard multiple positions at least semi-competently, it's much better than trying to fight through screens.

  • I am surprised on how the Bulls bench has been outscored by pretty much all teams so far. With Joe and Taj, the Bulls should be taking off on opponents bench, but it has been a disaster. The bench cannot score easily and is giving up easy baskets.
    Also, Rose and Butler have been so bad with their offenses. Their shooting need to be at least on the 40% range, but it has been terrible. Hope to see improvements soon.

  • I always hated that they never switched and never go under the screen. This lead to so many easy driving opportunities for the opponents before. So I am on board of the new defense idea.

  • Tonights game against the Magic should be another interesting test. We struggled to beat them a couple of times last season with all their young talent and athletes. We'll see if Skiles has them playing some D this year. They could compete for the bottom portion of the playoff draw if he does that. Actually, if the Bulls struggle against a second straight lower/lesser echelon team, it might be a sign that we are not the 2nd best team in the east, and biggest threat to Cleveland.

  • In reply to BigWay:

    They controlled most of the game before struggling to finish but hung in there and won. McUseless shot well, but looks like an overall liability on the court. That's more what I've expected of him from the beginning, and more of what I would expect moving forward. Rose had 8 assists and 7 rebounds and that's more of what I'd want to see from him but 6 points? First trip to the line was at the the very end of the game where they just fouled the ball handler. At least your guy Elfrid Payton didn't do a whole lot either.

  • In reply to Roman F:

    McD made 5 buckets in 18 minutes whereas the Rose/Butler combo made 6 buckets in 65 minutes! Hmm.

  • Another game, more pouting and ill-timed words from Derrick. When doesn't he spout off excuse after excuse. ..? Please, trade this entitled rapist.

  • Great article Mark.

    As long as Niko/Pau can be passable on the defensive end, it's a great decision by Hoiberg.

    Defensive numbers are promising so far, let's hope the offensive ones pick up.

  • While I'm glad the defense has held up so far, I'm worried that good teams will expose the Mirotic/Gasol pairing like SVG did. He ran pick and rolls all night. I know it's still really early, but good teams are going to take advantage of this.

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    Lol.. Does Mark Karantzoulis not remember last years OKC/Bulls game, where Russell went one on one with Niko at the end and airballed a crucial shot..? I'm not saying that Niko CAN always stick with Russell, he can't, but i reference this bc you literally mentioned it in your article, like who knows..? But, this happened just last year.. Bulls fans remember this.. Lol

    if it surprises you that Mirotic isn't terrible at defense.. you either: A.) actually don't follow Bulls basketball, or B.) don't really know much about basketball in general.

    when i saw Mirotic i thought he looked like a rookie out of college that needed the same muscle gain Snell/Butler put on.. Listed as a PF, i assumed he would be a bit of a liability until he started putting on more weight, but his offensive pros should outweigh any defensive cons until he got physically bigger.. he's scrappy, he has lateral quickness, he hustles, he rotates really well for a young NBA player, he uses his length well defensively, and he just flat out runs.

    I just don't know how you can watch him, and be like, wow, he's terrible at defense..? It wasn't too long ago when we had the pleasure of watching Booz showcase his karate-choppin-arm and cinder-block-shoe style defense..

    if anything, and you look at Pau,, it annoys me when he gingerly gets back on D.. Or, the fact that he's a legit 7 footer and still flops underneath the basket when someone lays one hand on his back instead of just going up and securing the ball.. If you watch him, you'd actually see that he doesn't rotate as well as Niko..

    Right now, our focus is spacing for JB and Rose to penetrate... it's what the Heat did, and many teams before them.. you put shooters on the floor and it opens everything up. I like Jo and Taj coming off the bench.. I think people will be spared long minutes this season and hopefully they'll stay fresh come playoff time.

    There aren't many Charles Oakley types, or Karl Malone's anymore. The game isn't going that kind of way now. Zac Randolph is a beast. i love the way he plays. but, last year vs the Bulls, Niko took him out of the game, bc it was a bad matchup for Zac... other than the position that Kevin Love got on Niko at the start of the Cavs game.. i thought Niko won that matchup. And, that's not bad..

    if you look back at the end of the Nets game.. in the 4th.. out of the timeout.. where Jimmy goes off the screen from Pau, past Joe.. and dunks it with ease... Niko cleared out the PF on the other block.. he followed Niko.. Jimmy could do that in slow mo bc there was no one around to help...

    There are plays all the time that don't show up on the stat sheet, where Niko makes an impact.. which is why he's usually up on the plus/minus. right now, imo, he still needs to pump fake less.

  • In reply to Alden Pearce:

    Excellent post! Post more often.

    I've actually gotten annoyed with the constant media cries about Niko's bad defense. If you watch the games you'll see him look bad at times, no doubt, but A) He's not that bad, as you point out, especially if you look around the NBA and see how little defense is being played by anyone B) He's only going to get better C) He's a really good rebounder. That stated, Taj would be a much better basis of comparison than Pau. Despite numbers stating that Pau is good defensively, I agree that when you watch him, you see otherwise, so just about anyone looks good in comparison.

    Anyone who has suggested not trusting, not starting, or not playing Mirotic -- or worse, trading him -- is dead wrong. No matter what you think of Niko, he is the best bet for the Bulls' future along with Butler. Not ready to bet on him after only 4 games? You don't really have a choice, save trading for another young star, good luck with that.

    Once again, trade Taj so Portis can get some minutes. You won't even miss him. Just to be clear I'm not advocating simply dumping the guy or trading him for a future 2nd rounder. All trades are contingent upon getting similar value in return. I'd trade my guy Niko for enough value.

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