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the Bulls ultra-aggressive defense is producing a mirage

a merely competent opponent can carve them up

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Now we already know that the Bulls offense is trash at 25th in Offensive Rating. What this blog post presupposes is that the defense, while a more respectable 14th in the league, is also trash?

Or at the least, it is extremely easily solvable. And thus why it looks a lot worse than it’s performed, and the Bulls simply can’t beat good teams. As The Athletic’s Stephen Noh said last week on the Cash Considerations pod, to do the Bulls defense in it just takes a couple good passes.

This is partially due to scheme, where Jim Boylen and purported defensive coordinator Roy Rogers has the Bulls defense moving extremely far from the basket, aggressively double-teaming ballhandlers. This is compounded into a mistake due to the personnel: the Bulls high-minutes players in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are not good on the ball nor disciplined enough off of it to make the right rotations. Wendell Carter has the smarts and skills but isn’t a superlative athlete who is going to jump out on perimeter players with great affect. In the beginning of the season Luke Kornet who was an obvious culprit, but he should’ve never been asked to play this way. And now lately even with Kornet out but Otto Porter gone as well, the Bulls are ‘forced’ to play more guards, further leaning into this swarming strategy.

As an overall result you see a pretty decent overall defensive production, and as a bonus it produces this seasons’ version of the annual KC Johnson tweeted pointless streak of the year.

Indeed the Bulls are tops in the league in opponent turnover percentage. But they are poor at the other three factors of defense, and I think that while the scheme and motivation is helping produce the turnovers it’s also producing that bad rest of it. The Bulls were the worst defensive rebounding team in the league a few weeks ago, and have since merely crept to 25th. And they are now parked dead last in the league in fouling.

The most important defensive factor is eFG%, and the Bulls are 18th there. But even that looks a bit flukey when you take a look at the type of shots they’re giving up. Kind of like how the Bulls themselves on offense have a good shot profile (and miss a lot), they are giving up a great profile. They’re lowest in the league at allowing shots from midrange, while 7th in allowed percentage of 3-pointers and the very worst team at allowing shots at the rim, where over 36% of shots allowed have come from 0-3 feet.

And they’re looking to be a bit lucky so far when it comes to opponent makes. As already stated the Bulls are fouling a lot, but opponents are just below 75% from the line (23rd). Using player tracking, open threes against the Bulls are going in 32.6% of the time (19th best, i.e. 18 other teams have opponents shoot better on these attempts) and what they categorize as wide open threes are at 33.5 percent, putting the Bulls as the ‘best’ defense in this category.

These stats can’t measure the skill or speed of the shot contest, and maybe the Bulls ultra aggression on the defensive end causes not only turnovers but hurried attempts. But it’s possible they’ve been lucky to the point of making the defense be even average.

We’ve seen it on a game-by-game basis, or even in smaller chunks of a single game: how this aggressive trapping style blows up in their face. Zach LaVine got singled out for his defense against Miami, but the whole team plays this style and it costs them...when the opponent isn’t the Knicks or Pistons.

This next video includes Kris Dunn, who I’m singling out because I don’t like him (very Boylen-esque!), but also because he best embodies this team defense. Individually this year he’s an objectively good story with his insane steals rate, but it sometimes means gambling to negative effect on the team.

Against the Hornets on Saturday night, the Bulls defense (and coaching of it) was absolutely bailed out by Zach LaVine going insane from three. Playing four guards a majority of the time, the Bulls allowed 41 points in the 4th quarter. And what should’ve been the final nail in their coffin was induced by bizarre tactics, throwing a double team 30 feet from the basket with under 10 seconds on the shot clock.

It’s even weirder when you see who’s doing this stuff on the court. Especially after the injury to Otto Porter, the Bulls are playing younger and shorter players more than ever. On the one hand it makes some sense to lean into the aggression, but that also requires experience and discipline that players like Coby White and Daniel Gafford simply do not have.

If we want to be philosophical, it can be tied to Boylen (and Paxson’s) grand philosophy of basketball: trying harder and caring more is more important than talent and skill. The Bulls look to be applying their defense with a mindset of grit and scrappiness or whatever, but they don’t have the players to do it. It’s been merely OK so far, but the cracks are there and they’re wide open ones against not-terrible teams.