Two weeks have passed since Wendell Carter last played a game for the Bulls. The team has been without Daniel Gafford for almost the same amount of time.
Jim Boylen was dealt an unlucky hand here, especially with how good Carter can be on defense. But Boylen has not responded well to this testing of his roster depth, especially poor when there’s a clear solution.
The defensive scheme hasn’t adjusted
Boylen has made it known that he believes his defensive scheme should be duplicitous, irrespective of the five players he chooses to have on the floor.
“I’m not going to make adjustments until I see max effort and max execution, and maybe it doesn’t work. We know how we want to play. That’s exciting for the franchise and the coaching staff. Our style of defense and ability to shrink gaps and bring two to the ball and shift to close I think has really improved. And it’s something I think we’re very good at. It’s a little different style than other teams but it fits our personnel and how we want to play.”
It’s an interesting idea in theory, and in a perfect world there’s a benefit to having constant alignment. But implementing this scheme that relies heavily on intelligence and mobility to swarm all over the floor while not considering the traits of personnel - especially the superlative talent Carter has shown - is ignorant.
Luke Kornet and Cristiano Felicio are two lumbering centers who are more comfortable dropping back to protect the basket. Instead the Bulls have largely asked these two to be their own version of Carter.
Lets check in on the ole blitzing thing pic.twitter.com/8AYuNuxpim— Will Gottlieb (@wontgottlieb) January 20, 2020
There was one game where Boylen has mixed some things up — the team went super small against the Cavs, doubling and switching most matchups, causing enough confusion and chaos to ultimately come back from a 15-point deficit to register an emphatic win against a terrible opponent.
But even then, through the first three quarters of that game Boylen relied heavily on Kornet and Felicio to guard everywhere on the floor. And the result was allowing a sad Cavaliers team to get off any shot they pleased.
Boylen’s unwillingness to change his regular scheme despite knowing his backup centers can’t execute it is setting them up to fail. That isn’t coaching.
You Don’t Have to play Kornet and Felicio
There is no rule that states the team must replace an absent player with someone who plays his exact position. Without Carter and Gafford, now would be an opportune time to test Lauri Markkanen at center. Boylen has done this some to close out halves, something which has passed the sniff test, but why not start games this way?
Sometimes it’s simple: put your best five players on the floor. And the best available bigs the Bulls have are Markkanen and Thad Young. The premise of signing Young in the first place was due to his fit with other bigs on the roster, specifically being the defensive four-man that could enable use of an offensively-focused five in Markkanen.
In starting both, the Bulls have no obvious weak link to its initial 5-man unit. Instead, Boylen has insisted on rotating in two traditional centers with Kornet starting and Felicio rising from the inactive list to get significant time.
There is a likely rationale against starting Young in that there is then no power forward coming off the bench. But there’s a solution there as well, one Boylen fell backwards into in a win against the Cavaliers: Using Chandler Hutchison as a small-ball four.
It’s easy to implement this: Start Young with Lauri. Use Hutchison at backup power forward, play Kornet at backup center, and remove Felicio from the rotation entirely. Not only should it help on the court, it serves to collect more data of Markkanen at center while also appeasing Young’s desire for more playing time.
Boylen has done this some, but only late and in reactionary fashion. Against the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight, a team who plays without a traditional power forward alongside Karl-Anthony Towns at center, make the change at the beginning.
Adjust Markkanen’s role to get him going
Markkanen’s history of being a so-so help and rim defender may hurt the overall defensive metrics if he’s the starting center, but on the other end it could exploit Markkanen’s shooting ability to kickstart a floundering offense.
Spacing the floor at center is an obvious method to help the offense, as is simply seeing less of worse players in Kornet and Felicio. More specifically, however, the best argument in playing Markkanen at center is it is far easier to use him in pick-and-roll action with Zach LaVine.
If you’re wondering why we haven’t seen more of the LaVine-Markkanen two-man game, think first about who is typically guarding Markkanen. As the league has continued to scale down the size and bulk at power forward, modern day fours are are yesterday's wings, and that level of athlete will have no problem switching pick-and-roll if required.
Against the Bucks, who had Giannis Antetokounmpo guarding Markkanen, had the defense switched the screen, LaVine would now be forced to make a play against one of the most versatile defenders in the league. So instead the Bulls had Markkanen space the floor on the weak side, taking Giannis away from the ball action. As Kornet screens for LaVine out high, Markkanen is so far away from the ball you only just see his right shoulder in the image frame.
This is an extreme example given how good Giannis is, but the premise is true for most opponents.
This is why Markkanen is often floating around the 3-point line and not involved as frequently as we’d like to see in pick-and-roll, ensuring he is keeping his defender away from the paint to clear lanes for LaVine. When Markkanen says he is just running the system, this is what he means.
Had Markkanen started the game at center, instead of being guarded by Antetokounmpo, his direct matchup would have been Brook Lopez, someone who often drops back in into the lane to protect the basket. That scheme suggests the Bucks would give up a clean 3-point look. They did so routinely to begin their game against the Bulls, but instead of Markkanen shooting the ball, it was Kornet.
Right now, the Bulls are deploying Markkanen within the offense as if he were just a floor-spacing wing. That’s a fine role for Otto Porter or Denzel Valentine to fill. But for Markkanen, someone who was billed as a potential franchise pillar, not using him more at center to take advantage of favourable matchups, and actively choosing to keep him away from the ball to space the offense for others is halting his development.
And as emphasized, not only would it help development but likely the chance of winning games too. Another example of Boylen’s coaching costing the team on both fronts.