The Bulls’ 29th-ranked offense was a dumpster fire last season, but their defense technically finished in the top 10 of defensive rating. However most figured this was a fluke: a Jim Boylen’s dedication to hard blitzes of pick-and-rolls, a rather gimmicky defensive approach. The Bulls employed this strategy three times more than the second-place team in that stat.
That is from NBC Sports Chicago’s Rob Schaefer, who offered in an excellent breakdown highlighting new coach Billy Donovan’s decision to veer away from the blitz in order to play a more conservative dropping scheme on.
Boylen’s aggressive defensive scheme worked to a degree. The Bulls had that aforementioned top-10 defense and ranked No. 3 at one point in December. They forced 18.3 turnovers per game and scored 21.2 points off turnovers, with both marks ranking first in the NBA. It certainly highlighted ball-hawking guards such as Kris Dunn and Shaquille Harrison, though both are now out of the picture.
In a long season where teams aren’t prepared for this type of defense, the Bulls routinely caught opponents off guard and shut them down early. But then there were the pitfalls.
Boylen was stubborn about sticking with the defense, no matter the personnel (blitzing with Luke Kornet isn’t good!) or adjustments opponents made, so it’s not surprising that the Bulls’ defense suffered as games went on and as teams (especially good ones) figured things out. As Schaefer notes, the Bulls gave up the highest percentage of shots at the rim and also gave up a high percentage of corner 3-pointers, the two most efficient shots in the game. If the defense didn’t force a turnover, they were often left scrambling and giving up a great look as long as the opponent made the right pass. The Bulls were also a poor defensive rebounding team, which makes sense when the bigs are constantly are away from the basket.
The constant blitzing and lack of adjustments manifested itself in the worst clutch defensive rating in the NBA at 123.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. While that sample size isn’t huge at just 119 minutes, it certainly matches up with the eye test as we watched the Bulls suffer crucial defensive breakdowns late in games and in second halves in general.
The fatigue factor has to be considered here as well. Schaefer highlights that the Bulls averaged the most miles traveled per game on defense last season, and Zach LaVine brought up Sunday how not blitzing as much should help later in games:
"We're going to be helping each other a lot more. Defending the pick-and-roll, obviously there's going to be a lot of different coverages depending on the team... There's just a lot more built-in help where if there is somebody beat, they're not just on an island."— Rob Schaefer (@rob_schaef) December 6, 2020
As LaVine says, Donovan obviously isn’t going to totally abandon the blitz, because having that in the bag in certain situations is good to have. The Bulls head coach talked Sunday about the need to mix it up:
“I think you’ve got to play multiple, different pick-and-roll coverages so to speak,” Donovan said after the team’s Dec. 6 practice. “They did a great job last year generating turnovers, and certainly the bigs here are very, very comfortable, and really good to be honest with you, of getting up and moving their feet and getting to the level of the screen...
“... there’s going to be times where I feel very, very comfortable with those guys being up in coverage, and there will be times they’ll have to be back. So not only the drop, we’ve worked on, I wouldn’t say a lot, but certainly several different coverages.’’
In addition to LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford (who first spilled the beans about drop coverage) seem excited about this defensive shift. While they can be effective blitzing, playing drop will keep them around the basket more, hopefully resulting in more blocked shots, less fouls and better rebounding. Drop coverage is also better suited for guys like Lauri Markkanen and Kornet, if he’s still on the roster and getting minutes.
Ultimately, the Bulls are hoping this change in defensive approach will make them more consistent and stable over the season, especially in crunch time. If this helps them buckle down and get crucial stops late in games, it will lead to more wins, even if the offense doesn’t take a big jump.