The only thing worse than narrative backlash is backlash-to-the-backlash, but ultimately that’s a bit of what motivates the following post on the Bulls defense last season.
Because ‘I hear a lot’ of national analysts and statistical projectors say the Bulls are going to be a below-average team this coming year because their defense will be so bad. But then in response to that, there’s a more and more frequent mention of the team defense not only being ok but better than we thought last year. It’s a fact that the Bulls wound up 12th overall in defensive rating, and more importantly were top-10 after acquiring Nikola Vucevic to man the middle.
But if we’re trying to inform the future, we should always be dubious of using stats from the interminable-end of any regular season. That’s how you get stuff like the annual Lauri Markkanen or Coby White ‘breaking out’. In that time of the season, a lot of opponents are hurt or not trying or in some combination of that.
This applies to the Bulls as well, and serves as a main argument for not putting too much into last season’s final couple months of defensive performance: Zach LaVine missed a ton of games! LaVine obviously plays a ton of minutes and has a huge impact on the team defense.
So, like how we should ignore the pre-Vuc games, let’s throw out all the Vuc games that LaVine missed. That leaves just 6 games for the post-Vuc Bulls where they had a better-than-average (taking the 15th team in the league last year as the average) defensive rating for that individual contest.
And each of those games had some clear qualifiers:
- 4/6 @ IND: Pacers had no Sabonis or Brogdon
- 4/12 @ MEM: Grizzlies were on the second half of a back-to-back, and while the overall defensive rating for the Bulls was very good, they allowed 31 in fourth to lose by double digits
- 5/6 @ CHA: no Hayward, Graham, or Bridges
- 5/7 BOS: no Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams
- 5/9 @ DET: ...it’s Detroit
- 5/13 TOR: The Raptors were tanking at this point, their whole starting lineup was inactive
Listen, you can probably do this for every team. And the Bulls shouldn’t be punished for playing who’s on their schedule. But that’s the point: I don’t think the Bulls proved anything in a positive direction either, surely not enough to earn a label where one could say ‘actually, they’re starting from a baseline of a good defense’ with those main contributors being LaVine, Vucevic, and Patrick Williams with Billy Donovan coaching.
(To that last bit, while I am legitimately heartened knowing that Donovan has never coached a below-average NBA defense. But even Tom Thibodeau had years in Minnesota where they were bottom-five. The coach can only do so much.)
Obviously, the assessment of a prior season is way less significant if it’s not potentially informative for this coming season. And for these Bulls, this is an extreme example as there’s so many new players.
But it’s still worth the attempt, and thus why we see it being done even with more rudimentary tools like “who is going to be on the court”. To go through that exercise:
I think swapping in Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso for Tomas Satoransky and Coby White is going to be an improvement, and more significantly one at a place they struggled the most in. Hopefully the minutes used by old savant Garrett Temple are effectively soaked up by the hodgepodge of backup wings the Bulls will try out.
On the other hand, removing Thad Young and Daniel Theis for lots of DeMar DeRozan minutes will be a big downgrade.
And for the holdovers: Patrick Williams should improve, he was not a good defensive player last year but he was also a very young rookie with the tools to excel on that end. Zach LaVine looks like he wants to improve, and just better effort and awareness will help a lot there to get LaVine to ‘not detrimental’. Vucevic is only going to get slower, but also Donovan has more time to scheme with that in mind.
We’ve seen the new Bulls perform in the preseason, and defensively they were shockingly the best unit in the whole league. In particular Ball and Caruso looked even better than advertised, which is saying something because they were advertised by dopey Laker homers.
- it’s preseason
- the Bulls played their starters a lot more than other teams
- the Bulls opponents were mostly total trash
- they were top-5 in forcing turnovers, which stinks of unsustainable Boylen gimmickry
- it’s preseason
Heck, the start of the season schedule is soft to the point where the defense might look really good. But I’m just a dude with a bucket of cold water saying in response to fairly straw-ish men, that our initial instincts are probably right: the team may struggle on defense because the holdovers were not ‘actually better than you think’ and the many minutes of DeMar DeRozan. But luckily that past performance assessment doesn’t matter as much as the question of whether they’ll improve elsewhere to get to a team defensive level that’s downright respectable. It’s not a high bar to reach defensively for this team to win more than it loses since the offense should be pretty great.