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Lonzo Ball is getting his hands on balls and the rest of the Bulls are following suit

a defensive ‘identity’, or just playing bad offenses?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

As Stephen Noh said in his recent notes on last night’s Bulls win over Toronto, it was really two different games. The Bulls wound up staving off collapse thanks to DeMar DeRozan’s late-game shotmaking (and it’s hard to turn the ball over if you aren’t passing!), but for the first 42 minutes of the contest it was a performance more in trend with the rest of the season’s start: active - and great - defense.

Up until the final six minutes of the game, the Bulls defense posted a 104.8 rating on a super-slow 95.58 pace. They had the Raptors up at a 17.7% turnover percentage.

For the season, the Bulls are 4th in the league in that category at 17.2%. That is a mark over their league-leading performance two seasons ago when the Blitzin’ Boylens were far-and-away the NBA’s best at forcing turnovers. That fact first tells us that turnovers are overall high across the league so far this year (in general it does level off as the season progresses).

Invoking Boylen also shows that simply forcing turnovers does not make a good defense. Two seasons ago the Bulls were 12th overall, but we knew that it was a somewhat false indicator given how they struggled against not-terrible teams, and specifically when those teams simply decided to stop fucking around.

But this Bulls defense so far has been even better, 5th overall in defensive rating. Now, they’ve happened to play the entirety of their schedule against the league’s worst offenses, with all bottom-7 and the Pistons dead last by a wide margin. It’s a small sample and playing this Bulls defense has made these offenses put up bad statistical marks to begin the year, but we also kinda knew coming into the season that these opponents wouldn’t be very good at scoring.

But we also ‘kinda knew coming into the season’ that this Bulls defense would potentially struggle. So it’s been intriguing, even with a lower degree of difficulty, that they’re more than holding up, they’re thriving.

And that starts with Lonzo Ball, who is top-10 in the league in total steals, blocks, and deflections.

Ball is leading the starters in this scheme. It’s already known that Alex Caruso will come off the bench and execute (he’s first in total steals and deflections, and that’s in relatively reduced minutes). What has been more surprisingly heartening is how this plays to Nikola Vucevic’s strengths.

A lot of concern over the Bulls team defense heading into the season surrounded Vuc, as he’s at the most important position for that unit and is not well regarded as a rim protector nor swift enough to be some rangy switch-out-on-screens type either. But what Vuc can be good at - for his position - is steals, and the Bulls D can try and scheme towards that positive versus the negative of his lack of rim protection.

Then you can have the wings, like Patrick Williams, cover the rim:

This is all working. It’s also kind of out of necessity, like the Boylen defensive scheme the calculation is made that it’s almost essential to be risky and capitalize on mistakes as to not expose your own weaknesses.

And it probably can’t continue, at least not at this level. Better offenses will figure this out, and simply making an extra pass will throw a lot of good planning by the Bulls out the window.

But the Bulls don’t have to have the defense at this level to be a good team, they just need to not be really bad. And it’s tough to see how a Lonzo Ball (with Caruso as back-up) defense can be terrible, though the last two seasons from Ball’s New Orleans Pelicans are evidence that it indeed can happen. But hopefully there is a difference here in Vucevic and Williams (and hustle-freaks like Javonte Green and Alize Johnson in the rotation) to where they can get to average.

And then add to that the realization that Ball and Caruso aren’t Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison (Ball hit more threes last night than Dunn would in 3 weeks), and you can start to feel optimistic about the team’s overall net rating and (dare we say it) win total. The Bulls would have to go 31-47 the rest of the way to match John Hollinger’s BORD$ projection, and that just doesn’t look likely given what we’ve seen so far, even if it has been against lackluster competition.