Dark times for the Bulls right now, as injuries have ravaged the roster and coincided with a stretch of games against high-profile opponents in the national spotlight. As Darnell Mayberry recounted at The Athletic:
If you’ve only caught the Bulls on national television this season, here’s what you’ve seen:
Nov. 12: a 26-point loss at Golden State.
Jan. 12: a 26-point home loss to Brooklyn.
Jan. 14: a season-worst, 42-point home loss to Golden State.
And then there was Monday, a 119-106 loss at Memphis
Now, I do think there are some questions about the overall quality of this Bulls team that can’t be so easily dismissed by injuries. Yes, these are kind of junk games due to the players involved, and it’s the NBA regular season (the first half of it!) after all. But that can also be applied to this team’s otherwise-splendid performance this year: how many opponents were hurt, not on rest, just in the regular season slog?
But as to not get down that rabbit hole, let’s instead just focus on the team defense, which has suffered even when the Bulls were on a 10 game winning streak and shooting up to the top of the conference.
That slippage unsurprisingly coincided with Alex Caruso’s absence, who due to injury and illness hasn’t played a full game since December 20th.
Mark Karantzoulis has helpfully tracked the Bulls defensive ranking after every game, and just gave it away on Twitter.
I put in that handy arrow. In the time period that encompasses the 13 games Caruso has been out, the Bulls defense is ranked 24th, and is now 20th overall.
Now, the Bulls have other defensively-gifted players on the roster like Lonzo Ball, Ayo Dosunmu, and Javonte Green, though all have had their absences over this time as well. Does just Caruso make that much of a difference?
RAPM is a stat that measures a player's on-court impact per 100 possessions, adjusting for teammates and opponents.— Zach Kram (@zachkram) January 10, 2022
Here's the top of the leaderboard over the last three seasons. Alex Caruso is incredible. pic.twitter.com/tbAmQ4o1rm
And I don’t know what this means, but it’s provocative and gets the people talking:
Matchup Difficulty x Defensive Impact— BBall Index (@The_BBall_Index) January 19, 2022
Among defenders in our Point of Attack role:
⬆️⬇️ Defensive Impact (via D-LEBRON)
⬅️➡️ Matchup Difficulty*
*Based on average usage & impact of players defended, accounting for switching & helping
Headshots App ($): https://t.co/Xnn6TCH5qD pic.twitter.com/ttsc8lq7zE
We will get to see Caruso’s individual impact in an unfortunate experiment soon, as he is probable to return, albeit on a limited basis, tonight. Whereas Ball and Green (whose raw +/- is about as good as Caruso) remain out, plus Zach LaVine.
It looks like this stretch of games, especially lately against actually-good offenses, has shown us that the Bulls team defense can work only when they have superlative point-of-attack defense from Caruso, Ball, and Green. It masks the obvious limitations of Vucevic, and to a lesser extent (because they have less responsibility, not because they’re much better) LaVine and DeMar DeRozan. I don’t know if even that’s enough when we get to playoff basketball, but the goal now is to simply get to earlier-regular-season level of defense, or somewhere close again.