After falling to a last-second Damion Lee three-pointer two nights ago, the Bulls have dropped to a disappointing 0–3, including two dispiriting blowouts. Even worse, the losses have been to the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers, and the Klay-and-Draymond-less Golden State Warriors, hardly a murderer’s row of opponents. I had hoped that firing Jim Boylen would lead to improved play, but that has not been the case so far.
The Bulls have had a litany of problems this season, but chief among them has been perimeter defense. Bulls guards, primarily Coby White and Zach LaVine, have repeatedly failed to contain opponents at the point of attack. They have constantly failed to pick up ball-handlers in transition, they have blown assignments, they have gotten caught on screens; name any mistake, and the Bulls have probably made it.
The most glaring mistakes have come in transition. Here, Trae Young brings the ball up the floor, without facing any pressure. Again, this is Trae Young, one of the most lethal scorers and passers in the league who shot 36 percent on 9.5 threes per game last year, with a lot coming from well beyond the arc. And LaVine does not step out to him! Further up the court, White, with Patrick Williams and Lauri Markkanen also nearby, lets John Collins go right to the rim without making contact. The result is an easy alley-oop.
Other transition clips are bad too.
Pick-and-rolls have not gone much better.
Even when they aren’t facing screens, the Bulls have struggled. Here’s White getting beat off the dribble by Young, Malcolm Brogdon, and Steph Curry.
Faced with this poor defense, opposing guards have feasted against the Bulls. On opening night, Trae Young scored 37 points on just 12 shots, one of the most efficient nights in NBA history. Young is certainly a crafty ball-handler, and tracking him was always going to be a challenge for White, a second-year guard who has never been known as a strong defender, but White made it too easy on Young. The Bulls didn’t fare much better against the Pacers and Warriors. Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo combined for 40 points against the Bulls, going 6-for-9 from three, while Stephen Curry had 36 (albeit on 25 shots).
Poor defense at the point of attack led had a cascading effect closer to the rim too. With ball-handlers able to get into the lane or walk into open threes with ease, the Bulls’ bigs have been forced into impossible decisions. Wendell Carter Jr. has not exactly covered himself in glory this season, but what on Earth is he supposed to do here? Maybe he should stay a little closer to Collins, but Young was free in the lane.
The Bulls have plenty of compounding issues, but fixing the perimeter defense should be the number one priority. Until they do, they will keep giving up wide-open looks to opposing guards, and they will keep getting run off the floor.
One possible fix is with a strategic change. Under Boylen, the Bulls blitzed ball-handlers aggressively, sending double-teams out to force dynamic scorers to pass the ball. This can be an effective strategy to get the ball out of a star guard’s hands. It worked to an extent, as the Bulls finished last season ninth in defensive rating. Billy Donovan used this strategy at times against the Warriors in the third game to some moderate success.
But blitzing ball-handlers carries its own issues, even when executed properly. While it will force the ball out of the ball-handler’s hands, an appealing prospect given who’s defending those ball-handlers, the defense is at a disadvantage once he gives the ball up, with the big man pulled out of position. Blitzing works when the opponent only has one guy who can beat you (like the Warriors), but not when a variety of players can score. Last year, the Bulls were able to force lots of turnovers (18.3 per game, first in the NBA), but also gave up a lot of shots at the rim (21st in the NBA in points in the paint per game). On top of the issues with blitzing, the two best perimeter defenders on the Bulls last season (and the players who made blitzing work), Kris Dunn and Shaquille Harrison, are both gone.
Instead, the Bulls should look at personnel changes. Drop coverage, blitzing, icing, or whatever else you can think of is not going to work with White and LaVine as the main defenders. Tomas Satoransky is not a world-beater by any means, but he does not constantly make basic errors like they do.
Moving Satoransky into the starting lineup at the expense of White would do a lot to shore up the defense. There is only so much the team can do schematically playing White and LaVine as the backcourt. With only one on the court at a time, Chicago would have an easier time hiding its poor defenders. However, the Bulls may want White to take his lumps in the name of development. The best way to learn is through live reps, and White could come out of this as a better defender.
Still, it is not good for the rest of the team to have a perimeter defense this poor. It is also important for Chicago’s future for Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen to develop, and their growth is being stunted with White out there. If this keeps up much longer, the Bulls should strongly consider starting Satoransky for White.
The Bulls are not going to beat anyone with this defense. The heart of the problem lies with Coby White and Zach LaVine. They can both score a lot, but neither offers a modicum of resistance to opponents, so their scoring has not mattered. If the situation does not improve fast, the Bulls will be looking at joining the Cade Cunningham sweepstakes.
Originally published at https://www.theplaygrounder.com on December 29, 2021.