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So much has been made about the Bulls’ inability to compete with the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Entering Saturday night’s clash against the Miami Heat with a 1-11 record against the top-our teams in the conference, the Bulls had a chance to rebalance the ledger, albeit slightly.
It … did not happen.
Another game against a contender, another disparaging loss in which the Bulls weren’t good enough.
This has become the narrative.
To write off any disparity between the Bulls and their opponent as one of talent is a mistake. Doing so absolves the team from their failures in executing basic concepts, particularly defensively.
Self-inflicted errors are the true difference.
Let’s dive into three prevalent defensive miscues which are currently holding the Bulls back.
Inability to navigate screens
For several seasons now, the Bulls have struggled defending pick-and-roll actions. To be more concise, battling over and through initial ball-screens has been the primary issue.
In order to address a constant, glaring deficiency, the Bulls turned to Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Using the defensive tools and acumen of their key signings, the Bulls turned a weakness into a strength, building a top-10 defense in the process.
By having more pressure at the point of attack, Ball and Caruso afforded their teammates enough time to rotate, recover, and help. Nikola Vučević no longer was left on an island trying to guard two players at once. Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan were involved in less single-coverage scenarios. All levels of the defense were on a string.
Then injuries happened.
By now, everyone understands the impact of losing Ball and Caruso for several months. Without them, the Bulls’ guard depth was challenged. More importantly, though, it forced lesser defenders back into vulnerable situations: guarding pick-and-roll coverages.
The Bulls’ defensive identity disappeared. In its stead, old habits reemerged. Bulls guards were now colliding with screens. Worse still, little effort was made to recover and reestablish a defensive presence, as LaVine illustrates here:
Avoiding a strong screen from Heat center Dewayne Dedmon is a tough ask. LaVine can’t, therefore finds himself momentarily out of the play. This is fine if he makes a real attempt to jump past the screen and circle back to Kyle Lowry. That never happens, which allows Lowry to waltz into an uncontested mid-range jumper.
Note: Despite Bulls coach Billy Donovan suggesting his team has never run drop coverage, that’s exactly what the Bulls are doing here.
No matter which defensive coverage is deployed, players will need to fight through screens. Historically, LaVine has been prone to mistakes when guarding ball screens. The same sentiment is true for Coby White.
Whereas LaVine showed little effort to recover, in this following example, White had no chance to chase after Jimmy Butler, even if he wanted.
This pick-and-roll sequence is concerning as it seems White has no clue of time, score, and personnel.
When he catches the ball above the 3-point line, Butler has 14 seconds left on the clock. Butler is shooting 22.7 percent from three this season. Safe to assume he isn’t launching from distance with so much time left to create a more efficient shot. Because of this, White should be ready to counter Butler in a live dribble scenario. He should be bracing to battle over a screen on his left shoulder, knowing the right-handed Butler will lean on his dominant side. Instead, flat-footed and unaware of another substantial Dedmon screen approaching, White gives up an easy basket.
Defensive communication is non-existent
The Bulls’ failure to guard pick-and-roll largely stems from an inability to get over screens. The following example continues this theme but adds a new wrinkle: zero communication between the on-ball defender and the defender guarding the screener.
Similarly, as before, LaVine and Vučević are involved in pick-and-roll coverage. As in previous examples, LaVine does a poor job beating the screen, leading to weak point of attack defense. Caught on the pick, the Bulls All-Star switches assignment, staying connected to the Heat center Bam Adebayo. Doing so is fine in principle, assuming his teammate is aware of the need to reciprocate. Based on the arm gesture Nikola Vučević gives LaVine as Lowry rises up to shoot another uncontested jumper, it seems only LaVine knew about the switch.
Who’s at fault here?
It’s difficult to discern without knowing exactly how the Bulls want to guard these scenarios as it can vary greatly depending on the opponent and personnel. Compounding the issue is the distance between game action and the viewer. From this angle, it’s impossible to know if LaVine calls for a switch. Assigning blame accurately requires more details. What is evident, though, is confusion amongst teammates —neither LaVine or Vučević knows what the other is doing, let alone thinking. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.
Here is another example of ball-screen action where one players (Alex Caruso) believes a switch is coming, only to realize his teammate (LaVine) has other ideas.
In this play call, the Heat are running a 1-5 double-drag screen for Butler. The Bulls have several options in defending this offensive set. Seeing as the first pick for the ball-handler (Butler) comes from a guard (Lowry), it makes the most sense to switch this assignment. In this instance, LaVine should switch from Lowry to Butler — something that does happen, but too late.
Clearly, the Bulls were misaligned in their thought process. As a result, the Heat score another easy basket.
By now, the Heat have discovered the Bulls have serious issues dealing with screens. Recognizing this weakness, Miami orchestrates a baseline out-of-bounds play that plans to free Max Strus for a wide-open three.
This is great coaching by Eric Spoelstra. It’s equally poor execution by the Bulls.
Frankly, LaVine does a terrible job of beating a light screen set by Butler. Worse still, instead of feigning a close-out, he gives up entirely. Compounding the problem, no communication occurs between LaVine and Butler’s defender (Patrick Williams). This was an opportune time to switch the screen. Had they done so, Strus doesn’t get open.
Again, from this vantage point, it’s not possible to know if the call to switch was made. All we see is Vučević point out the action, with no response from those around him.
Whilst Vučević was correct to recognize the play-call in the above example, he does little to warn Caruso of the incoming Dedmon screen.
By staying silent, Vučević failed in his obligation to help his teammate. In doing so, Caruso, who is already experiencing back pain, is unnecessarily buried on a heavy screen.
Stop fouling jump shooters
Pick any game from this season. It doesn’t matter which one. Here’s your assignment: Watch the tape back and let me know if a Bulls player egregiously fouls a jump shooter mid-air. Chances are extremely high this happens!
On some level, you have to appreciate the Bulls’ intent to disrupt shots. That said, a fine line determines the effectiveness of a closeout. As is often the case for the Bulls, a good contest quickly turns into a reckless shooting foul. Let’s throw to Ayo Dosunmu to demonstrate this point.
Chalk it up as a rookie mistake. Regardless, it’s a costly mistake. Moreover, the frustrating part of this sequence is, unlike in previous examples which have highlighted the Bulls’ problem defending the point of attack, Dosunmu does an admirable job remaining connected to Lowry. In doing so, Dosunmu — and the shot clock — forces Lowry into a tough 3-point attempt.
Right up until the Lowry jump shot, the Bulls have the Heat beat on this possession. That is, until, Dosunmu erroneously crowds the shooters landing space. An otherwise good defensive sequence ends with Lowry sinking three free throws.
The same thing occurred earlier in the second quarter. On this occasion, it was White unnecessarily fouling Butler.
Similar to the Dosunmu instance, the above example is disappointing because White plays good defense by forcing Butler into a tough, contested mid-range jumper. Furthermore, Tristan Thompson has rotated over to provide assistance. Butler is effectively shooting over two Bulls. If he makes it, tip your hat and move on. Instead, White invites an extra point after the make. Butler gladly accepts.
To this point, the Bulls have given the Heat four free points at the line. That number ticks up to six after LaVine poorly closes on a Duncan Robinson corner-3.
In isolation, unnecessarily fouling shooters wasn’t the difference in the Bulls’ 18-point loss to the Heat. However, it speaks to a broader issue. By poorly executing fundamental defensive principles, beating a real contender won’t happen until the Bulls stop beating themselves.