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Chicago Bulls have the best defense in the league since January 1. How real is it?

Will Gottlieb Avatar
February 27, 2023

On Friday night, the Bulls held the Brooklyn Nets to a then season-low 87 points. In Sunday’s 102-82 win against the Washington Wizards they registered their second straight season low in points allowed in the first two games of the Patrick Beverley era.

The Bulls own the sixth best defense in the NBA and the league’s best defense since the turn of the year. A surprise coming from a team built around three offense-only stars.

It’s not just those two teams that have shot poorly against the Bulls. Despite allowing the fourth most three-pointers in the league, opponents are shooting a below average 35.5 percent on such looks. Since January, during which time the Bulls are the best defense in the league, the difference is even more stark. Opponents shoot a league low 32 percent on the third highest percent of three pointers allowed in the NBA.

But over those two games coming out of the break, the Nets shot 12-of-44 on threes (27.3 percent) and the Wizards shot 6-of-28 (21.4 percent), a microcosm of the good luck the Bulls are experiencing on defense. Teams are shooting a well-below average percent on a well-above average amount of threes.

“I don’t love giving up a ton of threes,” Billy Donovan said after Saturday morning’s practice. “I don’t love it. But, when you look at the paint in general, it’s where the most fouls occur, there’s the highest percentage of shots in the paint at the rim, it’s where the most offensive rebounding occur.”

Most good defenses succeed because they take away the high efficiency shots (rim shots and threes). The Bulls have leaned heavily into the idea that taking away the rim shots will take care of the rest, as long as they don’t foul (10th) or give up offensive rebounds (3rd) — and they’re great at both of those things.

“That’s kind of what you want, at least in my opinion,” Alex Caruso said. “You want to take care of the paint, take care of the free throw line. Because the majority of nights, teams aren’t going to be able to shoot when we have the contest rate and defensive responsibility, if we can make sure everyone is doing our job. You’re going to give up shots eventually, it’s just about which ones you want to give up.”

Yes, they’d like to reduce the volume of threes they conceded, but if their process is right, they believe the rest will follow. For the Bulls to get away with this strategy, they have to build a wall in the paint, forcing kick out passes and scramble out to contest shots on the perimeter.

“We’ve got to be a contest team,” Donovan said. “That’s enabled us to protect the rim a little bit better, it’s enabled us to rebound better, it’s enabled us not to foul as much. It’s helped our defense because we’ve got to be packed in there. We’ve got to get out and contest.”

Tracking that out, the Bulls do a fine job contesting, but leave some room to improve when it comes to giving up a high quantity of open threes.

“If you sit there and say we’re going to contest all these shots at a high rate, you’re going to see a significant drop in the shooting percentage,” Donovan said. “The issue is, if you give up 40 three-point shots, and half of them aren’t contested, and then all of a sudden you’re looking down at the stat sheet, and they’re 20-for-44, it’s impossible to overcome that.”

That’s the line the Bulls are toeing now.

*Stats as of Feb 25

Of course, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Shooting contested shots isn’t ideal, so the low number they allow might be due to excellent rotations running opponents off the three point line. While that can be true, it could also be true that the volume of open threes they allow is quite concerning.

“The thing we’ve tried to take a look at and study, is there’s a huge drop off in particular above-the-break threes, when they’re highly contested. So we’re trying to chart contest rate. And that’s not just having a hand up, that’s a guy being a second jump, leaving the floor, getting a hand in the guys face. Those numbers really drop.”

That’s where the addition of Patrick Beverley really helps. Having an additional point of attack defender on the court to help blow up actions before they begin is similar to what the Bulls had with Lonzo Ball. Alongside Caruso, the two could handle so much of the defensive assignments on their own, making everyone else around them look good.

“Having me and [Beverley] out there together, being able to orchestrate where guys need to go, calling out plays, impacting the ball, just little things,” Caruso said. “Me and Lonzo had great synergy last year as far as being able to play off each other, wreaking havoc for the other guys because we’re reading what the other guys are doing and getting into the same flow.”

Basically, Caruso doesn’t have to do everything himself.

All of a sudden, the Bulls have two elite defensive IQ guys who communicate and give enough effort to make up for the mistakes of others. If the Bulls can blow up more actions at the point of the screen, they’ll reduce the number of paint touches they allow and thus the number of kick out passes to shooters.

At the very least, it will improve their contest rate.

“Any given night, someone can have a bad shooting night,” Caruso added. “Even if you shoot league average, if you don’t give up free throws and layups, you’re going to have one of the best defenses in the league. I think it’s right where we need to be. Just keep scrambling and then make sure we finish possessions with rebounds.”

The Bulls defense is really good, but there is room for negative regression. But with Beverley and Caruso out there together, they feel that can be even better.

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