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A closer look at the Chicago Bulls struggles with defensive rebounding

Will Gottlieb Avatar
November 13, 2023

The NBA’s small ball era is in its twilight years.

In the back end of the 2010s, teams opted to get their five best, most skilled and often times, best shooting players on the floor to open up space and optimize for offense.

But as bigger players have developed more and more skill, size with that level of skill remain supreme. Teams, like the Detroit Pistons, who the Chicago Bulls beat 119-108 on Sunday night, start two burly bigs in Isaiah Stewart and James Wiseman (filling in for injured Jalen Duren).

After allowing seven offensive rebounds in the first quarter, the Bulls were in a nine-point hole. They allowed two offensive boards in the second quarter and entered halftime with a five-point lead. Coincidence? Probably not.

For the same reason the Bulls wanted to be more of an offensive rebounding threat heading into the season, so too have most teams around the league. They understand that the team winning the possessions battle has a great chance of winning each game.

“You try to get as many extra possessions as you can and offensive rebounding is a way to do that,” Pistons coach Monty Williams said before Sunday night’s game.

Last year, the Bulls were one of the best defensive-rebounding teams in the league. Holding opponents to a 25.1 offensive rebounding percentage, a figure that put the Bulls among the top three teams in the league.

This season, it has been the opposite story.

“It needs to be a lot better,” said Billy Donovan pre-game.

It sure does.

Through 10 games this season, the Bulls are allowing their opponents to grab 31.2 percent of their own misses. That’s 28th in the league.

“We’ve gotten hurt, quite honestly, in some rotational stuff where Vooch has had to come or Drum has had to come to protect the rim,” Donovan explained. “We need a ‘sink and fill’ on the backside, someone to kind of crack back down.”

Of course, the Bulls often play small with Alex Caruso closing games at power forward. So there will be times when defensive rebounding becomes difficult.

It’s a five-man job. The goal is to secure the blocks and lane lines. With two of the elite rebounders — Nikola Vucevic and Andre Drummond — down there at all times, if they can get bodies around the perimeter of the paint, they’ll have a good chance to come down with the rebound.

But that’s all best case scenario. With a lot of movement and motion, finding a man to box out can be a difficult task. Especially on drives, when the low man has to come over and help protect the rim.

With the Bulls giving up as many threes as they are, they also tend to sink too far into the lane and let those long rebounds go over their heads.

“And then the other thing too, when threes go up, we’ve got to get out of the habit of running towards the basket,” Donovan explained. “Because most of those shots are going to be kicked out a little bit higher and those are the ones that go over your head and they get extra possessions on.”

With as many teams crashing the glass this year (league average is 27.5 percent opponent offensive rebounding, up from 26.8 percent last year), this also affects transition.

“We don’t want to send five guys, but most teams in the NBA are sending three, sometimes four,” Williams said. “And there’s a tendency to flatten out the offensive team in transition, because they’ve got to box out.”

If teams are sending more guys to offensive rebound, you’d better be blocking out or you’ll give up second-chance points. If you’re forced to send four or five guys to block out, it will limit your transition opportunities.

The problem for the Bulls is that the failure to secure offensive rebounds hasn’t been a result of them trying to leak out in transition — they’re down from 20th to 29th this year.

So while the Bulls have made huge strides offensive rebounding their own misses, the rest of the league is improving in that area faster. They’ll survive against teams like the lowly Pistons, but need to quickly return to form before things start to get out of hand.

Turning the page

With Alex Caruso (toe) on the sideline, Donovan tightened his rotation from 10 down to nine. In doing so, it opened up space for Ayo Dosunmu to spark the team and earn some extra minutes off the bench, and he did exactly that.

Dosunmu finished with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, with four steals. He said he found out Caruso wasn’t going to play 40 minutes before the game, and was ready to seize the moment.

DeMar DeRozan said he pulled Dosunmu aside after his stint to tell him, “that quarter wouldn’t happen,” without his play.

“Any time you can help give some energy to our team, it’s always positive,” Dosunmu said. “Coming off the bench, I have a unique way of viewing the game because I can see what the game needs. That’s something I’ve really taken from coming off the bench, being able to read the game, see what needs to be done and what’s lacking.”

The Bulls have now gotten back in the win column, and in spite of a difficult stretch coming up, they’re feeling better about who they’re becoming as a team.

“On the outside, I know a lot of people look at it like it’s a lot of chaos,” DeRozan said. “This and that. The whole team meeting thing. Every guy in this locker room want to win. Everyone wants the best for one another. It’s just about us honing in and kind of finding that balance of bringing it every single night. But for me, what I’m most happy about is just every single guy in here just having that passion and wanting to win.”

Up Next: Bulls head to Milwaukee for their second game in as many days.

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