The Chicago Bulls brought Fred Hoiberg in to fill their head coaching vacancy with the offense in mind. In that regard, he has delivered.
His negative impact on the Bulls once-great defense could prove seriously problematic. It’s been just five preseason games, but it’s clear the Bulls defense is about as solid as a paper bag.
Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams flew around the court, generating open looks and had a green light to launch three-pointers. That philosophy has largely carried over to the Bulls, who are now averaging 30.4 three-point attempts per game, good for second-most in the preseason, behind the Rockets and their insane 34.8 attempts per game.
The defense, however, has regressed dramatically from the Thibodeau-era high of relentless pressure and an unrivaled commitment to the cause that earned Chicago the reputation as one of the league’s most fearsome defensive teams.
In five seasons under Thibodeau, Chicago finished 1st, 1st, 5th, 2nd and 11th in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). This came despite myriad injuries to key defensive cogs and dealing with defensive negatives like Carlos Boozer, something Thibs hid remarkably well.
Hoiberg inherited a team that finished 11th in DRtg with a roster almost entirely locked in for the 2016 season, and the Bulls’ defensive slide has become a full-blown crisis. Check this tweet from K.C. Johnson:
Hoiberg is most displeased with transition D, pick-and-roll D and on-ball D. (Is that all?) Said Bulls allowing too many blow-byes.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) October 15, 2015
Hoiberg might just be onto something with his rather broad disappointment.
Through four preseason games, the Bulls’ defense ranked 28th in the NBA in DRtg. After the Detroit Pistons hung 114 points on them Wednesday night, they slid to 29th, just 0.3 points per 100 possessions better than the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have the excuse of young, inexperienced players playing heavy minutes to point to.
Hoiberg’s inability to mask Pau Gasol’s weakness in the pick-and-roll is perhaps most critical to the Bulls defensive malaise and also the most alarming, as there does not even appear to be the semblance of a plan for when opponents attack him.
The absence of a recognizable strategy on that side of the ball is a worrying development. Against Detroit, the Bulls would switch on some pick-and-rolls involving Gasol, yet would stay home on others, leaving him on an island every time, unsure whether help was coming.
Jimmy Butler, widely considered one of the best wing defenders in the game, has been forced to play like a free safety, defending multiple players as his teammates routinely let opponents blow past them. This, predictably, doesn’t work, resulting in a wide open shot of some description. Also, with Butler now the go-to on offense, his once-lauded defensive work ethic will undoubtedly be diminished as he expends more energy looking for his shots.
Part of the issue here is down to the personnel at Hoiberg’s disposal.
Joakim Noah was named Defensive Player of the Year two seasons ago, but a succession of lower-body injuries have seemingly robbed him of his lateral quickness, his ability to recover and contest shots from behind and most worryingly, his confidence. His offense has disappeared to the extent that teams outright refuse to guard him, unsurprising given he has been caught passing out of easy layups on more than one occasion this preseason.
Pau Gasol had a terrific debut season in Chicago, proving his previous few years with Los Angeles were not the beginning of a terminal decline. However, his defensive frailties were masked well by Tom Thibodeau, who schemed various ways of keeping him safe from opponents’ pick-and-rolls exposing his shocking lack of lateral speed.
With Thibs gone and Gasol unsure what to do, teams have declared open season on him.
Hoiberg’s backcourt options do little to inspire confidence either. Derrick Rose has never been a great defender, Kirk Hinrich is too old to be leaned on any longer, Jordan Crawford is erratic, Doug McDermott’s lack of athleticism cost him court time all of last season.
Some will optimistically point to the currently-injured duo of Taj Gibson (who returned Wednesday against Detroit) and Mike Dunleavy Jr as a pair of plus defenders with plenty of experience to anchor the team.
I hate to play the realist here, but with Gibson’s growing injury history, he can no longer be relied upon as a real defensive centerpiece. His offensive regression will also cause problems. Dunleavy did just receive a hefty new contract before undergoing significant back surgery that sidelined him for 10 weeks. He’s 35 years old, and although he played some exceptional defense, age is sure to catch up to him now.
Perhaps the single biggest blessing for Hoiberg and the Bulls awful defense is the conference they play in. They are almost certain to be a lock for the postseason and should be a relatively high seed too, thanks to the lack of elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
That gives the Bulls plenty of time to figure out how they’re going to transform their paper bag into a brick wall.