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What has Happened to the Bulls’ Defense this Year?

Coming into this season, it was somewhat assumed by a lot of fans, myself included, that the addition of serious offensive weapons to the Chicago Bulls’ roster would take them from good to great. A healthy Derrick Rose, Euro-rookie Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol and Doug McDermott were supposed to be outside shooting and scoring threats that would take the best defensive team in the league and make them a Eastern Conference superpower.

Well, the scoring has gone from worst in the league to around 10th, depending on the metric you use, but the defense has dropped off to middle of the pack. While Gasol has his deficiencies, he certainly has to be better at defense than Carlos Boozer, right? How could a team with Joakim Noah, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, defensive savant Jimmy Butler, and guys with reputations as quality defenders, such as Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich, drop off so much? Especially with the maniacal Tom Thibodeau as coach?

The answer is complex. First, the difference between Boozer and Gasol isn’t as great as you might assume. Check out opposing teams’ stats when each player has been on the floor, via the On/Off stats from Basketball-Reference.com:

Player Year % of Teams’ Minutes Played Effective FG % Offensive Rebound % Defensive Rebound % Total Rebound % Opponent O-Rating Differential
Boozer 2013-2014 54% +0.36 -3.9 +4.2 +1.9 +3.2
Gasol 2014-2015 67% +0.05 +2.1 +1.9 +1.2 -0.1

As you can probably tell, Gasol is an overall better defensive player than Boozer. But the difference isn’t as big as you might expect for a guy who’s averaging 12.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks on the season. Boozer, while he had many flaws, was a good defensive rebounder. When he wasn’t grabbing the boards, he was blocking out, and maybe most importantly, he was yelling “Get it, Jo!” This is where Boozer actually made a mark on the defensive end. When he was on the court, the Bulls’ opponents offensive rebounding percentage was down 3.9 percent versus when he was on the bench, which is a fairly big stat.

When you look at Boozer’s comparison with Gasol, the Bulls actually allow a higher percentage of offensive rebounds when the Spaniard is on the floor. Gasol’s rebounding strategy is to put his arms up high and attempt to catch the ball, rather than boxing out. This allows a lot of second-chance points for opposing teams. The overall rebounding percentage change is pretty close to Boozer, as Gasol is much better on the offensive boards than Boozer was. But the Bulls were built to force a one-and-done on defense last year, and the second-chance opportunities are killing them this season.

You can also point at the difference in minutes for Boozer and Gasol, and then bring Gibson into the equation. While Boozer only got on the floor 54 percent of the time, Gibson was out there 59 percent of the time. When Gibson was on the floor in 2014, opposing teams put up an offensive rating of 100.3, per Basketball-Reference.com. When he sat, that number jumped to 101.7. The defense Gibson brought was instrumental to their total team effort, and it’s a big reason why he was used almost exclusively over Boozer in the fourth quarter of games.

But due to injuries and more depth in the frontcourt, things haven’t been the same in 2015. Gibson has only been on the court for 41 percent of the time, and the Bulls’ opponents offensive rating now rises from 104.1 when he sits to 105.1 when he’s on the court, per Basketball-Reference.com. This swing in Gibson’s defensive effectiveness has been significant, especially considering the defensive limitations of Gasol, who has taken some of Gibson’s minutes.

We could easily attribute this to a change in role and lack of consistent time on the court for Gibson, as his ankle injuries and the constant juggling of the rotation has made it hard for him to find his groove this season.

Hinrich has dealt with similar issues. Last year, the Bulls’ opponents offensive rating went down from 102.2 to 99.7 when Hinrich was in the game (about 53 percent of the time), per Basketball-Reference.com. This season, that has gone from 104.3 when he’s on the court (about 43 percent of the time) to 104.7 when he’s off, which is only a negligible difference. On top of that, the Bulls’ turnover percentage went down 0.7 percent when Hinrich was in the game last season, but it has gone up 1.8 percent this season.

Hinrich’s deteriorating skills are a big portion of the problem, as he has been forced to back up and start at both guard positions at different times throughout the season. The change in his defense that I’ve documented has a big impact on the team, as they can no longer trust him to guard quality players. The raise in rate of turnovers when he’s in the game is likely not helping their defensive stats either.

Possibly the biggest blow to the Bulls’ defense is the loss of individual defense from Noah. He has often played out of position this season, with Gasol playing defense on the center near the basket and Noah on the outside, often against stretch 4’s like Ersan Ilyasova, Kevin Love and Draymond Green, among others. Previously, this was usually reversed, with Noah playing in the paint and Boozer or Gibson on the outside.

The result is that it has made lineups with Noah and Gasol in them less efficient. Below is a chart from Basketball-Reference.com that shows the most frequent lineup combinations the Bulls have used:

Net (Per 100 Poss)
1 J. Butler | M. Dunleavy | P. Gasol | J. Noah | D. Rose 327:22 +.022 -.079 +.022 +.014 +3.5 +3.7 +3.7 +6.3 +4.4 -3.3 +2.8
2 A. Brooks | M. Dunleavy | P. Gasol | J. Noah | T. Snell 148:45 -.035 +.023 -.028 +.013 -8.9 +4.3 +4.3 +3.2 +1.4 -7.3 -4.4
3 J. Butler | P. Gasol | T. Gibson | K. Hinrich | D. Rose 132:14 +.040 +.174 +.057 +.015 +7.0 -3.4 -3.4 +2.0 -2.8 -1.1 -2.7
4 J. Butler | P. Gasol | K. Hinrich | J. Noah | D. Rose 123:57 -.041 +.056 -.031 +.150 -7.5 -1.8 -1.8 +0.4 -7.5 -4.9 +0.5
5 J. Butler | P. Gasol | J. Noah | D. Rose | T. Snell 121:13 +.010 +.049 +.022 +.106 +10.6 +1.5 +1.5 0.0 +2.2 0.0 +2.1
6 J. Butler | M. Dunleavy | P. Gasol | K. Hinrich | J. Noah 119:37 -.062 -.097 -.073 +.067 -7.8 -2.9 -2.9 -4.8 -6.4 -2.2 -1.8
7 A. Brooks | J. Butler | M. Dunleavy | P. Gasol | J. Noah 101:00 -.031 -.071 -.049 +.005 -5.5 -4.6 -4.6 -6.7 +5.2 -2.1 +1.2
8 J. Butler | M. Dunleavy | P. Gasol | T. Gibson | D. Rose 100:02 +.033 -.096 +.019 +.009 +3.6 -0.4 -0.4 +2.7 +4.5 -5.7 +4.3
9 A. Brooks | J. Butler | M. Dunleavy | P. Gasol | T. Gibson 77:55 +.089 +.094 +.099 +.103 +24.1 -1.5 -1.5 +4.9 +10.3 +1.3 -2.2
10 A. Brooks | M. Dunleavy | P. Gasol | N. Mirotic | T. Snell 57:03 +.112 +.147 +.138 +.217 +21.0 -9.2 -9.2 +3.8 +4.9 +2.0 -0.8
11 A. Brooks | J. Butler | T. Gibson | K. Hinrich | N. Mirotic 55:22 +.041 +.335 +.085 -.034 +18.2 +5.6 +5.6 +6.3 +1.8 +2.1 +3.1
Team Average 3688:00 +.004 +.017 +.014 +.038 +3.0 +1.4 +1.4 +2.5 +1.4 -1.6 +0.5

Of the 11 different five-man combinations that have played 55 or more minutes on the court together, Noah and Gasol appear together in six of the combinations. Based on point differential per 100 possessions (PTS), the best Noah/Gasol lineup ranks fourth out of 11. The other five rank seventh through 11th. That’s pretty discouraging, to be brutally honest. The best lineups listed here pair Gasol with Gibson or Mirotic, which allows Gasol to patrol the paint and protect the rim while the more athletic forwards guard near the perimeter.

When healthy, Noah is a very good individual defender. But he underwent knee surgery in the offseason and hasn’t looked right much of the year. Last year, he was on the court about 71 percent of the time. This year? Cut down to just 52 percent. He has needed to sit out several games with “general soreness,” which is perfectly fine if it’s to keep him healthy for the playoffs. The problem is, he hasn’t looked totally healthy that much this season.

The final point I’ll tackle about the major difference in the Bulls this year is in regards to Mirotic. When he’s on the court, the Bulls’ eFG% is 50 percent, as opposed to just 46.1 percent for their opponent. When he sits, it drops to 48.1 percent for the Bulls and rises to 48.4 percent for the opponent. Opposing teams post an offensive rating of 105.8 when Mirotic is on the bench but just 102.6 when he’s on the court, a difference of -3.2, per Basketball-Reference.com. (by far the best mark on the team)

The conclusion would be that the Bulls are a better team when Niko plays, but overall that has only been about 41 percent of the time. He has had virtually no time on the court with Rose, and we can’t possibly know how that’s going to work when Rose returns. This isn’t to say he’s the best defensive player on the team, but simply that the team performs better as a whole with him on the court.

The Bulls haven’t lived up to expectations this year, expectations that had them as a contender to come out of the Eastern Conference and play in the NBA Finals. While that’s still a possibility, they haven’t put together a stretch of time this season where they’ve looked like they’re good enough to beat Cleveland or Atlanta in a seven-game series. Injuries have played a big factor in this, no doubt, but it’s clear that the composition of the team has played a huge role, as well as the way the players have been used by Thibodeau.

It could be the last real chance at a title for this group, with Thibodeau possibly on his way out after the season. Maybe they’ll finally get healthy, start to put their defense together and get a little luck in the playoffs.

They’re going to need it.

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