The narrative surrounding the Chicago Bulls this season has been easy: They’ve exchanged defense for offense; they don’t care about defense anymore. Jim Boylen would beg to differ. The Bulls may have proved it when they won their season opener with a pair of defensive plays against LeBron James.
Yes, the Bulls have changed their identity, but not in the sense of defense for offense. More accurately, they’ve exchanged the slow, plodding ball of the Aughts for the fast-paced, efficient hoops of the modern era. Gone are the notions that quicker pace and great defense are mutually exclusive things.
Last year, the Golden State Warriors led the league in defensive rating at 101.4 but were also the fastest-paced team, according to Basketball-Reference.com. The year before that, the Spurs won the title with the title of the league’s best stopping power. They were 10th in pace. Before that, the Miami Heat were ninth and second, respectively.
The architect of that Spurs defense was none other than the Bulls’ other offseason coaching hire, Boylen. It’s possible to play great defense at a quicker pace, but it requires a different style of defense than what the Bulls played under former coach Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau’s philosophy on how to defend the pick-and-roll was pretty obvious. Ice. Ice. Baby. After five years of hearing him yell the word, we should all know that. Where Boylen’s philosophy differs the most from Thibodeau’s is he’s more open to blitz the pick-and-roll and have a defender “slide to the nail.”
He’s not always going to do it. He prefers doing it when he has more athletic bigs in the game — which basically means not Pau Gasol. But if he has the edge, he’s not opposed to forcing the pick-and-roll inside and letting a wing defender make a play.
The “nail” is the spot in the center of the free throw line where a lengthy, athletic wing defender is best employed. He’ll “slide to the nail” even if it’s away from his man because he’ll be able to get back to him and challenge the shot if he needs to.
He drops there because it’s the most advantageous spot on the floor for help defense. He’s better able to help double-team drives and cut off passing lanes, which results in more turnovers. As a result is, the Spurs were a more disruptive defense than the Bulls.
While last season both teams were pretty effective in challenging shots (Bulls opponents had a 47.3 effective field goal percentage to the Spurs’ 48.4 percent) and securing rebounds (the Bulls rebounded 74.4 percent of opponents’ misses compared to the Spurs’ 77.3 percent) and both teams were stingy in giving up free throws (Bulls opponents had a .182 FT/FGA rate compared to the Spurs’ .190), there was a difference in turnover percentage.
The Spurs forced turnovers on 13.3 percent of their opponents’ possessions compared to the Bulls, who were last in the NBA at 11.3 percent. The Spurs forced turnovers, but not recklessly — much like the Golden State Warriors.
That resulted in the Spurs getting 16.1 points off turnovers compared to the Bulls’ 13.7, according to NBA.com/Stats.
And it’s not insane to think that the Bulls can do what the Spurs did. The Spurs operated around one elite wing defender in Kawhi Leonard and a second, upper-level plus-defender in Danny Green. The Bulls have Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell to fill those roles.
Sure Gasol isn’t the most mobile defender the in the world. Both are at their most serviceable in the paint, but Gasol is a better shot blocker than Tiago Splitter, and according to Seth Partnow’s rim protection numbers at Nylon Calculus, he’s a better rim protector.
As the season progresses, look for Butler and Snell to hover around the Nail and generate turnovers without relinquishing extra points as the Bulls adapt their defense to a faster pace. Changing their defensive philosophy a bit doesn’t mean they’re changing the philosophy that defense is important.