If the season started on February 1st, the Chicago Bulls would have the 9th-best defense in the league. I know … crazy, right?
Last week, we discussed whether or not this on-paper improvement for the Bulls defense – that has held teams to the lowest 3-point percentage and 6th-lowest point total this month – can continue on its current trajectory. The conclusion was … well … a lack of a conclusion. Still early in the season, only time can tell whether or not this unit can significantly improve on the defensive end.
The Bulls Defense Has Shown Some Surprising Improvement on Paper, But Can it Continue?https://t.co/DOW8MZIpO1
— Bleacher Nation Bulls (@BN_Bulls) February 19, 2021
If one thing is for sure, however, it’s that the Bulls are actively trying to become a better defensive team.
The effort on that end has passed the eye test time and again over the past few games. We saw them force the Pacers into 19 turnovers last week, and record a season-high eight blocks against the Kings on Saturday. Again, it’s unclear whether or not this can vastly improve the stat sheet, but it is encouraging that becoming a more grounded defensive unit is increasingly emphasized behind the scenes.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Wendell Carter Jr. made clear after the Bulls victory over the Kings that fixing the defensive production has been a priority for this coaching staff (emphasis mine).
“There has definitely been a lot of emphasis on the defensive end. If we just sit here and look at the numbers, we have a pretty good offensive rating in terms of generating good shots. On the offensive ends, things are going to come, we are all talented, we are all smart as a team on the offensive end. But on the defensive end, there has just been a lot of emphasis ever since we got the new coaching staff – just staying connected to your man and moving from assignment to assignment. We spend most of our practice talking about our defense and working on our defense. And I feel like this definitely translates to the game.”
Carter Jr.’s comments only strengthen my faith in Billy Donovan and Co. After all, there is no denying that this roster is built to produce far better on the offensive end, particularly with players like Zach LaVine, Coby White, and Lauri Markkanen as focal points. It’s always important to work on all areas of the game, but the Bulls do pretty much have this whole offense thing down.
Their offensive rating may have dropped a bit to 17th in the league, but they are still one of the highest-scoring (114.5 ppg ranks 8th) and most efficient teams (55.5 eFG% ranks 7th) in the NBA. In other words, that side of the ball isn’t the problem, and the coaching staff recognizes that if this team wants to take things to the next level, it starts with the defense.
A Billy Donovan-led team was also never going to let defense become an afterthought. His Oklahoma City Thunder teams ranked at least top-11 in defensive rating each of his five seasons as head coach. There is just something about him that finds a way to get the most out of his players on that end of the floor.
I’m sure Donovan’s defensive drilling in practice has been at least part of the reason we have seen LaVine take a step in the right direction, but the other part of it just seems to stem from being a pissed-off player. After years of missing the All-Star mark and hearing criticism about his empty stats play, LaVine has finally started to flash some of the defensive versatility many believe someone with his frame and athleticism should possess.
When asked after Saturday night’s game about that, LaVine was rather blunt:
“I think a lot of it is learning. Everyone learns at their own pace. It could be system, it could be the players around you. And, then, for me personally, you get to a point where you’re tired of losing, and you can’t just blame other people, you have to look at yourself and figure out what you have to do better to help. And I’m with all of that. I have all the capabilities to be a really good two-player, and I want to show that. “
Name this man an All-Star right this second.
The Bulls strides on defense seem to be a perfect storm of will and drill. Donovan is pushing the right agenda in the locker room, while players like LaVine fight for something to prove. All of that plays a role in just making me feel that much more comfortable about the current trajectory of this team as a whole. Everyone seems to be focused on the right thing at the right time, and that was rarely ever the case for this organization in years past.