Daniel Theis is an outlier, and the Chicago Bulls front office likely wouldn’t have it any other way.
Before the trade deadline, the Bulls would live or die by their offensive execution. They allowed opponents to shoot 47.2 from the field (22nd) and they forked over the 4th-most points in the paint to their opponent each game. The team was able to move their overall defensive rating up a bit into 15th thanks to a favorable mid-March stretch, but that end of the floor still wasn’t winning the team any games.
I don’t think anyone would say it’s wrong to have the offensive end carry the bulk of a team’s identity (especially not in the modern NBA (and especially not when a gifted scorer like Zach LaVine is on the roster)). However, if this season reminded Bulls fans of anything, it’s that defense still wins games, and that’s why Artruras Karnisovas and Marc Eversley snatched a player on March 25th that was the opposite of what they had.
Don’t get me wrong, Theis offers a versatile offensive skill set that does fit into head coach Billy Donovan’s pre-existing system rather well. However, his mentality and acumen on the defensive end provide the Bulls with a player they had previously been missing for years. Since Theis joined the team back on March 25th, Chicago has allowed the 7th-fewest points in the paint to their opponent per game and the 5th-fewest overall points per game. Meanwhile, the team’s defensive rating has sat 10th in the league. Theis isn’t the only reason for that, but he has certainly played a key role, and that is exactly what he was hoping to do.
In his first several interviews as a member of the Bulls, he made it clear that he saw himself as this team’s anchor on that side of the ball, and he continued to hammer that point home after his stellar performance against the Heat on Monday night.
“I’m just frustrated with myself when we lose games like last game … We came from Boston, we played a great game defensively. We go to Cleveland, we get out ass beat. Then, in the second-half of the back-to-back in Charlotte, we play defense again. I think for us we got to find consistency, especially on the defensive end. That’s where I see my job especially, like a defensive anchor. I take defense really personally, so for me it’s about getting stops.”
For Theis to put this weight on his shoulders just 16 games into his Bulls career is pretty damn impressive, but it also goes to show just how important this Bulls organization must view him to be. The franchise would not have scooped him up at the deadline if they didn’t see his services as beneficial, and they also wouldn’t have snuck him into the starting lineup after just nine games if they didn’t believe in his fit alongside Nikola Vucevic.
Nikola Vucevic: 24pts, 11reb
Daniel Theis: 23pts, 12reb, 2blk
Bulls beat Heat 110-102
AKME knows what’s up.
— Bleacher Nation Bulls (@BN_Bulls) April 27, 2021
All of this has already fueled questions about how hard the Bulls should work to re-sign Theis this offseason. Accomplishing that won’t be easy, especially when we consider that the 2021 free agent class has been heavily depleted of high-impact talent. Also, the Bulls need several other roster upgrades, so choosing where to spend the most money will not be an easy decision. With that said, it’s important to prioritize the kind of talent that compliments a team’s star players, and there is no question Theis makes sense either playing with Vooch or backing him up.
But don’t take my word for it.
“He’s a great teammate to have. I’m really glad we have him on our team, and I think him and I function really well on the court together as well,” Vucevic told reporters on Monday. “I think our games fit, and we play high-low a lot. I can seal. He can seal. He’s very good on screen and rolls. He can finish around the rim, and then defensively he also helps me. So I think great player.
Hm. If the Bulls are now in the business of keeping their players happy (the player-first mantra has been something AKME has preached since their arrival), then keeping Theis could become that much more of a priority.
At the end of the day, tough decisions have to be made. I believe the front office will make whatever move they believe fits the long-term goal best. However, considering the unique role Theis plays and the appreciation he has from someone like Vucevic, it does feel like only more reasons have developed for why he would make sense in Chicago long-term.