As head coach Billy Donovan returned to the sideline on Monday night, he wasted no time letting everyone know where his first-place team needed to improve.
“The last 10 or 12 games we really dropped,” Billy Donovan said when talking about his team’s recent defensive play, “and I think it happens when you play a lot of games in a row and you have a lot of guys in and out. There is going to be slippage. It’s not anybody’s fault, I don’t blame anybody. But we got to get refocused back on defending at the level that we had.”
Donovan is right. While the Bulls have surged into the East’s top spot by winning 11 of their last 13 games and owning the longest active winning streak in the NBA, their defense has gone in the opposite direction.
Since the start of December, the Bulls have held the 21st-ranked defense in the NBA, a stark contrast from their 7th-ranked defensive rating through the first 22 games of the season. The team has allowed opponents to shoot 47.4 percent (22nd) from the field over these past 13 games, giving up nearly 111.0 points per contest (19th). Due to this most recent stretch, the Bulls have fallen out of the top-10 and now hold the 11th-ranked defense in the league, per NBA Stats.
The reason this defensive “slippage” has evaded headlines is thanks – in part – to the team’s wickedly efficient offense. Over this same 13-game stretch since the start of December, the Bulls have shot the third-highest clip at 47.9 percent from the field and the highest mark from behind the arc at an absurd 40.8 percent. The offense has ranked 4th-best overall, and it has kept the Bulls’ seasonal offensive rating firmly planted in the NBA’s top-5.
As Donovan went on to note postgame, however, it’s hard to bank on those efficient numbers every night. One-sided teams give themselves one way to win games, and if the Bulls didn’t begin to right the ship on defense against Orlando on Monday night (where they shot just 43.0 percent), their win streak would have likely come to a harsh end.
Billy Donovan was happy with #Bulls' close win against Magic tonight because they played well defensively — and that was his focus.
He expected a downtick in their hot shooting would come soon.
"I was really proud of the defense part," Donovan says.
— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) January 4, 2022
To be sure, a lot of the Bulls’ defensive dropoff is tied to the absence of the lethal backcourt duo of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Ball missed five-straight games from December 26 to January 1st due to his own stint in the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols. Likewise, Caruso has appeared in just five of the team’s last 13 games because of various injuries.
Donovan said he believes not all the Bulls’ shortcomings could have been fixed by these two players. And, in theory, I like the message that sends to the rest of the roster. Regardless of who’s in or out, the Bulls should try to reach the same success on both ends of the floor. But I also think it’s more likely than not we see Chicago’s defense re-enter the top-10 as soon as Ball and Caruso return full-time to the rotation.
The fact of the matter is that both are elite defenders whose on-ball pressure and point-of-action disruption benefit the entire roster. As the first line of defense, they take immense pressure off the Bulls frontcourt and mask some of the miscues by lesser-skilled defenders. It comes as no surprise that the team’s best defensive lineup – which holds opponents to a 45.6 percent effective field goal percentage, ranking in the NBA’s 94th percentile – contains both players.
Even with Ball back in the mix on Monday night, we saw Chicago have easily its best defensive showings since early December. They held their opponent under 100 points for the eighth time this season and forced Orlando into 13 turnovers. Ball may have joined the Bulls’ poor shooting effort (1-8), but his defensive presence alone (3 steals) was a clear difference-maker, one that should help Donovan get this previously top-10 defense back on track.
For reference, Bulls were top-10 defense before Christmas. Fell to 12th on the season thanks to this stretch w/out that backcourt combo.
— Bleacher Nation Bulls (@BN_Bulls) January 3, 2022
I know this whole conversation feels a bit unnecessary when we consider the Bulls continue to be one of the hottest teams in the league. But what made this group so special from the start was their balance, and this will need to be what makes them special come playoff time. I suspect that balance will return as Ball and Caruso rejoin the lineup, but this will still be something to keep an eye on as the season goes along. As we all know, defense wins championships.
Check out Billy Donovan’s full press conference below:
LIVE: Postgame media availability after tonight's win over the Magic https://t.co/4h2wgPXNNK
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) January 4, 2022