Let’s first make one thing clear: All of the Chicago Bulls’ recent woes can not be linked back to the absence of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. As unfortunate as it is, injuries are commonplace in the NBA. The best of the best need to find a way to work around those absences, especially when the team’s three-best players are still in the starting lineup. And the Bulls’ failure to do just that in recent games is unsettling.
Now, let’s make another thing clear: The absence of Ball and Caruso isn’t nothing (pardon my double-negative). While the Bulls should be able to “work around” these untimely injuries, it’s also borderline ridiculous for us to pretend like this should be the same team. When the organization’s new front office set out to reconstruct this roster over the summer, Ball and Caruso were vital to establishing their preferred identity.
The team was constructed around three supremely-talented offensive players at their respective positions, all of whom also happen to be below-average defenders. For that concept to work, there needed to be some supremely-talented defenders to balance things out. And balance is exactly what we saw over the first couple of months of the season. Through the first 25 games, Chicago held a top-6 offense and defense, giving them the league’s 4th-highest Net Rating, per NBA Stats.
Again, thanks to three offensively gifted stars, the Bulls offense has continued to rank in the league’s top-5. But the defense now sits bottom-10 in the NBA. Yes, that’s how big of a difference Ball and Caruso can make, and we see it in several other more specific areas, as well.
The absence of Ball and Caruso has arguably been felt greatest in the turnover department. Up until January 14, the Bulls forced teams into the 12th-most turnovers per game (14.3) while averaging the 6th-most points off turnovers a night (18.2). Since that day, the Bulls have forced teams into the *fewest* turnovers per game (11.0) while averaging the *fewest* points off turnovers per night (13.3). What has changed? Duh: Ball has not appeared in a single game since the 14th and Caruso has appeared in only two. Both players have a STL% that rank inside the 91st percentile or better, per Dunks & Threes.
But the value of Caruso and Ball does not simply rest in forcing turnovers. Instead, it was Caruso’s on-ball defense and his ability to fight around screens. It was Ball’s ability to cut-off passing lanes and use his length to disrupt shots. Indeed, both players have been critical in forcing opponents to take difficult shots, thus making the life of Nikola Vucevic – a poor-shot-blocker with minimal verticality – that much easier.
The Bulls may have allowed the most shots at the rim before Ball’s injury on January 14th, but opposing teams also shot the 5th-worst clip in the league (62.3%), per Cleaning the Glass. Without the more consistent pressure and rotating of Ball and Caruso, teams have now shot upwards of 66 percent at the rim, dropping to just the 16th-worst mark in the NBA.
The less the ball is poked away and the more opposing teams find the bottom of the net, the less the Bulls get to do what they do most sufficiently: Get out in transition. Chicago has averaged the 6th-most points per 100 possessions in transition this season. Looking prior to January 14, 15.3 percent of the Bulls possessions started in transition, which ranked 14th, per Cleaning the Glass. The number has dropped to 11.8 percent since that day, which is the 2nd-lowest in the league behind only the Houston Rockets. So do you see why they say the best offense is good defense?
I also can’t help but think about the team’s abysmal rebounding. While the presence of Ball and Caruso did not significantly improve the Bulls’ rebounding numbers, I do think it’s worth a note that Ball happened to be the team’s second-leading rebounder behind Nikola Vucevic before he got hurt in mid-January. Take away his help on the defensive glass, and it’s another reason we’ve seen this team’s transition opportunities decrease rather drastically.
Ball has a +2.0 defensive estimated plus-minus this season, which ranks in the 94th percentile, per Dunks & Threes. Caruso has a +3.1(!) defensive estimated plus-minus this season, which ranks in the 99th percentile. In other words, these are two of the best defensive guards in the league, which means it’s that much harder to replace what they bring to the floor. If you think the Bulls having that significant of dependence on both is a roster flaw, so be it. But we did see how tough it is to beat this formula as the Bulls rose to the top of the Eastern Conference standings earlier this year.
None of this is to say the Bulls’ will reclaim the No. 1 seed when Caruso and Ball return. However, the more we watch this Bulls team, the more important each player has become. Ball and Caruso are the two players who make the Bulls the team they want to be. Without them, an identity crisis has ensued.