The headline may seem a little misleading because … well … it’s never a good week to be one of the worst pick-and-roll defenses in the NBA. But this week, it feels especially true!
The Chicago Bulls dealt with one of the better pick-and-roll (PnR) teams in the NBA on Monday night. Cleveland ball handlers happen to average the third-most points per possession (PPP) in the PnR each game, per NBA Stats, and a big reason for that is guard Donovan Mitchell. The Cavs’ recently-acquired star is currently averaging the most PPP among players who average at least 9.9 PnR possessions a night. That puts him right in the 96th percentile of PnR scorers.
Of course, success in the PnR wasn’t the only way that Mitchell went on to score a legendary 71 points on Chicago. But it also sure doesn’t feel like a coincidence that one of the better players in this department had this kind of performance against the Bulls’ defense.
Speaking of which, I should probably share just how bad the Bulls’ PnR counterattack has been this year before I move on. According to Synergy Sports (h/t NBA University), Chicago has allowed the third-most PPP when facing the PnR this season. The only teams worse have been the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors.
Why do the Bulls tend to stink at guarding the PnR? Well, it simply comes down to the personnel. We all know that their All-Star trio isn’t known for their defensive chops, especially Nikola Vucevic, whose lumbering presence is constantly a liability in the middle of the floor. The big man can’t freely switch onto small defenders without being torched on his way to the rim, and he surely isn’t the quickest athlete laterally or vertically to properly contest more agile roll men.
But, to be clear, the Bulls’ problems aren’t entirely Vucevic’s fault. They tend to have him guard the PnR at the level of the ball screen. This means Vucevic is tasked to move his feet and help cut off any open lane to the rim. With him focused primarily on the ballhandler, it’s up to someone on the weakside to slide in and help on the roller. To make a long story short, it’s a method that requires a lot of discipline, communication, and individually talented defenders. Unfortunately for the Bulls, they don’t have many of those, and it leads to *many* defensive breakdowns.
There are certainly moments when this team is able to rotate well, hit their marks, and defend the PnR modestly well. But moments will not be enough to consistently win at a high level, particularly against this week’s competition.
The Brooklyn Nets’ ballhandler – whom the Bulls will see on Wednesday – currently average the 2nd-most PPP in the PnR and shoot 56.0 percent from the field. They score 44.9 percent of the time when running this action, which is fourth-best in the league (Cavs were second-best, by the way). Unsurprisingly, both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have been lethal when operating the PnR this season, each sitting in the 888th percentile or higher, per NBA Stats.
The Bulls will then get to see the Philadelphia 76ers. While their ballhandlers have been far less efficient in scoring the basketball, there is no question that they have one of the deadliest PnR combos in James Harden and Joel Embiid. The big man, in particular, averages the most points as a roll man each night.
Look, I’m not saying that this is going to sink the Bulls’ ship this week. They already have a win over the Nets this season, and they have kept things close in the past against the 76ers. But these are two teams that are specifically capable of exploiting one of the Bulls’ greater weaknesses, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not scared to see what the outcome will be.