A popular offseason theory about the new-look Chicago Bulls formed about how they’d have to outscore teams because defense would be an issue.
It only intensified as the roster fully took shape with little size or rim protection. One got the sense they might have to lobby to play with a red, white and blue basketball in a nod to the high-scoring ABA days.
But management and the coaching staff had a vision, and the players have bought in fully. Flood the floor with hungry, aggressive, athletic players — size be damned more often than not — and wreak havoc.
So far, it’s working.
Through three straight victories, the Bulls have a defensive rating of 93.7 (fourth in the NBA). They are averaging 10 steals (tied for sixth), 7.7 blocks (third) and 20.7 deflections (fourth) per game. All those numbers rank them in the top-six.
“Just try to be a pest, blow up plays. Get deflections. Anything to start the break,” Alex Caruso said of his and the Bulls’ mindset. “Because when we’re in transition, you all have seen: We’re really lethal. We got a lot of options.”
Caruso and Lonzo Ball have been even better than advertised, fighting over screens and blowing up actions. Ball anticipates plays so well that he even blocked 6-foot-8-inch Isaiah Stewart’s dunk attempt at the rim on Friday.
Javonte Green has been a reserve force of energy. Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan have been responsible, engaged team defenders. Nikola Vučević has worked mostly from a soft drop position, changing his pick-up point depending on matchups.
Above all, the team-wide commitment at the defensive end has prevailed.
“Just a hunger to win,” DeRozan said. “I came here saying everyone had a chip on their shoulder, something to prove. We just can’t rely on the offense. The energy that every combination of guys brings in here — AC for example, how vocal he is — is contagious. You got somebody with the instincts of Lonzo, flying all around the court, getting his hands on balls. It’s so many aspects of it that makes it contagious. You try to do your part when you’re out there.”
Caruso echoed that sentiment.
“It’s just a great combination of players and coaches,” he said. “The organization I think did a great job of bringing the team together with guys that all have something to prove.
“Defense is all care factor and effort and execution. And our effort and care factor are high. It just comes down to the execution part. We have all the tools and players and desire to do it.”
The execution part is where the coaching enters the picture. Caruso noted a common theme about Billy Donovan.
“Billy is a great communicator as far as holding us to a standard,” he said.
So there Donovan is, burning timeouts in back-to-back blowouts as the Bulls’ focus and energy slipped in fourth quarters. He didn’t scream during those timeouts, according to players. He reminded them of the standard.
And the standard is to guard.
Donovan, for his part, never subscribed to that offseason theory. And he should know a little something about defense, having coached four top-10 defenses during his five seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Offense is always more difficult,” Donovan said about coaching a new team. “I think sometimes people think you throw these scorers in there and they’re just going to score. It never works that way. When you have players like DeMar and Zach and Vooch, who have played a certain way their entire career and now you’re coming into a situation with other great scorers, that’s always the thing that takes the longest.
“If the group is committed to work defensively, to get over screens, to help each other, to rotate, to scramble, the defense, to me, always comes a lot easier.”
The Bulls are committed.
Want more proof? Caruso didn’t even know how many steals he had during Saturday’s victory over the Pistons.
“I had five?” he said. “Nice.”
That word could be used about the Bulls’ defense too.