Following the splashy offseason acquisitions of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, few questioned the Bulls’ offensive potential this season.
The focus, particularly given size concerns, centered on the defense.
Well, through two preseason games, the Bulls are averaging an absurd nine blocks and 13.5 steals per game, and have limited both opponents to sub-36 percent shooting.
Nobody is going to confuse a young Cavaliers team or a shorthanded Pelicans squad with a championship contender. But the way the Bulls are guarding — switching plenty of screens, displaying active hands, aggressively closing out on shooters — feels like it will translate.
“We’re really scrambling around and helping each other on defense,” Zach LaVine said. “(Coach) Billy (Donovan) put up a chart showing the last couple teams that have won championships. They’ve been good offensively, but really good defensively as well.
“I think we understand how talented we are offensively. If you want to be a good team, you have to play defense.”
Donovan has owned the Bulls will be undersized most all season. With Patrick Williams out, they’re basically starting four perimeter players in Ball, Javonte Green, LaVine and DeRozan. Even when Williams — who is a strong defender, by the way — returns, he’s a 6-foot-7 power forward.
But rather than viewing this as a liability, the Bulls are embracing their personnel and trying to turn their length and athleticism into a strength.
“Lonzo is very, very long. Alex is long. DeMar is long. Zach is long. They have great wingspan and can cover a lot of ground and get in passing lanes,” Donovan said. “And I think so much of our defense has to be based on positioning. When we’re in good position and those guys can get their length involved, that’s when we can be disruptive.”
The Bulls have certainly been that. And, as Donovan noted, they’ve also been good at scrambling to and recovering loose balls, a problem area last season. The Bulls scored a staggering 31 points off Pelicans’ turnovers on Friday.
They’re switching most screens save for those involving Nikola Vučević, who posted four steals on Friday as he played a drop defense and secured the paint.
The coaching staff also has emphasized gang rebounding and guards helping finish the defense. Against the Pelicans, Caruso, Green, Ball and DeRozan each grabbed at least five rebounds.
“We’re all pretty big guards and can guard multiple positions,” LaVine said. “We gotta help the [power forward] and Vooch down there with rebounding. If we play physical and athletic, I think that’s going to be our MO. We’re not going to be the biggest team. But we should be more athletic than most.”
Ball has been a force defensively. In the halfcourt, he’s adept at fighting through screens — no switch needed for him — and he uses his length to harass ballhandlers.
Ball and Caruso sometimes pick up their matchup fullcourt, too.
“Really just disrupt the offense,” Ball said. “Sometimes you can get the steal, but most of the time just to get the other team tired. Try to change the pace of the game.”
Ball didn’t hesitate when asked what has stood out to him defensively through two games.
“I think just effort,” he said. “A lot of times, that’s really all defense is. Just playing hard and moving on a string. We’ve been doing it in practice, and it’s been carrying over to the games.
“Most of the time, we pretty much have four perimeter players out there at one time. And big Vooch holding it down in the back for us. Just getting into the ball, getting a lot of deflections. We’re a lot faster than a lot of teams. And I think we need to use that to our advantage.”
Thus far, they have.