Flip on any Bulls game and one thing immediately stands out: Wendell Carter Jr. gives maximum effort on defense.
Carter only played 44 games in his rookie campaign and finished with the second-best defensive rating (109.5) on the team, playing solid individual defense despite being on a Bulls team that finished 25th in defensive efficiency. But with Carter looking poised to have a healthy and effective 2019-2020 season, the Bulls defense was expected to be better. So far, that much has been true, with a caveat that we will get to later on.
For starters, similar to the offense, the Bulls' new defensive system is running exactly as it is supposed to, albeit with better results.
Chicago enters Friday with the 14th best defensive rating in the NBA and leads the league in steals per game (9.8). As Boylen stated on Friday, "First of all, we’re trying to establish a system, a style of play... on the defensive end it’s grown a little faster than the offensive end."
The Bulls aggressively blitz pick-and-rolls, choosing to send two men at the ball handler and counting on their rotations to either generate a turnover or cover up the many open shots that pop up at the rim as a result.
It is hard to take an extreme amount of offense to the Bulls playing this style of defense, as a player like Carter is not only smart enough to pick up any defensive system but possesses enough quickness to recover back to his spot once the ball is moved.
However, Carter has seen his block numbers drop significantly in this system. The aggressive help he provides has also opened the Bulls up to offensive rebounding opportunities, something we saw come back to haunt them on Friday night:
Carter comes over to help on Dame... Whiteside gets inside position. Blazers win. pic.twitter.com/MrMgUXhnv2— Bulls Talk (@NBCSBulls) November 30, 2019
Carter averaged 2.5 blocks per 100 possessions last season. That figure is down to 1.3 blocks per 100 possessions through 20 games of the 2019-20 season.
My initial thinking was that the drop in Carter's block rate must be negatively affecting his overall defensive efficiency numbers, but that wasn't the case. His 106.0 defensive rating in 2019-20 is 3.5 points better than last season. Some of this improvement can, of course, be attributed to playing with better defensive personnel than last season, but Carter's ability to hold up on D in an entirely new system is a testament to his basketball-IQ regardless of the surrounding pieces.
Last season, Carter contested 10.6 shots per game with the Bulls primarily using a drop coverage—i.e. the big man "drops" back deep into the painted area to prevent layups and greatly encourage midrange jumpers. This season, Carter is contesting 7.3 shots per game in the new-look system that has him doing a lot more work on the perimeter.
The numbers suggest that he has actually improved his skills contesting shots at the rim despite the drop in block rate and his fouling issues. Opponents are shooting -2.2% worse than their usual averages when guarded by Carter, a big improvement over last season.
But even with Carter's (and the Bulls') defensive efficiency looking better than last season, something doesn't quite add up for the 6-14 Bulls, who you would expect to have won a few more games by this point, despite a dreadful offense. The biggest culprit?
An incredible lack of attention to detail in the fourth quarter that starts with the Bulls' current strategy of pulling Carter away from the rim, which has decreased his shot-contest numbers.
Chicago is 27th in the league in fourth-quarter defensive rating at 114.8, with their fourth-quarter defensive rebounding percentage (69.6%) coming in at 26th in the league. One watch of a 2019-20 Bulls game and the eye-test clearly shows a team that does not know how to close out hard-fought contests.
The inability to clean up the defensive glass is something that is absolutely destroying the Bulls, just as much as their lack of ability to protect the paint in general.
Despite the Bulls' aggressive defensive strategy aiding them in slowing down opponents' 3-point shooting in the fourth quarter (12th in the league in fourth-quarter 3-point defense), they are allowing 9.5 trips to the free-throw line per fourth quarter, which ranks dead last in the league. Last season, the Bulls ranked fifth in the league in opponent free throw attempts in the fourth quarter (6.3 FTA), and the fact that they always had a big stationed near the basket played a large factor in this.
The Bulls' fourth-quarter defensive rating has dropped 1.9 points per 100 possessions this season compared to last, and the way they are using their defensive ace is a big reason why. The Bulls don't need to overhaul their entire philosophy, but simply implementing a drop coverage (and potentially other systems, too) would allow the Bulls to throw a different look at teams in the closing period.
Wendell Carter is an incredibly intelligent big, who is just as successful in pressuring ball handlers in space as he is at swatting shots while positioned near the rim. So why not allow the young man to do both?
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