Bulls

Is the Bulls' defensive strategy helping Wendell Carter Jr.?

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USA TODAY

Is the Bulls' defensive strategy helping Wendell Carter Jr.?

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 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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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Reaction to Lauri Markkanen’s injury and loss to Kings

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Reaction to Lauri Markkanen’s injury and loss to Kings

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 98-81 loss to the Kings.

1:00 - Reaction to the loss and LaVine getting double-teamed

2:50 - On Jim Boylen saying don’t expect system changes with Markkanen hurt

4:25 - Sabine’s list of things that have happened since the last time the Kings made the playoffs in 2006

5:35 - Viewer comment on LaVine and Coby

6:40 - Viewer comment on Denzel Valentine

8:00 - On the importance of 1st vs 3rd quarter

9:00 - Viewer comment on possible trades

11:00 - Viewer comment on seeing Bulls without Markkanen

14:30 - On Lauri Markkanen’s hip injury and missing 4-6 weeks

18:40 - Viewer comment asking if Bulls should shut down Markkanen

19:50 - Hey Matt Peck, did you see what DRose did tonight?

21:15 - Viewer comment on what to expect from Lauri when he returns

23:40 - Viewer asking the greatest moment the Outsiders have witnessed

24:55 - On NBA naming the All-Star starters

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Without Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine's job will only get more difficult

Without Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine's job will only get more difficult

It’s been the most pressing on-court issue facing the Bulls all season — in a season full of them:

Outside of Zach LaVine, where do the points come from?

The glare of that question is only set to amplify with Lauri Markkanen now set to miss four to six weeks with a pelvic injury. Take Friday's 98-81 defeat at the hands of the Kings as an example. LaVine tallied 21 — his 13th consecutive game with 20 or more. Thad Young chipped in 10; Kris Dunn did, too. But the rest of the team mustered 40, and the Bulls finished with 81 points against the Kings’ 18th-rated defense.

For a stretch — a 109-second one, to start the second half — it appeared LaVine might single-handedly save the day, as he has before. He opened the third quarter with 10 quick points to shave a 10-point halftime deficit to two after tallying eight in the first two periods combined.

But the Kings clamped up. The rest of the way, LaVine scored only thrice and was ever on the run from one, two or three Sacramento defenders at a time, depending on the possession. The Bulls’ dearth of scoring around him made the gameplan a simple one: Cut the head off the snake. LaVine finished just 8-for-21 from the field, and the Bulls scored 12 fourth quarter points.

“I think they did a good job of that,” Jim Boylen said of the Kings’ throwing waves of bodies LaVine’s way. “Zach's a primary guy and they treated him like a primary guy. He got up 21 shots. You know, six rebounds. I thought he tried.”

This storyline isn’t going away. Three of the Bulls’ top five scorers (Marrkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr.) are sidelined and weeks (at least) away from return. Young, steady as he is, isn’t going to transform into a consistent 20-point scorer overnight. Tomas Satoransky and Coby White represent the Bulls’ best chance of secondary explosions on a night-to-night basis — but against Sacramento, they combined for 16 points on 4-for-16 shooting.

“I mean, [opponents have] been doing that,” LaVine said of the double and triple-teams he received Friday. “We gotta get somebody to step up, and I think we'll find it. It's the first game without Lau [Lauri Markkanen]. We'll figure out what we gotta do in Cleveland.”

Easier said than done. Down another primary 3-point threat in Markkanen, the Bulls shot 8-for-37 from deep tonight, the fifth time in seven games they’ve made less than 10 3-pointers. They’re now 2-13 on the season when they make less than 10 3s.

“Will we have to adjust some things and maybe play a little differently? Maybe,” Jim Boylen said of the team’s shooting. “I'll evaluate with the shots we got and what else we had. But I'm not gonna reinvent the wheel in January, I'm not gonna do that.”

The Bulls — spearheaded by Boylen and LaVine — insist they’re going to keep plugging. Still, an offense already third-to-last in the league in offensive rating just lost another cog, and the impact was apparent. LaVine already carried as great an offensive load as anyone in the league. Now, if he didn’t already, he’ll receive as much attention as anyone, too.

“That's up to coach. I'm prepared for everything. I think my conditioning's [good], so we'll see, maybe I gotta do that,” LaVine said of potentially taking on more minutes.

And of the injuries: “Nobody's gonna feel bad for you. They're just gonna try to take advantage of it.”

The Kings did that successfully tonight. The Bulls hope it doesn't prove a foreshadowing.

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