Don't look now but the Chicago Bulls own the NBA's best defensive rating since Jan. 1.
The Bulls also are ranked sixth overall with a defensive rating of 111.3 and, following their Sunday matinee victory over the Washington Wizards, have held back-to-back opponents under 90 points for the first time since April 2017.
"Effort and energy," Zach LaVine said, when asked what's working for the Bulls defensively. "We're holding people accountable. Everybody is going out there with the same mentality. Even if you make a mistake, move on to the next play and do it better."
Since the start of 2023, the Bulls are fouling less and allowing fewer second-chance points, although they took a step backwards against the Wizards by allowing 12 offensive rebounds and 22 second-chance points. They've also benefited from opponents struggling from the 3-point line. Despite allowing the second-most 3-pointers per game since Jan. 1 at 37.4, opponents' percentage of .320 is the league-worst in that span.
And with the addition of Patrick Beverley and the insertion of Alex Caruso into the starting lineup, the Bulls' defensive numbers could stay near the top.
"Communication, energy, effort has been consistent," DeMar DeRozan said, almost echoing LaVine. "We knew coming out of the All-Star break, we were going to play with a sense of urgency. We're helping each other."
The Bulls are built around the offensive-minded LaVine, DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. The fact they own a top-10 defense might be surprising to some. But coach Billy Donovan, along with his staff, is no stranger to this distinction.
Donovan coached a top-10 defense four times during his five-year run with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His highest rating came during the 2018-29 season in which the Thunder finished with the fourth-best defense, allowing 107 points per 100 possessions.
Could these Bulls better that ranking?
"We have to find ugly ways to win games," Donovan said, a nod to the Bulls' disappointing offense that currently is ranked 24th. "I don't love the number of 3-pointers at times we give up. But you gotta look at last year in terms of the way Alex and Lonzo (Ball) were able to dominate the point of the screen. That really made it a lot easier for the bigs to get out of coverage in pick-and-roll in particular and get back and cover the rim. When we got spread out and the ball was coming downhill and you give up the paint like (last year after Caruso and Ball got hurt), you're giving up layups, dunks, offensive rebounds, spray-out 3s.
"So everything for us is we have to protect the paint. I think we've done a good job in trying to look at it and figure out ways we can get better. Because I think our defense really started off well last year and fell of a cliff to be quite honest the second half of the season. The guys have done a good job covering for each other, being really active with our hands. And the one thing that is true is our defense is going to be predicated on how well we contest. And if we don't contest the 3 well enough, we're going to give up a very big number."
Donovan always moves credit to the players, taking this dynamic to the extreme on Sunday following the victory over the Wizards. Asked about his and his staff's tendency to produce top-10 defenses, Donovan responded by acknowledging the players before then changing the topic to talk about offense.
"I always think it's based on personnel and IQ. You have to have good players," Donovan said. "I do give our guys a lot of credit from the perspective of trying to at least start in training camp, 'OK, here are the things we have to do differently from a year ago. This is where we got hurt and this is where we need to be better.'"
To Donovan's point about protecting the paint, the Bulls rank tied for sixth with the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics by allowing 48.1 points in the paint per game. And with Donovan essentially starting four perimeter players since Beverley's arrival, their point-of-attack defense could improve. But the focus will be even more essential since the Bulls are playing Caruso basically at power forward.
"They're so damn tough," LaVine said of Beverley and Caruso. "They've got a lot more heart than size."
Few expected the Bulls' defense to be fueling their playoff aspirations. And, yes, the offense needs to be better. But Donovan adding a fifth top-t0 defensive rating to his resume would be quite the feat.