Everybody, the Bulls are back, alright!
It's 1997 all over again, and the Bulls are still killing the Jazz
In taking down the previously undefeated Utah Jazz 107-99 on Saturday, the Bulls showed that this is the best 37-win team in NBA history. That, or maybe my 46-win prediction was a little closer to reality.
There has been a ton of hand-waving at how well the Bulls have played, but the doubters are running out of excuses. They played the Knicks extremely closely in their only loss on Thursday and followed it up with an impressive win against the Jazz.
Like they’ve been doing all season, the Bulls won it again with their defense. They held the Jazz to their lowest offensive rating (96.1 points per 100 possessions) since the 2019-20 season.
I was very interested to watch this game because both teams were attacking each other’s strengths. The Jazz have been a team that puts defenses into the blender with drive-and-kick actions, forcing rotations and swinging to find the open man. The Bulls’ help rotations have been outstanding. Their active hands on passes have been the foundation of their defense, which was no. 5 in the league coming into this matchup.
The Bulls’ defense held against the Jazz. They forced an astounding 20 turnovers (league average usually falls around 14 per game), getting hands into the passing lane as they have done all year. This defense is for real.
There’s no magic scheme that the Bulls are using to build such a great defense. Rather, they are really solid with their fundamentals. They also have high-feel players that can pick off passes.
Here’s one example of them guarding an action where they don’t do anything particularly remarkable, but also don’t make any mistakes.
Nikola Vucevic is another great example of this idea in practice. He’s not doing anything extraordinary out there, but he is solid fundamentally. The Bulls have played him up at the level of the screen (click for video) plenty of times this year, which has been a little bit of found money. He has looked bad switching onto guards, but he has shown that he can get up high and guard while scurrying back to his man. Slow-footed big men aren’t supposed to be able to make that rotation, yet Vucevic has held his own this year.
Offensively, the Bulls have still basically been barely good enough to win on most nights. They’ve been using a ton of empty side pick-and-rolls this year with Zach LaVine and Vucevic. The play works extremely well because those two guys are too good to guard one-on-one. When help does come, it often leads to mistakes from the defense.
I’d like to see them run these plays more for Vucevic 3’s to help their offense, which they finally did against the Jazz.
Billy Donovan has also been spicing the offense up by using Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball as screeners for LaVine in lieu of Vucevic.
Teams have always tried to load up on LaVine to get the ball out of his hands. They’ve been willing to sacrifice a 4-on-3 with Vucevic because while he’s a good passer for a big man, that’s still a better option than letting LaVine go without sending an extra defender at him.
Opposing defenses can’t make that same sacrifice when Ball or Caruso are setting those same screens because those guys are much better passers. The Bulls have gotten some of their best stuff out of these actions.
DeMar DeRozan has also been great, and Donovan has been using him effectively. Coaches will oftentimes call a set play after a free throw. The Bulls executed one at the end of the first quarter to get DeRozan switched onto Jordan Clarkson, a weak defender, and maintain their 2-for-1 with perfect timing to end the quarter. They then went to the exact same play to open the second quarter, presumably on the specific instructions of Donovan.
I have mentioned beforehand how great DeRozan is at cooking switches. The Jazz didn’t want to switch that matchup, and so that pick-and-roll involving Clarkson put a ton of pressure on their defense allowing DeRozan to create for himself or others. That was the stretch where the Bulls started to build their lead and was the key segment of the game.
DeRozan has also been helped by Caruso, who might be the best guard screen-setter in the league. He lays the wood on players and makes sure that DeRozan gets those switches that he wants.
The team also got solid contributions from role players. Javonte Green had a mediocre stat line in place of injured Patrick Williams. But his activity defensively was noticeable, and he was cutting for easy shots. Tony Bradley played so well that he earned himself a podium game (edit: friend of the newsletter Mark Karantzoulis clipped up all of Bradley’s best plays). And Derrick Jones Jr. had three blocks and a steal in his return to the rotation.
The experts said a lot of stuff about this team that is looking pretty far off right now. The defense was supposed to be bad, LaVine’s year was a fluke, DeRozan wouldn’t help them, and they would be lucky to get into the play-in tournament. We’re only six games in, but it’s safe to say that this team is much better than they predicted.
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