John Hollinger and I both wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun from 2004 until its untimely demise in 2008. We’re both devotees of objective analysis; we back up what we say with numerical proof. The major difference is that whereas I adhered to advanced metrics on basketball, John invented many of the numbers I cited. The times that I won disagreements, predicting the outcome of the 2004 or 2008 Finals for instance, it was because I relied more heavily John’s metrics than he did. Occasionally I’d turn in a column only to discover that John was already on that subject and at least once or twice, the same thing happened to him.
This week’s edition of Taking the Bulls By the Numbers was going to focus on the elements of the Bulls success not named Derrick Rose, largely as a reaction to the Sports Illustrated article on Chicago’s all star guard. But, history repeated itself. Holllinger beat me to the punch and save for his casual dismissal of Kurt Thomas, it’s with insightful reporting too!
So here’s his take, that I am in complete agreement upon (and I should add, it’s part of ESPN Insider, which is well worth the price for John’s work alone but it offers access to much much more).
Ask somebody about this season’s Chicago Bulls, and the answer you’ll get is likely to be something along the lines of “DerrickRoseDerrickRoseDerrickRoseDerrickRose.”
Not to diminish what Rose has accomplished in what’s been a breakout season for the third-year star, but the focus on his season has left the Bulls one of the most misunderstood teams in basketball. Chicago has the league’s fifth-best record and is challenging for the top seed in the East for several reasons, and other than Rose, those reasons have received comparatively little attention. So let’s look a little closer.
It’s the defense.
From one perspective, the focus on the point guard’s offensive accomplishments seems misguided. The Bulls have the league’s 16th-best offense this season, and while that may improve a little during the second half of the season with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah back from injury, offense will remain a distant second on the list of reasons for Chicago’s success.
Instead, the Bulls are winning with a suffocating defense that allows their very ordinary offense to be enough on most nights. Chicago is No. 1 in defensive efficiency, an accomplishment made more amazing by the fact that Noah, the team’s defensive stalwart, has missed just more than half of its games (30 of 59).
But it’s important to understand the Bulls as an extreme defensive team to understand their success. You often hear, sometimes in praise of Rose’s offensive prowess, people wondering aloud about how the Bulls can be playing so well with Keith Bogans at shooting guard and only two good scorers.
The answer is that offensively, they’re not playing so well. They’re just so awesome on defense that it doesn’t matter.
And in particular, it’s been the supporting cast that’s been dominant defensively. Speaking of which …
It’s the bench.
Chicago’s defensive stats with its starters in the game are pretty good. But with the bench? They’re ridiculously good.
The Bulls give up just more than a point per possession with any of their five starters on the court, but with the second unit, it’s a different story. When Taj Gibson is on the floor, opponents score .994 points per trip. When Ronnie Brewer plays, they muster just .956. When C.J. Watson plays, the number drops to .938.
And with Omer Asik on the court, it’s a phenomenal .919 points per possession. Asik, not Rose, is the team leader in plus/minus, even though he has limited offensive skills and a player efficiency rating of 11.35. The backup center is a force as a shot-blocker and help defender, combining with Gibson to form what is, hands down, the best second-unit defensive frontcourt in basketball.
Nobody thinks of Asik as a dominating defensive player because he has a fairly thin build and limited offensive skills, plus it’s hard to consider somebody an intimidating presence when he looks like the chef from “Ratatouille.” But trust me, he’s a monster. This time, instead of hearing me rave about Asik’s D again, listen to his coaches.
“When you put he and Taj out there together, the defense of that unit has been great,” Bulls coach Tim Thibodeau said. “That’s his mindset, and he’s got a lot of experience. It’s international experience, so in my eyes he’s not a typical rookie. He’s very, very bright, picks things up quickly, rarely makes the same mistake twice and [has] great drive, a great worker.”
Yet Thibodeau sounds like a rank pessimist compared to assistant coach Ron Adams.
“I think he can be as good as any defensive player in this league,” Adams said. “Defensively, I just think he’s top-of-the-line. And he’s getting close to it already.”
Of course, it’s not just the rook — Asik is playing only 11.7 minutes per game, so as dominant as he’s been defensively, he explains only a portion of Chicago’s improved D.
Gibson, as Thibodeau mentioned, also has been a major factor. So has Brewer, with his perimeter ball hawking, and of course Noah. But perhaps the best attribute of Chicago’s defense is that, other than Boozer, there really hasn’t been a weak link. Rose was a poor defender under Vinny Del Negro but has improved dramatically this season, while Kyle Korver — the closest thing to a weakness on the perimeter — has good size and is a quality team defender.
On the other hand, a lot of these guys were on far less successful defensive teams in the past. The Bulls were good defensively a year ago, but by no means great. Boozer, Korver and Brewer were all part of mediocre defensive teams in Utah, with Brewer washing out as a defensive stopper. Watson participated in a woeful Golden State defense and appeared to be no better than his peers, while Bogans and Kurt Thomas have been mostly bit players.
Which takes us to the next logical conclusion …
It’s the coach.
Yes, Tom Thibodeau’s stuff works. The top defensive assistant in Boston, he was the architect of the Celtics’ system that won a title in 2008 and has largely stymied opponents ever since. In fact, you can argue that Thibodeau owns the top two defenses in the game — the Bulls are first in defensive efficiency, and the Celtics are second.
Before coming to Boston, Thibodeau was Jeff Van Gundy’s defensive guru in Houston, where he posted similarly gaudy defensive stats despite some teams that appear to be rather modestly talented in that department.
Sum it all up, and there’s a fairly ironclad coach of the year case to be made for Thibodeau, especially given the injuries to Boozer and Noah that Chicago has overcome this season. That doesn’t mean he’ll win, not when Gregg Popovich has the Spurs en route to a mid-60s win total, Rick Carlisle is squeezing just as much out of the Mavs and Doug Collins is leading the Sixers to a surprise playoff charge.
But the Bulls’ collective success is best understood as a combination of a great defensive concept being implemented by a 10-deep roster, one on which the bench is even more suffocating than the starters.
Rose’s plays fill the highlight film, and for good reason — many of them are spectacular. But in explaining how shockingly good Chicago has been thus far, all that takes a backseat. Rose may be the savior on offense, but in explaining the Bulls’ success this season, the holy trinity is the D, the bench and the coach.
Thanks to ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell for his reporting included in this piece.