The Chicago Bulls are an average defensive team in the NBA. They rank 15th, exactly average, in opponent points per game allowed. They allow 110.9 points per game this season, dropping out of the top-10 from earlier in the season.
Bulls fans will use injuries as the scapegoat for the downfall. Without Patrick Williams, Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball for most of the season, their defense performance has declined.
The Bulls need to pick up the slack on defense.
In the most logical case, the Bulls turn to arguably their most athletic player to take some of the weight on defense — Zach LaVine. LaVine was part of the Olympic team this past summer that won gold. There, he told Bulls insiders that he took pride in focusing on his defensive effort.
This season, it’s shown to some degree. His on-ball defense is well improved. He uses his athleticism and strength — similar attributes he uses to slash through the lane on offense — to best opponents’ best offensive weapons.
In the past three games, however, there are plenty of instances where LaVine is to fault for defensive lapses. Primarily, in pick-and-roll defense, on the help-line and through silly errors.
Against the Knicks, LaVine guarded Alec Burks most of the night. And Burks let him have it. He scored 27 points on 9-of-19 shooting from the field and 5-of-10 shooting from downtown.
During the game, Billy Donovan switched Alex Caruso onto Burks to cool him off, but Caruso was tied to Julius Randle most of the night. LaVine had to take his shots at him.
In this play, in particular, LaVine is guarding Burks at the top of the key. Mitchell Robinson sets a nice screen on LaVine and he immediately sticks to Robinson, while Nikola Vucevic falls back with Robinson too.
This happened several times between LaVine and Vucevic in the past three games.
Here it is again. This time against the Washington Wizards.
This one looks more apparent that LaVine has Kristaps Porzingis after the screen, but Vucevic is still in a drop-down position. He thinks about throwing a hand up, but he’s too late.
Could LaVine at least get a hand up on Kantavious Caldwell-Pope? It looked like he gave up too early on fighting through the screen, especially since KCP pulled up for a mid-range jumper.
The Bulls have had defensive pick-and-roll problems dating back to last season. Donovan’s drop-down defense, primarily seen with Vucevic and Wendell Carter, caused plenty of defensive lapses.
Another example of LaVine’s defensive liabilities comes from his play on the helpline, or as Stacey King and Adam Amin would refer to “free safety.”
LaVine starts this play by nicely covering the incoming screen by Lamar Stevens and forcing him out of the paint. He establishes his position as the free safety, as the only Bull below the equator.
From here, Isaac Okoro turns the corner and burns DeMar DeRozan, and lays it in for an easy bucket. LaVine fails to get in front and protect the rim and provides zero resistance against Okoro.
Again, in this play, LaVine is the lowest on the plane. He’s in the weak side corner, which should slide him further towards the paint.
An old Bulls friend, Tomáš Satoranský, blows past Ayo Dosunmu and gets a free lane to the basket.
I would like to see Patrick Williams leave his man, Deni Avdija, to stunt or get in front of Satoranský. But, Williams lets him go, leaving LaVine as the last line of defense.
As Satoranský gets to the bucket, LaVine realizes he was late on the shift and runs under the hoop.
LaVine’s defensive IQ under the rim has not been sharp enough. His athleticism and physicality are some of the best on the team, but he needs to see plays before they unfold to truly make an impact.
Ball makes for better free safety, but without him, the Bulls need LaVine to step up.
Ah, yes. A basketball coach’s worst nightmare. Though who shalt not be named.
Fouling the three-point shooter.
Yes, Burks was hot from downtown in this game and lighting up the Bulls every time he touched the ball. But, you have to let him have it. It may have been a close call and LaVine got a nice hand up, but the Bulls can’t afford to be overzealous in these situations.