The Fundamentals: How are the Bulls still winning after trading Luol Deng?
No NBA team runs through a wall quite like the Bulls. When Derrick Rose went down in a heap in April 2012, Chicago threw everything it had into its ill-fated playoff series against the Sixers. When the team — again without Rose — saw its reliable bench stripped for parts that summer, its response was a 45-win season and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. And now, in yet another Rose-less season, after yet another bench renovation, and the subsequent departure of All-Star forward Luol Deng, Chicago somehow remains in position to break even for the year.
The gruff pragmatism of coach Tom Thibodeau allows little room for awe, but in its own workmanlike way Chicago’s year-over-year survival has been nothing short of breathtaking. There’s a wide, glowing admiration in NBA circles for Chicago’s well-conceived and well-executed plan — a standing testament to the value of process. Yet in the Bulls’ case, that plan has been drawn up, scratched out and repeatedly rewritten to the point that it should be barely legible. Not many teams could maintain such viability through the prolonged absence of their best players, but for these Bulls verve became its own vision.
That adaptive quality is difficult to instill by design, though it’s worth noting that few teams are as character-conscious as Chicago. Every roster move is made with the intent to acquire a certain mode of working professional, a focus that minimizes fuss and reinforces Thibodeau’s “next man up” sensibility. Put enough of those similarly minded players in the same space and run loops of Thibs shouting himself to hoarseness, and there you have your culture of resiliency. That’s more than a tad reductive, but there is a certain simplicity in the idea of filling a basketball roster with adults and trusting a sharp, driven coach to take them where they need to go.
That combination has led Chicago to go 13-7 since trading Deng, who was both a terrific player for the Bulls and a cultural totem. Theirs is a team environment in which the loss of one of the great perimeter defenders in the game has translated to a dip of just a single point in defensive efficiency, and the absence of a vital scorer has coincided with sudden offensive improvement. The former is more explicable than the latter, if only because Deng’s absence doesn’t deprive the Bulls of their most valuable defensive resource: the ability to navigate from action to action in coverage through two outstanding big men.
Thibodeau deserves ample praise for the construction and maintenance of a stifling defensive system, but it’s Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson who help take on-paper masterwork to on-a-string potency. As the offense moves through various play devices, the two bigs — who share the court some, but are staggered plenty — course through subtle adjustments. They shade closer to a dribble hand-off, wary that it could lead to a defensive compromise. They help manage pick-and-rolls with great angles and perfect positioning, a combination that buys their screened teammates time to recover. They pick up switches as needed, swivel around post-up threats to deny them the entry pass and loom in the frame on most every cut or curl. No team is more nimble on its feet in the way it deals with changes in direction, as Noah and Gibson help the Bulls carry out a string of instantaneous and perfectly calibrated responses as second nature.
There are teams that take away certain kinds of shots while surrendering others, but Chicago works hard and works smart to challenge damn near everything. This is opponents’ shot chart for the season:
Losing Deng has made life indisputably tougher for Jimmy Butler, who is now trusted almost exclusively to handle the opponent’s most imposing perimeter threat. He guards stronger wings, clever scorers and speedy ball handlers as the situation commands, and he’s averaged 42.2 minutes since Deng’s departure. That’s 10 minutes more per game than Butler had averaged before the trade, stretching Chicago’s top perimeter defender about as far as possible. Noah and Gibson have also picked up an extra 8.4 minutes between them, which helps fill the Deng void indirectly; no other Bull can step in to provide what Deng did as an on-ball irritant and intuitive helper, but through a few rotation tweaks Thibodeau has at least maximized the time in which multiple impact defenders are on the floor.
Guard Kirk Hinrich is also something of a lesser asset on that end — nowhere in the same realm of influence as Noah, Gibson or even Butler, but a useful defender all the same. Consider this run-of-the-mill sequence (Hinrich is No. 12 in white):
There’s nothing exceptional in Hinrich’s defense there, but consider its components. While following Phoenix’s Goran Dragic through a hand-off, Hinrich backs off just enough to allow teammate Mike Dunleavy room to glide through. He then positions himself between Dragic and the obvious baseline cut, locks in and trails him around two consecutive screens. Hinrich overshoots a bit, but recovers in time to stay attached to Dragic’s left (and preferred) side. He’s playing just closely enough that Dragic forces up a shot to bait for contact, but Hinrich is completely in control at that point and manages to contest without fouling.
These are all rudimentary elements, and there are handfuls of point guards who are better at executing them than Hinrich. But under these circumstances and in this system, it’s genuinely helpful to have him around. Hinrich is great about making the little plays necessary to stretch out the window for defensive recovery. He has great synergy with Noah in coverage, with the two having a clear shorthand of when Hinrich intends to fight through a screen and when Noah needs to switch. And even after losing a step or two laterally, Hinrich still does a great job of preempting the moves of especially slippery scorers.
None of this makes Hinrich anything more than a mere defensive contributor, but that’s exactly what these Bulls need to round out their makeshift lineups sans Deng and Rose. Noah and Gibson provide the broadest help, and Butler does the heavy lifting. But at the other spots Thibodeau needs players who know their rotational responsibilities and will work hard to execute them — all of which describes Hinrich perfectly. It’s through his role work that Chicago’s starters rate as one of the best defensive lineups to log 100 or more minutes, no matter the presence of a ho-hum defender like Dunleavy or a legitimate millstone like Carlos Boozer.
Hinrich’s offensive game, however, is several degrees short of competence. That’s the kindest I could possibly put it; he can’t get into the lane, doesn’t see the floor especially well and as of the last two seasons can’t really shoot. That’s a difficult combination for any offense to stomach, much less one short its top two shot creators from previous seasons and already sitting near the bottom of the league in scoring efficiency.
Yet somehow Chicago has responded by scoring about three more points per 100 possessions (99.1) than they did before the Deng trade (96.3), all without changing its shot distribution for the better much. The Bulls are making offensive gains while attempting fewer shots around the rim and more from mid-range than before. That diet might leave other NBA offenses bloated and inefficient, but in bottom-line production Chicago has seen a noticeable turn for the better.
That’s part of what makes this recent scoring surge difficult to suss out, along with the fact that nothing about Chicago’s offensive style has dramatically changed. Deng is gone, and thus his 15.4 field goal attempts per game had to be redistributed. But even then it’s not as if the Bulls have revamped their playbook or had a single player take over Deng’s scoring responsibilities. It’s all been piecemeal, manifesting in ways so balanced that they might — might — suggest stability.
Guard D.J. Augustin has seen the most exaggerated rise, but his sharp shooting from the perimeter and 16.5 points per game since the Deng trade are at least partially a product of his growing familiarity as a Bulls newcomer. Gibson has taken on a more active scoring role, both by working more consistently from the block and connecting on more of his spot-up jumpers. Noah has been a marginally more productive scorer, but largely made his mark by averaging 5.5 assists since Deng’s departure — a fruitful actualization of his role as an offensive facilitator.
By and large, the Bulls’ offensive swell is a difference of a given player contributing an extra few points or shaving a bit off their turnover rate, all without making much significant change in approach. When compounded that’s been enough to bring the Bulls a few steps toward offensive sufficiency, and enough under the circumstances to register as something of a scoring eruption. It’s just difficult, still, to grapple with the idea that Chicago could be a sustainably improved offense while replacing Deng with nothing, especially given its so-so level of competition over these last 20 games.
There’s no denying that this group is capable defensively with or without Deng, as the greater trends of Chicago’s execution speak for themselves. It would be another matter entirely, though, for the Bulls’ collective pluck to translate into some long-term offensive improvement despite clearly limited resources. Formidable they may be, but there are some flaws even resiliency alone can’t address.