Bulls have a problem with sluggish defensive starts that originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Amid a disjointed 9-14 start to the 2022-23 NBA season, the Chicago Bulls’ defense was a pleasant surprise. In 23 games, they’ve allowed opponents to score at a rate of just 111 points per 100 possession, which is good for the 12th-best defensive rating in the league.
But what this umbrella figure obscures is a drastic disconnect between the beginning and end of the games.
In the first half of this season’s games, the Bulls own a 117.2 defensive rating, 25th in the NBA. In the second half, that number drops to 104.5, surpassed only by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Here’s how their defensive rating breaks down by quarter:
When asked after Tuesday’s practice — the team’s first home game after a six-game road swing — why the Bulls’ defense has suffered from slow starts, Billy Donovan was blunt.
“We just can’t let the outside push and motivate us,” he said. “And by that I mean the scoreboard.”
In fact, the Bulls have developed a nasty habit of falling behind through big deficits early in games, only to then fight their way back and suffer narrow defeats.
Proved: According to Sports Radar, the Bulls have conceded 11 first-half 60 points this season, tied for sixth-most in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz. That number has helped the Bulls win just five first halves from 23 games (and lost nine of their last 11), the last in the league. They passed too binary at the break six times, with the Indiana Pacers in eighth.
That would be an untenable formula even if the Bulls were winning games – which, despite their best efforts, they are not, with a 2-9 record in competitions within a five-point lead in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.
The most confusing aspect of this trend is that the team’s defensive formula for success is clear on a day-to-day basis to both outside observers and those in the Bulls building.
“It’s active. It helps each other. Getting distractions, getting great possessions just by keeping the ball off color and then bouncing it off,” Alex Caruso said. “I think that’s when we’re at our best.”
In his opinion, the Bulls allowed opponents a 58.2 effective field goal percentage in the first half this season, ranked 29th in the NBA, and forced turnovers at just 14.3 percent of opponents’ possession, ranked 19th. They let also 19.2 3-point attempts per first half (27th), on which the opponent shot 40.1 percent (28th).
But in the second half? The Bulls rank ninth in opponent effective field goal percentage (51.9) and first in opponent turnover rate (17.9 percent). There is also evidence that they are more effective at leading teams from the 3-point line, both in terms of volume and percentage:
|First half||Second half|
|Opp. 3-point attempts||19.2 (27th)||15.3 (7th)|
|Opp. “Wide Open” 3 point attempts||9.7 (25th)||6.7 (5th)|
|Opp. “Open” 3-point attempts||7.5 (24th)||6.7 (17th)|
|Opp. 3 point percentage||40.1% (28th)||34.6% (15th)|
*NBA.com defines “wide open” 3-point tries as being made with the nearest defender two or more feet away, and open 3-point tries as being made with the nearest defender 4-6 feet away.
“We need to establish that kind of standard, style or identity much earlier,” Donovan said. “I understand the volatility in NBA games and I know there are a lot of teams that went down 18, 19 or 20 points and come back and win… But it’s tough to keep going night after night.”
Caruso added, “I don’t know if I have an answer as to why we’re starting slow at this end. I think it’s more about not trying to fathom the game. More so to set the pace and pace rather than trying it out and seeing what the game brings us.
“We are more than capable of that. We do it in the second half, sometimes when we’re 10 points or 15 points behind, instead of doing it from the start of the game, which obviously is something we obviously need to work on, which we’ve talked about. It’s a thing we know we’ve done and we need to fix the ship.”
Given the Bulls’ reliance on turnover points — they’re second in the league in percentage of turnover points (18.1) — playing to the standard Donovan speaks of for all four quarters would likely be one, too juicing underperforming offense.
All of this is a major factor in the Bulls head coach’s decision to shake up his starting lineup ahead of Friday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors, adding Caruso and Javonte Green to the first session ahead of Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams.
“More or less, yes. I’m just looking at something else,” Donovan said when asked if his rationale for the roster change was rooted in the team’s slow defensive starts.
“People like Alex and Javonte, just with their drive and their energy – and I think Ayo plays with great energy and I think Patrick has gotten drastically better – but as veterans I think they might suit Zach (LaVine) and Vooch (Nikola Vučević) and DeMar (DeRozan) give us a different look.”
The sample size since Donovan pushed that button is far too small to evaluate. And Green is likely to miss his second straight game on Wednesday against the Wizards with a bruised right knee.
But Caruso is right that the Bulls have shown the ability to play the way they need to, against elite competition – namely in wins over the Boston Celtics (twice) and the Milwaukee Bucks.
All of this means if the Bulls are looking to turn their season around, add sluggish first-half defense to a growing list of troubling trends to correct.
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