By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Energy, effort and intensity. Effort, intensity and energy. Hard work. Intensity, energy and effort.
Stop me if you think you have heard all of this detailed analysis of the Bulls before, but the team sends everyone down this path. Tom Thibodeau loves the romantic notion that sheer will is always enough to overcome insufficiencies of talent and/or tactics, so the narrative is shaped thusly and parroted by his players, even as it is also lazy, unfair and often untrue.
The Bulls (30-19) are 4-6 in their last 10 games, and 5-9 in their last 14. The once-bumbling Cleveland Cavaliers now sit 1.5 games behind them in the Central Division. The rock-solid team defense that defined Thibodeau teams has left them, with their point-prevention now in the bottom half of NBA teams. They used to be at the top and now are 17th.
That’s due to a whole lot more than their favorite buzzwords about how hard they try.
First, it would be wrong to dismiss the injury issue. Even for a coach beloved for his mantra of “We have more than enough to win,” it’s just not always the case. Not only do the varied gameday absences affect the positional assignments and rotations, but the incomplete practices prevent them from working toward any material improvement. Team defense is built on repetition, awareness and trust developed over time, in a process difficult to accelerate or retro-fit.
Second, the Bulls’ roster is just not particularly athletic. Even at full strength, they have a difficult time matching up with the length, speed and explosiveness other teams can throw at them. The additions of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, the drafting Doug McDermott and the decision to keep the essentially useless Nazr Mohammed ensured from the outset that the Bulls would be a below-the-rim team in a league where the game is often played well above it. Mike Dunleavy has maximized his value when healthy and Kirk Hinrich still throws his battered body around with abandon, but each next night reveals new opposing names with quick-twitch suddenness and live legs.
Derrick Rose has never been a great defender, but his own eroded athleticism has shown in his struggles to recover multiple times over and around screens, to get back to his primary assignment after helping and to keep ball-handlers from exploiting him directly. The confusion in his overall game is another story, as detailed wonderfully in this piece from bballbreakdown.com. Rose is playing in strange, disconnected fashion on both ends – hoisting long, bad shots, turning the ball over, failing to look for open teammates and choosing not to attack the basket.
But perhaps the most critical headwind facing the Bulls defense is the presence and importance of Gasol, who has become their best player. His NBA-best 30 double-doubles speak to his consistent production, and the ease with which he can create high-percentage individual scoring chances has been a luxury. Even with that, though, there are new issues.
Gasol at center means Joakim Noah is guarding the opposing power forward. Especially on nights when that player is a basket-facing, “stretch four” shooter, that means last year’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year can be neutralized by forcing him to stand in a corner, too far away from the basket to alter shots or rebound. If you flip the assignments, Gasol gets destroyed off the dribble, so he remains at center in the hopes that he can use his length and timing to protect the rim well enough.
The problem is that his lack of foot quickness shows up against screen-roll actions, and there’s nobody left to guard the basket. Thibodeau has experimented increasingly later in games with other 4/5 combinations involving Taj Gibson, but there’s no magic solution for this that either minimizes the mismatches or keeps every veteran happy about his fourth-quarter minutes.
This is even considering Noah to be what he was last year, which may not be the case as he tries to recover from a knee injury that was far more serious than the team let on initially.
There’s something to be said for the Bulls playing as hard as they can all the time, but that’s more a facile way of brushing aside the new, meaningful deficiencies that now need to be hidden or counterbalanced.
Getting back to some semblance of health is important, and it’s daunting to consider what lies ahead even as Dunleavy works toward his return. Noah’s knee needs constant maintenance, the 34-year-old Gasol is being used heavily and indefatigable Jimmy Butler leads the league in both minutes played and distance run per game, with 33 more games to go before the playoffs even start.
There are real reasons why the Bulls defense is struggling this season. Blaming it all on effort — just assuming multiple professionals are consciously not giving their all — isn’t only misguided, it then would have to force a much larger question.