This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
What does it mean to be aggressive?
As with any adjective, too much or too little can be a detriment. Balance is necessary to ensure productivity and health. On a basketball court, the same can be said for a team's philosophy.
Coachspeak gets thrown around without regard for balance. "We want to be the most aggressive team on the court", says the coach who sees his team constantly in foul trouble while swinging-and-missing for steals in passing lanes.
"We want to value every possession", says the coach of the team so afraid of committing a turnover that nobody uses their dribble with purpose and the shot clock drops below five each trip down the floor.
These over-simplifications are a symptom of coaching with a lack of nuance. The game is bigger than one teaching point or marching order. As with any double-edged sword, the other end always feels the sharpest when it turns around and cuts you.
Unfortunately, the Chicago Bulls are victims of their own blade. Head coach Jim Boylen—seemingly protected by a front office that values his "tough love for millennials" mantra—has turned up his team's defensive aggression dial all the way.
Perhaps he thinks extra possessions gained by hawking on-ball defense and swarming traps is the only way to create enough bites at the apple for his team to win. Perhaps he's sending a message to his team that they need to be the aggressor, no matter what the schematic ramifications are.
The major issue is how many ramifications are blowing up in his / their face.
In order to understand what the Bulls are doing on defense, we have to at least gain an understanding of why. Most times, defenses are crafted around the strengths of their personnel. Others are specifically engineered to cover their largest flaws. Boylen is using a scheme to create identity, regardless of how his players mesh with that scheme. Whether right or wrong, he's set the ship on a course and will not deviate from this direction.
Now the frustrating part is that there are times when it's working.
Dial anything up full-blast and you'll feel its effects. The Bulls have the eighth-best half-court defense, according to Synergy. That's pretty impressive for this young group, especially while featuring a non-committal defender like Zach LaVine and a stretch-4 like Lauri Markkanen. They're the league-leaders in turnover rate, forcing a turnover 15.8 percent of the time. Only two other teams are above 14 percent.
Chicago's pick-and-roll focus is suffocating. Opposing PNR ball handlers score with the league's lowest efficiency and have a staggering 31.9 percent turnover rate. That number is so high that it has the munchies. Even the roll man isn't scoring at a high clip; The Bulls are fifth-best at stopping the screener, per Synergy's metrics as of December 22nd.
So let's dive into such an ultra-blitzing style of play, for the good and the bad. Ultimately, Boylen and his baby Bulls have to decide if this is the right path for them. Balance would be advised, but there's something very intriguing about a team in the modern NBA playing such an attacking defense.
Activity, Passing Lanes and Transition Offense
The goal of any trapping, blitzing, bamboozling scheme is two-fold: First, get the ball out of the hands of the initial creator within the pick-and-roll. Few players are talented or gutsy enough to shoot or drive through two NBA defenders when the simple play is to share the rock.
Second, trapping can increase the likelihood of a turnover, leading to transition offense and easy scoring opportunities. A young, unpolished offensive group needs every boost they can get in this regard.
Credit Boylen and his staff for focusing on a few details for how they guard the ball and ball-hawking from one pass away. Whenever they hard hedge or trap ball screens, his players have their hands up and ready to have the ball thrown into their waiting grip.
Combine a deflection with an anticipatory group hoping to pounce on a loose ball, and the Bulls are running the other way frequently:
Quite the highlight. If the goal is to apply pressure and discomfort to ball handlers, Chicago is surely succeeding.
This intense pressure is bound to result in steals and transition opportunities. The Bulls are eighth-highest in transition frequency as a result. Active hands may seem like a simple concept, but it's a detail that has to be harped on in order to see it show up so routinely.
Wendell Carter Jr. is sensational at swiping for steals. The young center is a favorite of mine for his sensational defense and versatility. Carter is especially solid in this type of scheme due to his quick hands. He can go from bum rush to jousting in a split-second, and his length lets him poke free some steals:
Aside from Carter, this Bulls team has been missing one of their longest, lankiest pieces in Otto Porter Jr. His ability to cover passing lanes, cover ground on closeouts or bother wings that receive screens would surely help the cause in Chi-town.
Right now, the Bulls feature a ton of guys that try to shoot passing lanes and anticipate pass-outs that may lead to a "Pick-6", or an interception to a score.
The only problem? Boylen plays a bunch of dudes that are de facto point guards, particularly with his second unit. Coby White, Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaquille Harrison and Tomas Satoransky are all either short, heavy-footed or both. How those guys cover ground (or, don't) in help situations is imperative to protecting the lane and not giving up an open shot.
Fortunately, those guys understand their limitations for the most part. Arcidiacono and White aren't gambling for a million steals. When LaVine and Kris Dunn take those gambles, they have a bit of a longer leash due to their athleticism and recovery skills.
But they do miss often enough. And when they do, they give up uncontested jumpers when they shouldn't:
The Backline, Where the Rim Protection Isn't
So... about those undersized guards and the lineups Boylen trots out.
They struggle in this scheme.
On the ball, all that is required is activity and effort. The double-team is usually enough to bother the ball handler enough so that technique or length isn't paramount. That doesn't carry over to the backline, though.
In order for the three help defenders on that backline to factor into the play, teams must break down the action and get into the lane. Frequently, Carter or Daniel Gafford, the team's two shot-blockers, are involved in the trap as they guard the screener. Get past them and the only obstacle in the way of a layup are non-threatening guards or wings.
Thus far, the Bulls have proven susceptible to two types of breakdowns that expose their lack of length or rim protection within the rotation. Through the middle pick-and-roll, they can be broken down by either splitting the hedger and the screen or by dribbling around the hedge defender. Either way, a paint touch results with a head of steam.
Once the trap or pressure is broken, it's 4-on-3, and the other Bulls are required to buy time and prevent an uncontested basket. That's a tall task because few rotations are the exact same based on where shooters are located and which players are involved.
None of the rotations matter if the Bulls don't stop the ball, though.
Instead of paying attention to how the penetration occurs, focus on the ease with which opponents get to the rim below. Chicago's lack of size and influence on inside attempts is noticeable:
The help defense is late to arrive in a lot of these clips.
Size would help, but thus far the Bulls' intense pressure has masked a few rotational errors from their young players. Any time you gamble by going hard after the ball, you need help behind as a fail-safe. The flaw here may not be Boylen's: We'll see later exactly why defenders hesitate to plant themselves in the lane while a middle pick-and-roll occurs.
Either way, this is bad. If the Bulls don't force a turnover, they're giving up an attempt at the rim.
The second method is a tad more nuanced, and one that several teams have tried to deploy consistently through games: As the ball screen is about to occur, the Bull guarding the screener will jump to the point of the screen, attached to his hip and ready to spring out to corral the ball. But over-eager on-ball defenders can skip a step and not do their job to force the ball handler towards the screen.
The Miami Heat started a trend now replicated by many: refusing the screen. A quick crossover dribble will give them penetration and a 4-on-3 advantage. No matter where the help defense is, there's no way to stop this type of downhill driving:
There's no help for a straight-line drive down the gut of the defense. Help defenders are screwed either way. Commit to the ball and their man is left wide open. Only jab at the ball, and the lane remains open for a layup or dunk.
The risk-reward proposition for letting the ball handler score is quite clear. There's a ton to be gained by strangling the offense and forcing it out of his hands. If you're going to jump at a pass, you better not miss, and if you get beat on the initial screen, your help better be positionally sound or the result is clearly a layup.
Open Rollers and Poppers: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't
What about the guy who is setting the screen, though? Whenever a trap comes, the most obvious open teammate is the one whose defender leaves to trap. That would be the screener, and the Bulls have been statistically strong in this category as well.
But a dichotomy exists: Do you commit to guarding the screener and force a mismatch and scramble your rotations? Or do you give them space, hope to recover and preserve natural matchups?
For the Bulls, it's somewhat a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't."
These days, every team has at least one guy who is considered a stretch big that shoots it from 3-point range. Those players present a real challenge against high-hedges and traps since it is impossible to guard them without committing to the pop. Help defenses can slink to protect the rim and naturally accept a roll from the screener. But when he pops and is a legitimate threat, the defense must seek him out and rush to him. That movement creates a scrambled backside, an area where young teams usually and predictably struggle.
Chicago isn't even getting to the rotation aspect from the pick-and-pop. Right now, teams are getting pretty free looks off the screen, particularly when the pop to an empty corner:
Against most teams, the Bulls will live with those shots. They are quick, don't put any pressure on the rim and leave Chicago in prime defensive rebounding position. And if they trap a ball screen and force a kick-out to a big man whose momentum is not always square to the rim? It's not the worst thing in the world.
If you recall earlier, I mentioned that the Bulls are statistically strong against the roll. The amount of pressure they apply can hurry finishes from bigs on the move. But when Chicago gets scored on by a roll to the rim, it's a pretty putrid display of effort from the help defense, particularly from the middle. Layups and dunks abound on some pretty embarrassing lowlights:
Things are, uh, not much better from side pick-and-rolls:
This has been such an obvious area of weakness for the Bulls that other teams target them in this area. The Milwaukee Bucks have sliced and diced them through a simple Horns pick-and-roll, elevating two bigs above the break and filling the corners with shooters. As the ball screen occurs and the Bulls, who rarely adjust their coverage, come out salivating, a quick hit over the top leads to a lightly contested layup.
A seven-footer for the Bucks gets a finish over an undersized Bulls help defender.
Late in the game, Chicago eventually adjusted and dialed back their pressure from a 10 to a 9, albeit to predictably no avail. Milwaukee was ready and slid Giannis Antetokounmpo into the screener spot where he could make the unstoppable play so long as he got the ball:
Teams that play the Bulls are increasingly using their ball handlers and initiators as decoys. Their only job is to bait the big man into committing, then they loft a softball over the top of the defense and play 4-on-3.
Chicago falls for it every dang time since Boylen is so stubborn and refuses to change his coverages based on personnel, opponent scheme or his frantic and inconsistent substitution patterns.
Make a Big Beat You
The idea behind not over-committing to the roller is simple: Most bigs are typically not elite playmakers. Sure, they can finish, but if the help defense behind is solid, said big becomes a passer and is forced out of his comfort zone. Unfortunately (for this assumption), a higher percentage of starting centers are able to succeed here in the modern NBA. Only one big is included in most lineups, as opposed to two from a decade ago.
The second big is now replaced by an additional shooter or athlete. Reads are simpler for bigs who roll, especially when their teammates are standing along the 3-point line.
Some bigs (i.e. Bam Adebayo or Marc Gasol) are such smart, controlled players and high-IQ passers that asking them to be the one to beat you is, routinely, a losing proposition. Perhaps that's why the Bulls are 0-4 against both the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors, losing by an average margin of 9.5 points in those four games:
Some guys just make the right play. If one trend is clear, it's that spreading the floor and surrounding a pick-and-roll with shooters is working against Chicago. Again, this is all contingent on breaking the initial pressure, even if it is forcing a turnover at an incredibly high rate.
For as many times as the short roller makes a good decision, he'll make a poor one.
There's a caveat, though: They only make "mistakes" when there is a help defender that rotates in time to take away the layup at the rim. Serving as a roadblock, that defender is pivotal to preventing the roller from making anything happen. Opponents have a layup without the commitment and often bully over late-arriving help defenders otherwise. But a timely, strong arrival can thwart the pass to the roller, which serves as de facto middle penetration.
Notice how the key to every one of these turnovers is the arrival of the weak-side defender, also known as the tagger, to disrupt the play:
Perhaps the key to the Bulls defense isn't the amount of pressure they put on the ball but the activity and reliability of their rotations. Boylen is forcing this young team to become reliable and is not bailing them out by changing the scheme to protect them. One way or another, this team will master help rotations and not let a single opponent beat them at the rim.
Rotations, Extra Passes and the Markkanen Closeout Problem
It's 2019, and if you play in the NBA, you're dealing with a spread pick-and-roll on a nightly basis. Everybody runs it in some form or defaults to the action late clock. An open lane around a ball screen forces longer closeouts for the help defense when they go from helping (or in Chicago's case, collapsing) to recovering.
Remember earlier when we mentioned the hesitance from help defenders to arrive so early? Anticipatory help plants them in the middle of the paint before the screen is even used. They dig themselves a hole and force long closeouts by jumping too soon, and there are too many smart and well-polished point guards in this league that pick them apart.
Surround said point guards with shooters and they exploit the slightest amount of poor positioning:
How would you react as a help defender, particularly against a strong point guard? Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Trae Young have all picked Chicago apart this season. Spacing around the perimeter opens up extra pass opportunities, and the Bulls are simply too reactionary at that point to settle the ball.
It's clear Boylen's Bulls want to run shooters off the line in the corners. Every closeout to a catch-and-shoot guy in the corner from more than one pass away sees a Chicago player leave his feet, waving frantically and jumping as high as possible to deter a corner 3. It's an effective strategy to prevent teams from taking the highest yield jump shot in basketball, but it also places a lot of onus on the back-side to protect the rim.
Then there's the Lauri Markkanen problem. Positionally, he is solid: He helps when he should, he doesn't gamble unnecessarily and he's pretty reliable on the back line despite his lack of shot-blocking prowess. But Lauri routinely gets put on skates. It's been a problem since he was at Arizona and predictably has become exacerbated in a hyperathletic league.
Opponents can hunt Markkanen in these scrambled situations from the spread pick-and-roll. If he's not guarding the screener, he's a help defender whose job is to collapse and help protect the lane. That means if the ball goes to a man he's responsible for, he's forced to close out.
There's little help for a guy who struggles to settle the ball one-on-one:
No, the scheme doesn't work to protect Markkanen, but it does work. That's evidenced by the numerous numerical measures that denote a stranglehold on pick-and-rolls. The Bulls don't get beat more frequently than other teams against screens, they just get beat in a more embarrassing fashion.
For all the credit Boylen deserves for vaulting an undermanned group into the top-ten of defensive efficiency, he also should be held accountable for the glaring weaknesses in the scheme he designed.
One of his top offensive players (Markkanen) is only playing 30.5 minutes a night and is the biggest weakness in an otherwise thriving defense. And yes, that does include the effort and technique issues from LaVine. You can coach those areas, but you can't get a guy to magically learn to keep better athletes in front.
There are a million buttons to press, and it's on the coach to know which to press and when. A game of chess has tactics, decisions and a read-and-react necessary to combat an opponent. And in basketball, the pieces are always changing.
There are many folks—fans, reporters, critics—who undervalue the degree of difficulty that coaching a high level of basketball requires. Boylen isn't a perfect specimen, but there aren't hundreds of people who can do better roaming the streets either.
The fact remains, Boylen is doing his master's bidding by whipping a young team into shape, giving them an identity and making them a rugged defensive group. We aren't so far removed from the Fred Hoiberg era where such a concept was a novelty. Sure, Boylen could loosen up a little on the hard-line stance and show some fluidity and compromise in his own approach.
But to call him and his mission a disaster would be a tad overblown.
High risk, high reward. The Bulls are playing a dangerous game, and they're likely losing more gambles than they win. A little moderation and nuance could go a long way in the Windy City, but that's kind of been the problem for a while.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).