Show and tell: Can the Bulls win by playing an aggressive brand of pick-and-roll defense?

By Stephen Noh Oct 30, 2019

Pick-and-rolls are one of the most common actions in the NBA, and defending them well is essential to winning. There are a handful of different baseline strategies to combat the pick-and-roll (former NBA assistant coach Doug Eberhardt has published the best public guide), and most teams will employ a variety of different coverages depending on the players involved or game situation.

Like most teams, the Bulls don’t rely exclusively on one type of defense. But they are somewhat rare in that their default under coach Jim Boylen has been to mostly play the pick-and-roll in a very aggressive manner.

While many coaches will drop their big man deep down into the paint or switch defenders, Boylen likes to blitz or show on pick-and-rolls, bringing two defenders up to the ballhandler.

The strategy of sending two defenders to the ball offers several advantages. It forces the ball out of dangerous guards and forces less skilled players to make decisions, leading theoretically to more turnovers. It also prevents guards from getting to the rim. But it comes at a heavy risk. Sending two to one player will obviously leave openings on the rest of the floor which teammates will have to rotate to cover, and there is a lot of pressure to get those rotations right.

Because of the rotations involved and heavy reliance on good help defense, credit or blame for miscues on these plays is very often completely wrong from fans and commentators alike. Bad or nonexistent help is often the culprit, rather than the guy who happens to end up closest to the shot.

For now, let’s try to understand what exactly it means to blitz the pick-and-roll to get a sense for the strengths and weaknesses of this strategy and where breakdowns actually occur.

The first step to the Bulls’ pick-and-roll defense is to bring two defenders to the ballhandler, forcing the ball out of his hands.

When they do this, the Bulls have been the best in the league at preventing pick and roll ballhandlers from scoring. But that leaves three Bulls defenders to cover the four remaining offensive players.

Two rotations must occur next. The first, and most important, is that one player must rotate to cover the middle of the floor  to prevent a wide-open layup from the roll man.

The player guarding the opposite corner is usually the one responsible for “pulling over,” or sliding to the middle of the court until the players guarding the ball can recover to their original positions. In the scenario below, the Bulls have already sent two to the ballhandler and Shaquille Harrison (labeled with a red 2) has begun to slide over from his man in the corner to prevent the roll man from having an open path to the rim.

Now comes the second rotation. With Harrison down in the paint, the Raptors now have two players on the 3-point line (labeled with a blue 2 and blue 3). Kris Dunn (red 1) is responsible for splitting the difference between them and moving to cover whichever one of them gets the first pass out.

Here’s that full play in real time, with the following steps.

  1. The Bulls bring two to the ballhandler
  2. Harrison rotates from the opposite corner to cover the middle of the floor
  3. Dunn splits the difference between the two remaining players at the 3-point line, taking the first pass thrown

Here’s another example of the Bulls successfully pulling off all three steps at a critical juncture of their close win against the Memphis Grizzlies, as first pointed out by Will Gottlieb.

The rotations and recovery get more complicated after that, but those are the initial steps of a blitzing defense. (Read Dylan Murphy’s fantastic guides to the concepts of sink, fill and x-ing out if you’re interested in learning more.)

Through four games, the Bulls’ defense is kind of doing what it’s supposed to do. They want to get the ball out of the hands of point guards and force other players to beat them, and they’ve been the best team in the league at preventing ballhandlers from finishing off pick-and-rolls. They also want to force turnovers, and they’ve been fourth in the league in that statistic.

When everyone has nailed their responsibilities, the defense has looked great. But blitzing puts a ton of pressure on every player on the floor to get their assignments right, close out quickly and make difficult rotations. Get mixed up, fail to communicate or take too long in recognizing where you’re supposed to go, and defenses will get roasted on open spot-up 3s and layups.

That latter scenario has happened a lot for the Bulls. Opponents have happily dumped off to the roll man, put the Bulls’ defense in rotation, and tested the backside defense mercilessly. Watching the team’s pick-and-roll defense from their last two games reveals both stout possessions with crisp rotations and total breakdowns that have led to wide open 3s and dunks.

Another measure of how well the defense has performed is the type of shots that they have forced opponents into. The goal of pretty much every NBA defense at this point is to force opponents into a contested mid-range shot. The Bulls have been one of the worst in the league by that measure both during the preseason and regular season, as pointed out by Cleaning the Glass’ Ben Falk.

Blitzing defenses have many potential weak points, and where the Bulls’ defense has struggled a lot is in protecting that weak side. They still have many young players that haven’t yet mastered those difficult assignments.

Every single player will make the occasional mistake in this scheme, but Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen both have poor help awareness and teams have taken advantage of them the most. The Bulls are already short one defender on the back side, and at that point one mistake from either of them is enough to make the entire defense crumble. They have shared a lot of minutes together, and covering for both of them has been a tough ask.

LaVine’s defensive issues have already been broken down in great depth, but the dirty little secret is that Markkanen has also been very weak as a help defender. He is often slow to recognize that he is the low man, leaving the middle wide-open for layups.

Markkanen is also prone to ball-watching. He and LaVine have both been frequent targets for back cuts, wasting perfect rotations from the rest of their teammates.

The Bulls’ pick-and-roll defense has performed well at times, but overall it has been a point of weakness. Per Cleaning the Glass, their halfcourt defense has ranked 22nd, and that’s not accounting for a very soft first four games. While they often guard the initial pick-and-roll action well, the subsequent rotations have led them to give up a lot of easy shots. A bigger issue has been how out of position they have been in their rebounding. Through the first four games of the season, they’ve been a bottom three team at preventing offensive rebounds.

The Bulls are far from the only team in the league that blitzes or shows, and it’s not inherently a bad strategy. The Denver Nuggets have utilized it effectively, as did the Miami Heat during much of their championship window and the Oklahoma City Thunder when they were one of the top defenses in the league. It also caused a torrent of criticism towards Jason Kidd, and the Milwaukee Bucks improved to the best defense in the league after they replaced Kidd’s defense with Mike Budenholzer’s last season.

The Bulls are somewhat unique though in how heavily they rely on that strategy this season, and in that respect they are pursuing their own individual path rather than copying what everyone else is doing. It will be interesting to see if they can succeed with such an aggressive plan and so little margin for error.

Theoretically, they have decent personnel for what they’re doing given the length and athleticism up and down their roster. But with the third-youngest team in the league and a bunch of new players who haven’t played much together, it’s no surprise that this demanding defense hasn’t clicked perfectly so far. The expectation should be that the growing pains will continue for a while.

(Top photo: Sam Sharpe / USA Today)

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