Bulls' defense, offensive balance will carry team without Rose


Bulls' defense, offensive balance will carry team without Rose

Yes, the NBA's regular season just started. No, nothing will change with the Bulls' stellar defense.

Well, maybe a few things have changed. Gone are the likes of strong individual defenders such as Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer; the likes of Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson demonstrated considerable improvement during their time in Chicago, too. But even with all of the new faces, it would be out of character for Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to allow much, if any slippage.

Sure, every team is still getting out the kinks as training camp nears its end, but through the preseason, the Bulls ranked second in opponents' points per game (to the Timberwolves, who were no doubt aided by the Bulls' 75-point stinker in a defeat at Minnesota) and near the top of the league rankings in both opposing field-goal percentage and three-point percentage. There have certainly been occasions on which the Bulls haven't lived up to their lofty standards, but the team's success has been characterized by stretches

"Defensively, you never have it all figured out, so I think there have been times where we have been pretty good. We had a problem with the turnovers early on and often times, it was live-ball turnovers, so we were giving them easy baskets before we could get our defense set. When our defense is set, we're going to be hard to score upon, but if it's a live ball and we don't have floor balance, then we're just giving up easy baskets, we're beating ourselves and those are the things that you want to take care of. I think the important thing is to eliminate all the ways in which you beat yourself first. When you do that, now you're going to put yourself in a position to win. For us, we know if we defend and we rebound, and we keep our turnovers down, regardless of how we shoot the ball, we're going to be in a position to win and then if we shoot the ball relatively well, we're going to have a good chance to win. That's what we've done for three years now, so we don't want to change that," Thibodeau explained. "The challenge for us is to be a complete team. We want to be good on both sides of the ball. You want to be committed to being a five-man team on both offense and defense, so it's not going to be any one individual player. It's going to be how you can get five guys to function together and that's on both ends, and I think if we do that, we have a chance to be a good team."

Backup center Nazr Mohammed is a newcomer, but the veteran is already espousing Thibodeau's perfectionist philosophy.

"It's early and I think we're going to get better. I think we've had sections of the game where we've played unbelievable defense, where we've locked teams down, but at the same time, we've had some parts of the game where we just weren't where our standard is and what we expect out of each other," he said. "I think we're definitely one of the better defensive teams in this league, but not as good as we're going to be in a couple of weeks, months, as the season goes on."

For all of Derrick's Rose talents, his temporary replacement, Kirk Hinrich, is actually regarded as a better defensive player and with the energetic Nate Robinson backing him up, the Bulls' second unit has enjoyed better full-court ball pressure, if not superior overall bench play at this point, than its predecessors. The aforementioned Asik as an anchor next to holdover Taj Gibson is a loss, but Mohammed's veteran experience and physical nature help on the interior, while second-year swingman Jimmy Butler doesn't yet have Brewer's knowledge of opponents' tendencies around the league, but is seen as a worthy defensive heir apparent.

While Thibodeau mostly speaks in general terms when evaluating the team's defensive play to the media, the fact that he was less disapproving as the preseason went on speaks volumes to his level of satisfaction, though he harped on consistency. Still, while he expects his team's defense to improve, there isn't much to nit-pick about regarding the effort and given the preparation he requires of the players, there's no reason to think the results will differ from his first two seasons at the helm.

"You're trying to build all the habits that are necessary to be successful, so your preparation is important. How you study and how you get yourself ready to play, all those things count, so we don't want to change our approach, whether it's preseason, regular season, postseason. We want to be doing the same things and building the right habits," he said. "There's certain things we've done well, some things we've done average and some things below average, so you're always striving to get better in all areas and that's the approach that I want us to take. I think how you set the tone, your attitude and your approach to start a season is critical, and you want to maintain that throughout. I think a quality team improves throughout the course of a season, but I think it's the approach and attitude that those teams bring and we want to be one of those teams. We want to get better each and every day."

On the other end of the floor, the Bulls might not be as exciting without Rose on the court, but they will be balanced and surprisingly, Thibodeau's off-stated commitment to getting out in transition, even without arguably the league's most explosive player on the court, looks like it will be honored on a more consistent basis.

By the end of the exhibition slate, all five starters and the majority of the squad's regular reserves--with shooting guard Marco Belinelli being a notable exception, though he took a positive step in the preseason-finale win over Indiana at Notre Dame--either showcased new wrinkles to their individual games or displayed signs of a higher comfort level with the system. From the somewhat obvious, such as Joakim Noah's improved post-up game, Mohammed showing he still has something left in the tank, Robinson exhibiting more traditional playmaker sensibilities and Gibson playing with more confidence as a scorer, to subtleties like Luol Deng playing with his back to the basket more, Carlos Boozer sprinting the floor on fast breaks, Hinrich pushing the tempo and Rip Hamilton having flashbacks to his Detroit days, it's clear that the Bulls have several solid, if not overwhelming options on offense, perfect for a group that needs to use a committee approach to be effective scoring the ball.

"Obviously we have a lot to work on; we will, of course. But I thought we had a good preseason. Guys got better, our bench got much better every night. That was an awesome thing for us to see. Hopefully, some of them got some more confidence. But were moving on to Sacramento, so well get ready for them," Boozer said after beating the Pacers, a contest in which all five starters scored in double figures, even with Hinrich missing the game with a groin injury. "I thought we got better every week. I thought every game, every week we improved. Were still improving. Thats not going to stop. Thats going to be our goal the whole season, to keep getting better. But I thought we got better.

"We all know us being without D-Rose, were probably going to be the underdog in every game we play in. Thats alright. Were ready for that challenge. Well take it on. You guys write what you write. Well be ready to play every game," continued the power forward, who jokingly added, "You never know! You cut the grass, you might see some snakes!" in a playful jab at pundits who picked Indiana to win the Central Division, something that the Bulls quietly want to prevent. "With us, weve got so many talented players, you never know who its going to be. Weve got guys that can put it in the whole, that are aggressive, that can score, but you never know who its going to be. One day it could be Lu, me, Rip, Nate, Taj, Jo, Marco, Jimmy, Kirk when he comes back. Weve got so many guys that can score, it makes it fun. Were not D-Rose, but we work with each other really well. I think we set screens really well and we pass very well, we cut very well. We help each other get open. I think thats the mark of a good team, when you try to help your teammate."

Robinson concurred about the Bulls' offensive balance: "Thats how we want it, but every nights going to be different. Some nights, guys are going to be on. Some nights, guys are going to be off. But as long as we bring energy and we play defense, I think were going to be okay.

"Rip and those guys are great free-throw shooters, Luol. We just try to get guys the ball that can first of all, score, and on top of that, make free throws. Every guy on our team can do that," he continued when asked about the team's supposed lack of a closer to end games without Rose, for whom a plan about whether to travel with the team or even sit on the bench during games is still not definite. "Its the real deal now. we went through the preseason, played the teams that we played. In training camp, kicked each others butt. Now the real deal is here and were ready."

As a whole, Thibodeau, who's never completely satisfied, has approved of the Bulls' level of focus during training camp. While his focus has been on the players executing precisely, one gets the feeling that the coach relishes the challenge of perceived low expectations, being an underdog without Rose and coaching up a group of experienced players to succeed collectively on a nightly basis.

"The general approach and the attitude has been good. I think weve improved, but by no means are we anywhere near where we need to be, so we have a lot of work to do. We have to come in every day, do the right things. If we do that, well improve," the coach explained. "The turnovers have gone down, so I like the way thats moving. The rebounding has been outstanding from the start of camp. The defense, overall, its been pretty good and then offensively, I think as the ball moves and the players moves, if we can sustain our spacing, we have very unselfish bigs. So, when the ball hits the paint, we play inside-out, we should be able to get good shots, and we want to play to our strengths and cover up our weaknesses. If we do that, well be in position to win.

"The spacing. The ball movement, the player movement, its leading to second shots, its leading to scramble plays. I think we have some guys that are cutting real hard and as I mentioned, our bigs are very unselfish. If we search them out, the ball goes inside and we move, if you cut and youre open, theyre going to hit you and thats what we have to continue to do...I like balance. I like balance and balance in terms of our scoring. I like it in terms of how we play. I think we have to be strong on both sides of the ball. I thought we had great effort from our bench tonight, too, so thats coming along," he added. "We have to try to run because to me, I want to have a flow to the offense, so if we can defend well and rebound well, we can get out into the open floor and we want to try to get as many three-on-twos, two-on-ones, three-on-ones as you can, but its hard to sustain that throughout a game. But when the third defender comes back into the play, I want to be able to flow into our secondary action without having to reset the offense and I think we have improved in that area, but we still can do a lot better.

"I just want improvement. I think if were playing inside-out and were taking the right shots, whether its off the dribble or through the post-up and guys are taking their shots. Each guy is different, each guy has different strengths and weaknesses, so we want to play to those strengths, cover up your weaknesses. Some guys can shoot the three better than others, some guys are better drivers, some guys are better post-up players. So, if everyone is playing to their strengths, well be a good team."

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Here are some of Monday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Preview: Cubs look to bounce back vs. Giants tonight on CSN

White Sox fall to Diamondbacks in series opener

Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen

Should Blackhawks' next assistant coach be Joel Quenneville's choice?

How Bears are using veteran videos to school rookies on NFL way

Luis Robert the latest high-end acquisition for White Sox

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Carlos Rodon 'getting closer' but still without time frame for return

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

MMQB's Peter King's thoughts on Trubisky, Howard, White and the Bears offense

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”