Can the Bulls match the Pacers defensively?

Can the Bulls match the Pacers defensively?
September 10, 2013, 2:45 am
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Mark Strotman

From 2010 to 2012, no team in the NBA was better defensively than the Chicago Bulls.

With defensive-minded head coach Tom Thibodeau running the show, the Bulls led the league in adjusted field goal percentage-against in his first season at the helm, leading the Bulls to a league-best 62 wins. Behind the double-headed monster inside of Joakim Noah and Omer Asik, Derrick Rose's MVP season and perimeter help from Ronnie Brewer, Luol Deng and Keith Bogans the Bulls allowed 91.3 points per game (second in the NBA, Boston), 1.15 points per possession (2nd, Lakers) and 43 percent adjusted shooting, a statistic which takes into account 3-point field goal defense and free throws allowed.

In Year 2, the Bulls were even better. In the lockout-shortened season, Chicago allowed 88.2 points per game, 1.07 points per possession and 45 percent adjusted shooting, all three of which led the league. Carlos Boozer was better, Joakim Noah finished with a then-career-best 4.2 defensive win shares, per basketball-reference.com, and Jimmy Butler showed improvement on the defensive end in the second half of the season.

But last season there was a changing of the guard atop the defensive rankings. With Rose missing the entire year, the Bulls replacing C.J. Watson and John Lucas III with Nate Robinson and Kirk Hinrich, and Marco Belinelli replacing Brewer, the Bulls had their worst numbers since Thibodeau arrived. Granted, the Bulls still ranked in the top-10 in most major defensive categories, but the major difference in those rankings was the division foe that jumped above them.

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When Frank Vogel was named interim head coach at the end of January in 2011, he took over one of the more talented rosters in the Eastern Conference. Like Thibodeau, Vogel instilled a defensive-minded mentality to his group, and the results showed. By the end of 2010-11, the Pacers were seventh in adjusted field goal percentage defense and 11th in points per possession-against.

One year later, Vogel's Pacers went 42-24, their best win percentage (.636) since 2003-04 when Reggie Miller led Indiana to 61 wins and the Eastern Conference Finals. Their defense was solid once again, ranking seventh in adjusted field goal percentage defense (47.6 percent), tied for 10th in points per possession against (1.17) and points per game (94.4).

And last season, the emergence of two players and a solid cast of role players off the bench pushed the Pacers' defense to elite status. In winning its first Central Division title for the first time since 2004, Indiana led the league in adjusted field goal percentage defense by more than a full percentage point (45.3 percent; Oklahoma City second at 46.9 percent). The Pacers were first in points per possession-against (1.10) and allowed 90.7 points per game, behind only the Grizzlies (89.3).

Here are each team's three-year trends (NBA rank):

Team (2010-11) adj. FG% PPP PPG
Chicago 46.3 (1) 1.15 (2) 91.3 (2)
Indiana 48.7 (7) 1.21 (T-11) 100.9 (17)
Team (2011-12) adj. FG% PPP PPG
Chicago 45.0 (1) 1.07 (1) 88.2 (1)
Indiana 47.6 (T-6) 1.17 (T-10) 94.4 (10)
Team (2012-13) adj. FG% PPP PPG
Chicago 47.7 (4) 1.16 (6) 92.9 (3)
Indiana 45.3 (1) 1.10 (1) 90.7 (2)

The leading factor in the Pacers' defensive prowess was their ability to protect the rim. Roy Hibbert was fourth in the NBA with 2.6 blocks per game, Paul George, the league's eventual Most Improved Player, averaged 6.5 defensive rebounds per game (18th in the NBA) and David West reverted back to his New Orleans numbers, averaging 7.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks.

Digging further, Pacers opponents shot 52.4 percent at the rim, per NBA.com. That number led the league by more than two whole percentage points (Denver, 54.6 percent). In fact, Indiana's field goal percentage-against at the rim was the lowest mark of any team since the 2004-05 Spurs (51.9 percent), led by a 28-year-old Tim Duncan who helped San Antonio to an NBA Championship.

Subsquently, Hibbert, who finished seventh in Defensive Player of the Year voting, led the league in individual defense at the rim. Opponents who went at the 7-foot-2 All-Star shot just 49.6 percent on 1,237 attempts. To put that number in perspective, opponents shot 55.6 percent at the rim against Joakim Noah, and 52.5 percent on Serge Ibaka, the league leader in blocks per game. (Sidenote: This number makes it all the more perplexing that Vogel took Hibbert out of the game at the end of Game 1 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat, when LeBron James' went right to the basket for a game-winning layup.) 

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George was just as good. His 6.3 defensive win shares led the NBA, and West's 4.7 defensive win shares were a career-best. The Pacers used their stellar individual defensive performances to form the league's best defense, which translated into taking the eventual champion Heat to seven games in the Eastern Finals.

Now the question becomes whether the Bulls can reclaim their title as the league's best defense. Staying in the top-10 range like they did last year would be nothing to scoff at, and with a healthy Rose returning to the lineup to carry the offense those defensive numbers may be enough to make a championship run. But as good as the Bulls are defensively, as of today they're no longer the reigning kings in the Eastern Conference.

Mike Dunleavy's and rookie Tony Snell's arrival, coupled with Jimmy Butler's continued improvement, Rose's return and Noah's dominance gives them a chance, and a source marveled to Bulls Insider Aggrey Sam at the team's defense, noting that "if they get that second unit playing like they did a few years ago, they're going to be a force to reckon with."

Can they match Indiana's prowess?

Like many Rose-related questions this offseason, only time will tell.