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Defense falls apart in Bulls' search for a new identity

Chicago's season is crumbling after a coaching change and plans for more offense have left its trademark style toothless

POSTED: Mar 29, 2016 2:05 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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The Bulls' defense has been one of the NBA's worst since Jan. 1.

— A previous report on the demise of the Chicago Bulls' defense, written last week in the stylized form of an actual obituary, got spiked when editors deemed it to be unfair to the dead.

What had been Chicago's identity for most of the five seasons from 2010-11 through 2014-15 it's defense, is no more. It's gone. Like Monty Python's notorious parrot, it's not restin', it's not stunned. It is bereft of life, has joined the choir invisible and has kicked the bucket. It is an ex-defense, by the standards to which NBA fans, the city's black-blue-and-brawny sports enthusiasts and the Bulls themselves have become accustomed.

This was the bargain that the team's management made when they dumped coach Tom Thibodeau for Fred Hoiberg prior to this season. Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman, who disapproved of Thibodeau's circle-the-wagons interpersonal approach that left them too often on the outside, had a secondary reason to shed Thibodeau's grinding, demanding, defense-first style: they wanted in on the 3-ball, pace-and-space tactics embraced league-wide

So they swallowed hard on the $9 million or so left in the final two years of Thibodeau's contract and committed $25 million over five years to Hoiberg, a Forman friend from their days at Iowa State who arrived with a mandate to put up gaudy numbers at United Center.

At some point, we stopped giving the importance that the defense deserves. We started relying too much on our offense and let our offensive performance affect our defensive effort.

– Chicago Bulls All-Star forward Pau Gasol

Someone neglected to specify which side, though. The bargain has brought the wrong sort of payoff for Chicago, the sacrifice leading only to more sacrifices, both in games won and lost. And, from the looks of it with two weeks to go, in playoff streaks scrapped.

If the Bulls miss the postseason -- and that seems to be their fate, sitting tied for ninth (36-37) in the East with Washington, 2½ games behind No. 8 Detroit with nine games to play -- it will be for the first time in eight seasons and only the second time since 2003-04. Last season's 50-32 finish? They will come no closer to that than they will in achieving the stylistic overall they eyeballed with the regime change last summer.

It's bad enough that Chicago has endured a slide from a defensive rating of 101.5 last season (11th in the NBA) to 103.5 (13th) so far this season. It's worse because the offense has slid right along with it, from 104.7 (10th) to 101.4 (t-26thth). That's a net rating switcheroo of minus-5.3, a fall from grace without much pace or space, and has the Bulls headed toward their first sub-.500 finish since Derrick Rose was playing for John Calipari in Memphis.

But wait, there's more: Since Jan. 1, the Bulls' defensive rating has been 107.0, 22nd in the NBA. The slippage, in fact, has been inexorable, from 98.0 in November and 100.1 in December when muscle memory might have been carrying them, to 104.7 in January and 107.8 in February. This month, with two games and very little breathing room left, the Bulls have a 108.8 defensive rating.

"Believe it or not, we work a lot more on defense than on offense," Hoiberg said last week. "There's no question about that. Early in the season, we were a very good defensive team. All the way up until about Jan. 1 and then our numbers completely flipped."

The pivot point in Chicago's schedule looks to have come in the 48 hours between a 101-92 home victory over Boston on Jan. 7 and 120-105 drubbing in Atlanta on Jan. 9. Through the former, the Bulls were 22-12 while giving up an average of 99.7 points on 41.6 percent shooting. Since then, they're 14-25, yielding 106.2 points and 46.2 percent.

It's probably hard to overstate the cost the Bulls have paid in losing center Joakim Noah to first a shoulder sprain, then in mid-January to surgery to repair a dislocation. The 2014 Kia Defensive Player of the Year had struggled as his role got redefined for the second consecutive fall, from having to play out of position alongside Pau Gasol last season to being moved to the bench this time around.

The change this season threw Noah's impact out of whack; for the first time, his Net Rating went underwater (97/101 in 29 games). Previously, through eight seasons, he had been in the black (113/100). And just as the exuberant defender was starting to adapt at both ends to Hoiberg's reserve unit -- his ratings for December (111/96) were precisely what they'd been in his breakout 2013-14 -- Noah got hurt. That took both his defense and his emotional leadership out of the Bulls' equation.

Not that Noah's loss explains everything. Jimmy Butler, one of the league's top two-way players and Chicago's chief wing defender, missed 14 games in February and March with a left knee strain. Others up and down the roster have contributed to the more than 180 games lost to injury.

Still, the underlying cause of Chicago's defensive decline -- and how little it has left to draw on in desperate times -- is the willful determination not to be that type of team anymore.

"At some point, we stopped giving the importance that the defense deserves," Gasol said. "We started relying too much on our offense and let our offensive performance affect our defensive effort. It's not unreasonable to expect the same type of effort. It's effort and communication."

Hawks vs. Bulls

Jeff Teague scores 26 points as the surging Hawks fight off a furious Bulls' rally for a 102-100 victory.

Hoiberg, back when the current 0-4 skid had just started, said: "The thing that gets us going is when we make shots. But it's got to be the other way -- if you're not making your shots, you've got to find a way to stay in the game with your defense."

Consider the Atlanta Hawks, who completed their 4-0 sweep of the season series with Chicago Monday night. This hasn't been the lightning-in-a-bottle, All-Star-cramming performance of last season's Atlanta team. Points have been harder to come by (a 103.4 offensive rating compared to last season's 106.2). So out of necessity, the Hawks have grown stingier at the other end. Since Jan. 1, their 97.1 defensive rating is the NBA's best.

"Last year our offense was so good," Kyle Korver said. "It's easy to get caught up in an offensive game when you're scoring points. This year, as our offense hasn't been as good, we've had to be better on the defensive end."

It helps, certainly, that Atlanta has mobile bigs in Al Horford and Paul Millsap, some athletically gifted wings in Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore to throw at opponents, Korver as an underrated ball hawk and Dennis Schroder as a feisty point man. Then there's coach Mike Budenholzer, three years into his culture changing project.

Korver spent two seasons with Chicago (2010-12), the first two of the Thibodeau "era." He has seen the Bulls' identity vanish this season and considers them for now to be a team caught in the switches.

"I don't really want to analyze their team," Korver said. "I'm not in their locker room. But I think it's hard -- they've had a total philosophy change in a lot of ways. I know, my two years here in Chicago, your habits -- it was preached so strongly that your habits had to be a certain way. There's been a lot of changes.

"I think they're kind of caught in a transition period. It can't just happen. Sometimes it takes more than a year for it to happen. I've never been around a team where the habits were so ingrained as they were in Chicago, so I think it's probably some of that."

Thirty-point quarters are routine now against Chicago's defense, once or twice a game. On Monday, the Hawks had missed 21 of their first 31 shots before they remembered whom they were facing, then missed only 28 of the remaining 54 while wiping out the Bulls' 13-point lead.

Fans still bellow "Dee-FENSE! Dee-FENSE!" from the United Center stands. But given how much the texture and tenacity of their favorite team has changed, it often seems to fall on deaf ears. Might as well be dead ears, for this Bulls defense is essentially resting in pieces.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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