Who are these Bulls? Sam Smith on the team's basketball identity going forward.

As Sam Smith reflects on the identities of past Chicago Bulls teams, it raises the question of what identity this current Bulls roster will take going into next season.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

Many decisions face the Bulls new front office as the Bulls continue through the off-season. Sam Smith breaks down the identity of Chicago teams past and present.

So what's Arturas going to do?

Is the model or plan for the Bulls to be Denver? Or more like Chicago history? And can you even anymore in the NBA replicate the identity that has historically been the business card of the most successful Bulls teams? And Chicago?

It's a long time until the Bulls play again, perhaps even into next year depending on all sorts of factors related to the Covid-19 virus. There are numerous personnel decisions to make starting later this month when the NBA conducts its draft lottery August 20.

There'll be the draft, trade possibilities and player options to consider. Though perhaps the biggest question facing Karnisovas and his new management team is who are these Bulls?

The NBA's restart minus eight teams, including the Bulls, has been an offensive show with exponentially high scoring, extravagant use of three-point shooting and careful social distancing around the basket. It's in many respects the evolution of the NBA to an offensive oriented game, one that has been familiar in Denver with its history of high scoring, fast breaking teams.

Chicago, however, has been about defense. Monsters of the Midway and all that. It's been even more so for the Bulls, whose best eras in franchise history all have been constructed around defense.

That was the model for the first great Bulls team, the 1970-75 group led by Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier that was the toughest and most physical team in the NBA. It was a team that ultimately couldn't get past the era's—and probably NBA history's—greatest centers, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

But those Bulls were perennial title contenders because of the league's best defense.

Bob Love of the Chicago Bulls

In those five primary years between 1970 and 1975, the Bulls were top three every season in fewest points allowed and twice No. 1. That can be a misleading statistic by playing slowly. But those Bulls teams also were in the top five every season in point differential, indicating that its defense was responsible for its excellence. Sloan, Van Lier and Bob Love were all league defenders and three of those five seasons the Bulls had three of the 10 all-league defenders.

Then, of course, there was the 1990's championship run with Defensive Player of the Year Michael Jordan, eight-time first team all-defensive stopper Scottie Pippen and all-league defenders Horace Grant and later Dennis Rodman. Though that era was defined, in large part, by Jordan's scoring, it was that team's defense that most separated them from the rest of the league. Four times in the six championship seasons, the Bulls were first in point differential and five of the six seasons those Bulls were top five in fewest points allowed (sixth the other time).

It's an identity that resonated with Chicagoans.

Rose drives for the Chicago Bulls

Then there was the third era when a Bulls team at least played in the conference finals.

That was the time a decade ago associated with the exciting play of Derrick Rose, who became the league's youngest ever Most Valuable Player. But it also was a team with Joakim Noah as Defensive Player of the Year and three all-defensive team members in Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler. And a top defender off the bench in Taj Gibson. Those teams before Rose's serious knee injury in the 2012 playoffs led the league in wins twice. Sometimes overlooked was it's league-leading defense.

With more sophisticated defensive measurements by then, the Bulls were first in defensive efficiency in 2010-11 and 2011-12 in coach Tom Thibodeau's first two seasons. The Bulls then were top five the next two seasons.

Bulls team come together during play

Since then with the Bulls' changes in coaching and personnel as well as style in the NBA, the messages have been mixed. There was been talk about defense, but also about shooting more three pointers and playing faster. Plus, the primary personnel additions to the team have been offensive oriented players like Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Coby White.

Which may be the biggest decision for Karnisovas and his team since replacing John Paxson and Gar Forman at the top of Bulls personnel earlier this year. Determining just who this Bulls team wants to be and how to get there.

The Bulls have been in the bottom five in defensive efficiency the last three years and the bottom 10 the two seasons before that. Though a major reason was it being seasons seemingly dedicated to a better draft position.

The results of those drafts and the big Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota in 2017 produced mostly offensively dedicated players in Markkanen and LaVine. Kris Dunn, known primarily for his defense, also came in that transaction. That seemed to connect with the NBA's increasing emphasis on scoring and shooting. But it hasn't resulted in success on the court, however, in part because of numerous injuries.

There was increased attention to defense this past season under coach Jim Boylen, though it was combined with more three-point attempts. The team's defensive rating improved early in the season, though principally because of pressure play and steals. That focus was led by Dunn, who was No. 2 in the league in steals and an all-defense candidate this season despite the team's poor record. The others who primarily contributed to that defensive improvement with steals were Thad Young and reserve Shaquille Harrison.

Wendell Carter Jr jumps for the rebound

Though the personnel priorities appear to indicate now all three are destined for reserve roles. A team's identity isn't produced by the second unit.

The projected starting five for next season, which obviously could change with so long before the first game, is expected to be LaVine, White, Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr.

Carter has the most potential among that group to be a top defender despite being smaller than most centers. Dunn would potentially combine with him for a defensive presence at the vital positions of point guard and center. It seems White is destined to start at point guard after starting just before the first virus shutdown in March. Could making defense a priority change that and elevate Dunn's role?

That's one of the big decisions for Karnisovas.

Zach LaVine stepping back for the jump shot

LaVine at shooting guard is known primarily for his offense. Porter with several seasons of injuries is considered now by some to be better suited to play slower power forwards. Markkanen despite his setback 2019-20 season still is considered the most likely starting power forward.

It might be the principal dilemma facing Karnisovas, who was a top executive with the Nuggets the last seven years. In all but one of those seasons, the Nuggets were a more efficient offensive team. In three of the last four seasons, the Nuggets ranked in the bottom third in defense. But in the last four years, the Nuggets were a top 10 offensive team.

So should the Bulls rely on the team's primary talent, which is offensive oriented? Mix up the roster to feature defensive players and a more defensive style? Shake up the personnel with drafts picks and trades to adopt a specific identity? And what would it be? It's perhaps the most significant issue facing the new management team.

And what Arturas will do.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

NEXT UP:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter