Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Bulls' Second Unit

Last year the Bulls finished with the best record in the East and made the conference finals. One obvious reason people pointed to was the MVP-caliber play of superstar Derrick Rose. Rose's excellence was undeniable, but  it was certainly not the only reason the Bulls were lifted into the NBA's elite class. Part of this ascension in Chicago was due to the outstanding defense of the backup unit. 

Chiago's bench lineup of Asik-Gibson-Deng-Brewer-Watson/Rose (the numbers were similar no matter the point guard) was an absolute terror for opposing offenses. Anchored by the Asik-Gibson frontcourt, which barely ever allowed an uncontested attempt at the rim, this unit gave up about 84.5 points per 100 possessions. For context, this figure would lead the league this year in defensive efficiency. By 10 points. The second unit was a full 13 points better than Chicago's overall defensive efficiency, which happened to be the league's best last year. 

Despite a few tweaks to the personnel, this year's bench unit remains a destructive force on offenses around the league. The group of Asik-Gibson-Deng-Korver-Lucas is giving up 65.89 points per 100 possessions. Read that again and take a second to revel in its brilliance. Basically, when a team goes up against this lineup they turn into a bad college offense. This unit is not all too common, seeing only 76 minutes so far this year. One might think this is due to offensive ineffectiveness, but in the limited sample this crowd scores about 113 points per 100 possessions. Nonetheless, this is a formidable lineup that might be worth keeping on the floor a little more. 

So how do they do it? Much of the credit certainly goes to Tom Thibodeau, the master architect of the Celtics' stingy defenses in past years. Also, as stated above, the imposing duo of Omer Asik and Taj Gibson at the rim isn't going to give up too many easy looks at the basket. The Bulls' opponents shoot 57.1 percent at the rim, the second lowest percentage in the league. Deng has grown into one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. He holds opposing small forwards to a 9.1 PER and a 44.3 effective field goal percentage (league average is about 48 percent). If anything is surprising about this new bench unit it is the presence of Kyle Korver and John Lucas. Korver doesn't have the reputation as a wing stopper, but has good size to harass opposing 2's and active hands. Lucas is small, but pesky. He forces opponent point guards to turn the ball over 4 times per 48 minutes. For reference, two time all-defensive first team member Rajon Rondo only forces 3.7. 

When the Bulls play on national television the focus is primarily on Rose. Perhaps this is rightly so. He provides much of the flash and excitement. However, the quiet potency of the bench defense has played a huge part in keeping Chicago atop the NBA standings. 

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