Yesterday, Justin Kubatko pointed out at Off The Dribble that the Chicago Bulls have a chance to join an exclusive club of teams who led the league in Defensive Rating after finishing outside the top ten in the previous season. Only four teams have accomplished this over the last quarter-century. With a Defensive Rating of 100.0, the Bulls have a slight edge on the Celtics who sit at 100.4. These two teams have been the best defenses in the league pretty much all season. Their fates are intertwined and wrapped up in the genius of Tom Thibodeau. His effect on the Chicago Bulls’ defense has been remarkable. Just as amazing has been the residual effect he has left behind on Boston.
The team defense has improved in Chicago but so has the individual defense of every single player. For this discussion we are going to start with Individual Defensive Rating, a statistic introduced by Dean Oliver in his book, Basketball on Paper. This is an individual measure of how many points per 100 possessions a player allows his counterpart to create. The table below shows the Individual DRtg. from the last two seasons for each Bulls player who has played at least 300 minutes this season.
Every single player in the Bulls rotation has seen their DRtg. improve this season, and not by a small margin. On average they are each allowing their counterpart 4.7 fewer points per 100 possessions than they were last season. To put this number in context, 4.7 points is roughly what separates Tony Allen’s DRtg. this season from that of Gilbert Arenas.
Even more amazing is that fact that, by this measure, every single Bulls rotation player is among the top 60 defenders this season. The Bulls have six of the top fifteen players in Individual DRtg. No other team has more than three. That team with three is . . . the Boston Celtics, Thibodeau’s former team and one which still primarily runs his defensive system. If we open it up to the top 20 in DRtg. we find 4 Celtics and Tony Allen, who honed his defensive skills under Thibodeau in Boston before signing with the Grizzlies this off-season. Altogether, 18 of the top 60 players in DRtg. play for either the Bulls or the Celtics. His fingerprints are everywhere.
It hardly seems believable for every single Bulls’ player to have improved and by so much. Mediocre and poor defenders like Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson have become very good. Very good defenders like Joakim Noah and Ronnie Brewer have become elite. The improvement is not even specific to one type of player. This phenomenon covers every position and role from center to point guard, high-usage scorer to complimentary role player.
Moving to the next level in all defensive areas is obviously a theme for the Bulls’ season. 82games.com tracks a number of statistics by position. One piece of this is the eFG% the Bulls allow to opponents at each position. The table below shows those numbers and compares them to the league average.
In addition to all the DRtg. numbers above, they are working together to hold opponents at every position under the league average eFG%. Their numbers defending small forwards should be particularly scary to the Heat, Knicks and Celtics.
Moving past positions to specific possession types we continue to see improvement. Synergy Sports breaks possessions down into 11 categories: Isolation, Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler, Post-Up, Pick-and-Roll Man, Spot-Up, Off Screen, Hand Off, Cut, Offensive Rebound, Transition and Other. Last season the Bulls were in the top ten at defending 4 of those possession types: Post-Up, Spot-Up, Off Screen and Cut. This season they are in the top ten at defending 9 of those possession types. The Bulls are first or second in the league in defending four of those possessions. They are only outside the top ten on Hand Offs and in transition.
I have always found it interesting that in the NBA and the NFL we use the terminology “coach” as opposed to “manager,” which is used in baseball. There are plenty of guys in the NBA who do nothing more than manage their team. Tom Thibodeau is clearly not one of them. His job is to win basketball games and his method is to make his players better. As much as anyone I can point to in the league this season, Thibodeau is a coach.