The Bulls Get a Momentum Win, but Massive Issues Threaten Their Contender Status

On the surface, the Chicago Bulls earned a critical win on Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers. However, glaring defensive issues persist and threaten to impact Chicago’s playoff seeding.

The Bulls have struggled mightily on the defensive end without Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball, their two best perimeter defenders, on the floor. It’s possible those injuries could alter Chicago’s approach ahead of the Feb. 10 NBA trade deadline.

Regardless, the Bulls need to show more collective action and effort on the defensive end. If not, they risk paying the price come April and May.

The Bulls gave up 116 points to a Damian Lillard-less Blazers team after conceding 131 points to the San Antonio Spurs

The good news for Bulls fans is they scored 130 points and won by a 14-point margin on Sunday. The bad news is that Chicago gave up 116 points to a Blazers team without Damian Lillard.

Portland shot 51.8% from the field and a whopping 46.2% from beyond the arc. Three different Blazers scored at least 20 points, with six different guys in double figures. The Bulls routinely got beat in pick-and-roll, with Blazers ball-handlers getting into the lane and finishing or capitalizing on defenders going under and making it rain from deep.

Now, the Bulls won thanks to their own offensive explosion and Portland’s porous defense. But, as the previous game showed, Chicago cannot afford such woeful defensive efforts.

The Bulls gave up 131 points in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 28. Much as they did against the Blazers, the Bulls struggled to defend the 3-point line, as the Spurs shot 16-of-37 from beyond the arc. Again, though, much of that stemmed from the inability to keep slashers out of the lane. San Antonio outscored Chicago 58-54 in the paint and generated ample opportunities on straight-line drives.

Many of these issues were foreshadowed during back-to-back losses to the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors, respectively, earlier this month. But the defensive lapses have become all the more glaring without Caruso and Ball in the backcourt.

Desperately missing Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball

One look at Alex Caruso’s on-off splits shows just how much the Bulls miss his defensive presence.

Chicago has a 104.3 defensive rating in Caruso’s 776 minutes of action. That mark soars to 114.9 when he sits. For context, that’s not too far from the Houston Rockets’ NBA-worst 115.4 defensive rating.

Yes, on-off splits can seem a bit arbitrary at times. Yet Caruso’s impact is unmistakable.

The Bulls were on a four-game losing streak when AC returned to the rotation during a Jan. 19 showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He finished the contest a game-high +18 in plus-minus and helped Chicago hold the Cavs to just 104 points. One game later, Caruso played through a wrist injury and helped the Bulls limit the Milwaukee Bucks to 94 points. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

The same most applies to Ball. Chicago gives up over five fewer points per 100 possessions with Lonzo on the court. Perhaps more importantly, they turned opponents over with more frequency.

According to NBA.com, Ball still ranks among the leaders in deflections and loose balls recovered per game despite not playing since Jan. 14. Not so coincidentally, Chicago ranks near the bottom of the NBA in steals since its starting point guard left the rotation with a meniscus injury.

The Bulls thrive when they communicate on switches and have guys like Ball causing havoc in the passing lanes. But they haven’t done any of that as of late, which is a very concerning trend for a team that would surely prefer to stay at the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls need better defensive efforts or risk slipping in the standings

Chicago Bulls guards DeMar DeRozan (Left) and Ayo Dosunmu (R) defend Portland Trail Blazers star CJ McCollum during an NBA game on Jan. 30, 2022
Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum (3) goes between Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan (11) and guard Ayo Dosunmu (12) during an NBA game on Jan. 30, 2022 | Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s not all bad news for the Bulls on the defensive end.

Rookie guard Ayo Dosunmu’s on-ball defense has been terrific, and it’s just one of the reasons why he is the steal of the 2021 NBA Draft. Javonte Green is a poor man’s Ball with how he flies around the court and provides energy. Still, it’s undeniable that the team defense is severely lacking.

Chicago cannot continue to leak points as it has lately. Considering both Ball and Caruso are out for the foreseeable future, the Bulls could well slide in the standings if they cannot find a defensive rhythm. That would really impact their ability to make a deep playoff run in a loaded and unpredictable Eastern Conference.

The front office will likely address defensive needs before the NBA trade deadline. Otherwise, the current group needs to pull itself by the bootstraps and compete harder to get stops.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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