After investing $100 million on offense, Bulls will only go as far as the defense takes them


Year 2 of the Bulls’ rebuild under John Paxson and Gar Forman began with the franchise committing more than $100 million to offense. The investments weren’t poor ones, either, as 23-year-old Zach LaVine is two years removed from a 19-point, 46-percent shooting campaign. Jabari Parker has averaged 17 points on 49 percent shooting over his last 82 games.

And yet even in a league that’s currently seeing its highest average point totals in 30 years, as well as offensive efficiency at an all-time high, the Bulls’ investments won’t matter if they can’t improve on the defensive end.

“We should be able to compete on that defensive end with our speed, our length and our athleticism,” Fred Hoiberg said at Monday’s Media Day. “There’s no reason in the world we shouldn’t be able to go out and make things tough for the other team. It’s not about one individual. It’s about getting all five on the same page and building the habits.”

Two teams were less efficient defensively than the Bulls last season: The Cleveland Cavaliers, built on putting as many shooters around LeBron James as possible, and the 21-win Phoenix Suns.

The NBA might be as offensively talented as its ever been, but consider: Six of the final eight teams in last year’s playoffs ranked in the top 9 defensively, and only Cleveland – who that that nice luxury of employing the world’s greatest player – finished in the bottom half of the league defensively. Perhaps teams aren’t willing to shell out cash for defensive prowess, as Parker infamously suggested days after signing with the Bulls. But it still matters.

So the Bulls will enter their second year of the rebuild looking for improvements on that end. Parker struggled mightily in all four of his seasons in Milwaukee – the Bucks were better each year defensively with Parker on the bench – and LaVine was routinely beat on that end of the floor, perhaps debunking Hoiberg’s theory that speed, length and athleticism equate to defensive ability.

But LaVine, the $78 million man, was refreshingly honest in his assessment of his own defense.

“Personally I’ve always been really good on the ball,” he said. “I’ve always had problems off the weak side. I think it’s just knowing the position and not relaxing. I’ve always been really good on the ball. Once that ball swings I relax. And that’s where I get caught off guard. I’ve watched a lot of film. I was watching with coaches…on how to stay engaged and always have your teammates’ back."

LaVine’s honesty and willingness to improve give a glimmer of hope. So, too, does the presence of his backcourt mate. Kris Dunn won’t be challenging Steph Curry for shooting or effieincy supremacy anytime soon, but the former two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year was rock-solid as a defender last season. Already 25 years old and, thus, the “veteran” of this young core, Dunn knows team defense reins supreme but understands the difference a leader can make on that end.

“That’s the coach’s job, to make sure that everybody’s in the right position and understand what we’re doing defensively. But it’s for me to communicate on-court what defensive schemes that we are in and making sure guys are in the right spot,” he said. “At the same time I understand it and I feel like I am the best defender we have.”

The Bulls also made an investment in Wendell Carter Jr. with the seventh pick in June’s NBA Draft. Dunn even joked that some players have been saying Carter Jr. is already the team’s best defender. It’s unknown how much a 19-year-old rookie who will likely begin the year behind Robin Lopez can help, but it’s a step toward complementing Lauri Markkanen’s game. Add in Markkanen gaining 17 pounds (primarily of muscle) and one can sense the pieces coming together.

That’s where Hoiberg, Jim Boylen and the rest of the coaching staff come in. Seeing as players can work individually on their offensive games over the summer, much of the past few weeks the Bulls have been together unofficially working out has been focused on the defensive end.

“It’s been a big focus. We’ve really worked on the basics these last few weeks heading into training camp to try to get ahead. We play in 5 days (Sunday against the Pelicans) so there’s not a lot of time to get these guys in here in September,” Hoiberg said. “You really try to work on the basics and get these guys in the right position. I talked a lot about if we can limit turnovers, if we can get back in transition and take away easy baskets we’re going to have a chance.”

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