How Caruso's activity will benefit sliding Bulls defense


It didn’t seem so at the time, but Christmas Day has proven to be an inflection point in the Chicago Bulls’ 2021-22 season.

Five days before, on Dec. 20, Alex Caruso hurt his foot in a home win over the Houston Rockets, leading to a six-game absence that would be extended to 13 after an ensuing bout with COVID-19. One day after, on Dec. 26, Lonzo Ball entered health and safety protocols, which held him out five games. 

But the Bulls' misfortune was only just beginning. Since Dec. 25, Caruso has appeared in just two games. Ball has played in six. And none of those contests overlap, thanks to the Grayson Allen flagrant foul that fractured Caruso’s right wrist on Jan. 21, and the bone bruise/meniscus tear in Ball’s right knee that knocked him out of commission on Jan. 15 and required surgery on Jan 28.

In turn, the Bulls’ defense has cratered, falling from ninth in the NBA on the holiday (107.5) to 21st on March 11 (111.9). They’ve allowed 115.4 points per 100 possessions in the 37 games that separate those dates, a figure which ranks 23rd in the league for that span.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan will point you to a handful of factors in that slide before making the shorthanded excuse. Lacking discipline defending shot-fakes. Over-fouling. Lapses in concentration getting back in transition. Things his team should control no matter who is on the floor.

But in one facet, the Bulls’ defensive anchors have been especially missed: Forcing turnovers.

On Dec. 25, the 19-10 Bulls not only ranked ninth in defensive rating, but also eighth in opponent turnovers per game (15.2), 12th in steals per game (7.8), 11th in deflections per game (14.6), fourth in points off turnovers per game (19.1), and, in related news, seventh in fastbreak points per game (14) over a 29-game sample. Their early-season success was not-so-subtly built around an identity of wreaking havoc on the perimeter with well-timed aggression and crisp rotations, then reaping the spoils of that chaos by running off of opponent’s mistakes.

Since? The 21-16 Bulls are dead last in opponent turnovers per game (11.5), 29th in steals per game (6.5), 25th in deflections per game (12.5), 27th in points off turnovers per game (14.1) and 19th in fastbreak points per game (12.2). Wednesday's win over the Pistons marked the team's first double-digit steals performance since Jan. 30.

“It’s been a point of emphasis from the beginning of the year regardless of who we had out there,” Caruso said of forcing turnovers. “It's just, me and Zo I think have special abilities in that aspect of being able to, cause a little bit of havoc with deflections, play good 1-on-1 defense. Those are just really strong skills of ours, you take that away from a team obviously that’s gonna go down a little bit.”

Indeed, Caruso’s career-high average of 1.9 steals would rank fourth in the NBA if playing-time minimums were stripped. Ball’s 1.8 would rank seventh. Both would also be top seven in deflections per game.

“That's when I think we were really really good,” Donovan said. “But I never felt like we were forcing turnovers because we were saying, ‘Hey, let's just go trap and be disruptive.’ Both of those two guys (Caruso and Ball) are long. They're long and they're physical, and they have the ability just naturally to deflect passes and get a piece of passes, and they’re really good anticipators. I think when you take guys like that off the floor those numbers are gonna be really impacted. Because it's not like I could say to Ayo (Dosunmu) or Coby (White) or even Malcolm (Hill) when he was out there, ‘Hey, go force turnovers.’ It's just what they (Caruso and Ball) do.”

While Caruso stressed the drop-off in certain defensive metrics isn’t due to a lack of effort, Donovan conceded that getting whole again will open up a world of schematic possibilities.

“There was certain things with those guys (Caruso and Ball) we did a little bit of, whether it be trapping pick-and-rolls, switching, or those guys’ ability to read something and fight through a screen or shoot the gap or anticipate something,” he said. “We gave those guys the freedom, I don’t want to say just to freelance, but like, be aggressive. Use your instincts. Get out in passing lanes. Use your activity.”

That activity both stymied opponents’ possessions, and jump-started the Bulls’ offense on the fastbreak, allowing them to build momentum playing against unset defenses while forcing their opponents to, on a more consistent basis, begin possessions with inbounds passes.

They won’t revert back to their early-season form overnight, especially with Caruso, who returned to full-contact practice on Friday, leagues ahead of Ball in the rehab process.

But even his return, alone, will be a step in the right direction.

“There's no excuses for anything. The NBA is the NBA, you need a little bit of luck to get there at the end of the year, that happens every year,” Caruso said of the Bulls’ short-handedness. “But us in this building, in our camp, we're confident going out on the court and playing against anybody.”

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