By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – Lost amid the Bulls' strong early season start, the resurgence of Pau Gasol, the maturity of Jimmy Butler and polarizing opinions of Derrick Rose is a surprising development.
Long the staple and premier strength of coach Tom Thibodeau's tenure in Chicago, the Bulls' defense has been rather average this season.
This again came to the forefront Saturday at the United Center, where a Bulls squad that won't return home for more than two weeks fell 99-90 to a Pacers team that was missing David West, George Hill, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles and C.J. Watson to injury – to say nothing of star Paul George being out for the year.
Ten games into a season is still too soon to draw any sweeping conclusions, but it's long enough to form reasonable concerns, which Thibodeau is never short of.
Forget for a minute where the Bulls rank in points per game allowed. It's a short-sighted statistic that's too dependent on the pace a team plays at.
In the far more enlightening defensive rating metric – which measures how many points a team allows per 100 possessions – the Bulls entered Saturday's game ranked 10th, at 103.8, per basketball-reference.com. That was scrunched amid a pack and was 1.9 points better than league average, but there's a catch here.
After Saturday, the Bulls have now faced six of the seven worst offenses in the league – the 76ers, Bucks, Pacers, Pistons, Magic and Timberwolves. Chicago could be winning by sheer will of defensive force. Instead, the Bulls have already seen the lowly, purposely tanking 76ers hang 115 points on them (sometime the raw point total is so jarring that it does matter).
So, what's the reason for the Bulls' defense being so … normal?
"We got to have that edge to us," Thibodeau said. "And then when we do that, we're usually successful … You got to put the work into it. The intensity will come if we have great concentration and everyone is giving everything they have."
While Thibodeau will always, always harp on playing with "an edge," rebounding has been the biggest aspect holding back Chicago's defense. The Bulls entered Saturday with a woeful 70.6 defensive rebounding percentage, 29th in the NBA, giving opponents an extra handful of opportunities a night. Given their length in the frontcourt and history, it's simply confounding to the Bulls – and Thibodeau's primary worry.
"We're going to have to do something to change it, because you're right, it's happening game after game," Thibodeau said earlier in the week about rebounding woes that continued Saturday. "In order to do something special, you got to be a great rebounding team. So that's something we have to correct."
It's likely that the new faces that have jolted the Chicago offense have created a learning curve defensively. Sixth man Taj Gibson admitted as much for the second unit that includes rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, saying, "We're still trying to figure out defensive sets, still trying to gang rebound – it's a process."
That doesn't explain away the defensive struggles of Chicago's most-used lineup this year, though. Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol had registered a 106.7 defensive rating entering Saturday, per NBA.com – and four of those guys played together extensively last year.
A seven-game, 15-day road trip that starts out West will reveal whether Chicago's rebounding issues and defensive normalcy are a cause for long-term concern. The Bulls will face some high-powered offenses on the road, including the Clippers on Monday and the Trail Blazers on Thursday, and better trends will emerge.
The numbers suggest that if the Bulls can solve their defensive rebounding issue, they will become the upper-echelon defense we're used to seeing. They entered Saturday holding opponents to just over 42 percent shooting, which was the fifth-best mark in the league. The Bulls entered the day surrendering the fifth-least overall 3-point attempts in the league, and as a staple of Thibodeau's system, they remain one of the best at forcing foes into mid-range jumpers.
So when they leave town Sunday at noon, the Bulls will take a lot with them: a 7-3 mark, lots of clothes, confidence, questions and a practical view of what they are and are not right now.
"We have a lot of talent," Noah said. "The truth is we don't have it all figured out, but there's a lot of skill. And we're getting better every day. It's November. We just got to keep grinding, keep improving as a unit. The best part about it is we're still a work in progress, and we all know it. And I think that's a scary thing."
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.
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