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Are Bulls defensively better than their championship teams?

Bulls center Joakim Noah defends against Hawks guard Joe Johnsfirst half Chicago Bulls 90-79 wover AtlantHawks 90-79 Monday February 20

Bulls center Joakim Noah defends against Hawks guard Joe Johnson in the first half of the Chicago Bulls 90-79 win over the Atlanta Hawks 90-79 Monday February 20, 2012 at the United Center. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times

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Which Bulls team had a better defense?


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Updated: March 23, 2012 8:23AM

It’s futile to measure these Bulls with their Michael Jordan-era ancestors. They are different players, different eras, radically different styles. The only similarities are both teams were built around MVP-caliber players — Jordan and Derrick Rose — and on a foundation of tenacious defense.

Then, as now, the Bulls ranked among the best defensive teams in the league, although they achieved that status in vastly different ways. Those Bulls were one of the best one-on-one defensive teams ever assembled. Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were all shut-down defenders.

These Bulls use coach Tom Thibodeau’s team-defense concept to achieve similar results.

“The players we had were better at man-to-man defense,” former Bulls center Bill Wennington said. “Michael, Scottie and Dennis one-on-one were better than any defenders we have here. But, as a whole, the way Tom Thibodeau has them playing in this system, they’re probably similar. But it was just done differently. We just had guys who could match up one-on-one and we didn’t have to rotate everywhere, where this team is very good at it.”

The Jordan-led Bulls allowed 95.7 points per game during their six NBA championship seasons while allowing teams to shoot .454 from the floor. Since Thibodeau ­arrived before last season, the Bulls have allowed 95 points per game while limiting teams to a field-goal percentage of .437.

While statistics say these Bulls were better than those Bulls, a myriad of factors cloud the issue. Teams scored more in the 1990s, for example. Rule changes also have dramatically changed the way defense is played.

“It’s a different NBA today because in the ’90s it was a much more physical league,” Thibodeau said. “Most teams were playing big. Your small forwards often were power forwards, so there was great size and physicality up front. Rule changes changed all that. You can’t put your hands on people, you can’t block cuts the way you used to. That changed everything. It’s an entirely different NBA. It’s hard to compare the two.

“There are different things you can do now. The quickness is better now. There are zone principles you can take advantage of that you couldn’t then. In many ways, that team would be more difficult to guard.”

Jordan was impossible to guard anyway. Imagine how many points he might have scored if defenders couldn’t put their hands on him when he was on the perimeter, which is the case today.

Rodman wouldn’t be allowed to be as physical today. Jordan and Pippen were so unique, however, that they would dominate any era. The only current Bull who remotely compares is Luol Deng.

“The thing that gets overlooked about that team is they had great size up front,” Thibodeau said of the Jordan years. “When you study the championship teams over the past 20 years there’s always great length up front. The small forward, power forward and center all have size.”

Thibodeau’s Bulls have also completely bought into his team defensive scheme, which has helped him incorporate his system seamlessly. Players know their role within the system, allowing them to excel defensively even during a lockout-shortened schedule that has made practices few and far between.

Game plans change according to the opponent, but the system remains the same.

“Tom Thibodeau really has them playing outstanding defense,” Bobcats coach Paul Silas said. “They are so aggressive. You don’t see that very much. They do things like switch the guard on a center and they’ll rotate him to someone else. They just know what to do.”

Few have a better perspective than John Paxson, who played for Jordan’s Bulls and is the current team president.

He said another factor is coaches are better able to assimilate information today. Technological advances give players today an advantage.

“We had scouting reports and shootarounds and we went over teams’ tendencies, but that’s also been a big step up, how coaches break down teams and tendencies,” Paxson said. “What players have available to them now is totally different than what we did back then.”

While the numbers might favor the current Bulls, Wennington believes the individual prowess of the Jordan-era Bulls made them more intimidating. He remembers games being decided after a few consecutive defensive stops.

“Ron Harper was a great defender, too,” Wennington said. “You had four guys on the floor that could literally clamp down and stop you for two or three possessions in a row and that would take the wind out of a lot of teams. They would lose their desire after that. With this team, they rotate so well they make it rough on teams and are able to stop them two or three possessions but for whatever reason teams don’t get quite as deflated as they did when they faced Michael, Scottie, Dennis and Harper.”

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