Wendell Carter is not the problem on defense

There’s a growing narrative within the Bulls ether, one that suggests Wendell Carter has forgotten to play defense and doesn’t know how to guard in the Bulls’ new defensive coverage.

For the following reasons, this sentiment is really fucking irritating:

  • Firstly, and most importantly, it’s blatantly false
  • Certain Bulls analysts and commentators constantly push this narrative, so much so it is now being echoed by fans who only collect their talking points from these sources
  • Factions of the fan base have decided backup center Daniel Gafford is actually better than Carter because he has cool blocks

Again, so it’s not lost on you where I sit on the matter, I believe this is all wrong and dumb.

If I sound like an uppity elitist…well, I am. While that may be true — and my delivery could be executed with a gentler, more encompassing tone — I’ve had enough of the rhetoric. I’ve had enough of the need to find a new, singular scapegoat for the Bulls’ defense being bottom five in the league.

For many, Carter has become this season’s whipping boy. (Someone needs to take that mantle now that GarPax and the Bad Bald Man are gone, right?)

The discourse has become so nauseating that an actual good and fair evaluation of Carter’s performance is difficult to do. It’s all reactionary, ill-informed hyperbole. It needs to stop.

This post won’t end the narrative. Hell, my defensive ranting may help fuel it. Ideally, though, it can change some perspectives while limiting the growing dissent against Carter.

Base Defensive Coverage

In order to suggest what Carter is doing on defense is good, bad or indifferent, first, we must know what the Bulls are trying to achieve on defense.

For those not aware, the Bulls made a dramatic shift in their defensive philosophy under new coach Billy Donovan. Gone is the overly aggressive, blitz-style defense used by Jim Boylen. In its place, Donovan has installed a more conservative, ‘drop’ defense.

In its simplest form, drop defense is a type of pick-and-roll coverage. This set defense is designed to protect the paint, limit attempts at the rim, while promoting less advantageous shooting options e.g. pull-up mid-range jumpers.

The previous defensive scheme under Boylen, one which emphasised two players blitzing and pressuring the ball-handler in order to force turnovers, was far more focused on having its center guard out high in space (often past the 3-point line). Conversely, a drop coverage aims to keep the center closer to the basket. In essence, the two schemes are antithesis of each other.

The above is a narrow, high-level summary. Rather than detailing a drop coverage with more depth in this post, instead, allow me to point you to the following quality resources:

  • A nice, detailed breakdown by Basketball Immersion. This video highlights what drop coverage is and the responsibilities of each player when guarding within this scheme. In addition, I recommend watching this video by Half Court Hoops, which highlights how the Milwaukee Bucks use a drop pick-and-roll scheme.
  • Stephen Noh had a great post on his substack which details the Bulls’ previous defensive approach under Boylen, how that will shift with Donovan at the helm, and potential drawbacks of a drop defense.

I highly recommend diving into the above links. I did. You’ll be smarter for doing so. Do that first, then come back and read the rest of this post.

The critiques of Carter

In reaching this part of the post, I will assume you’ve done as you were told, clicked on the above links, and digested all the information. Good. You will now have a solid understanding of what the Bulls are attempting to do on defense.

Armed with this knowledge, let’s bring this back to the topic at hand and dive more deeply into why the criticism against Carter is dumb and painful!

As a summary, the main critiques of Carter’s defense within this scheme has largely boiled down to this: Why is Carter dropping back into the paint and not helping out high on pick-and-roll coverage?

Simple answer: HE’S MEANT TO!

Apologies for sounding like a pompous tool bag. I’ve answered this question too many times now so I have a tendency to lash out.

[reverts back to cordial tone, tries answering the question again]

Ah, good question, friend! You see, in actual fact, Carter is floating back in such a fashion because that’s his role in this defense. Push back, stay at home in the paint and protect the rim. That’s what Donovan and the drop scheme is asking of its center.

Maybe some visuals will help. Let’s compare defensive positioning in high pick-and-roll sets. One is Carter, the other is Bucks center Brook Lopez.

As noted above, the Bucks use drop coverage. Comparing the two bigs, if it looks the same, it’s because it is. Either a step up, at the nail, or a foot behind, it’s all good and fine!

This is one example, but it’s illustrative of where the center should be situated within a drop scheme. Moreover, the defensive positioning of the Bulls center in this scheme extends beyond Carter. Any player asked to drop back to the basket should be positioned as Carter is. From the same game against the Sacramento Kings earlier this season, Gafford does exactly that.

In any defensive coverage, the role of the center is hugely important, perhaps more so than any other position. However, for a defense to routinely get stops, it takes all five players being in sync with each other.

Some may overlook the importance of point of attack ball pressure, but this too is a fundamental aspect of team defense, particularly in pick-and-roll coverages. The primary role of the defender guarding the ball-handler is to navigate ball screens and stay as connected as possible to the ball-handler. Doing so makes it difficult for the offensive player to pull-up for jumpers or build downhill momentum into the lane.

Defense is not why we love Coby White and Zach LaVine. Yet, both are typically tasked with being the first line of defense. When that happens, the Bulls’ point of attack defense is susceptible to mistakes.

In this example, focus specifically on White. Notice how he loses connection to Kings guard Buddy Hield after the screen is set by Richaun Holmes? Hield easily dribbles into the lane, forcing Carter to make a choice: stay home and guard the rim-rolling center or help on the ball and hope help comes to tag the roll-man and prevent an easy score.

An honest critique of this play: Carter really doesn’t do either. He’s in two minds, caught between trying to help White while also being cognisant of Holmes, a fantastic finisher as a roll-man. Carter needs to commit and make a choice more quickly, but there needs to be significantly more pressure placed on the ball-handler than this.

An dishonest, lazy critique of this play: Carter isn’t helping and his man is eating. What is he even doing?

The latter is the typical critique that has come through thick and fast this season. Ultimately, this is the narrative I’m pushing back against.

The above clip is emblematic of the Bulls’ issue guarding pick-and-roll this season: the on-ball defense is non-existent, dribble penetration is occurring too easily, and rotations are being asked to react before expecting to.

Asked post game about the team’s pick-and-roll coverage against the Kings, Donovan rightly noted the poor defense at the point attack, which led to the ball “coming downhill way too easily to making it kind of a two-on-one situation.”

That’s a fair critique of the team’s defense. For whatever reason, though, Carter has largely worn the brunt of criticism. I’m not sure why. The Bulls defense isn’t faltering because of Carter. He’s largely doing his job, and doing so correctly.

Perhaps there’s more to it. Maybe because he doesn’t score like LaVine or White. He doesn’t take souls on slams the same way Gafford does. The center position is also less valued and requires more nuance to appreciate nowadays. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s absurd and highly egregious.

Fighting back against the narrative

I’m a Wendell Carter supporter, irrationally to a fault. I acknowledge that. That bias ironically led to a defensive blog post about Carter’s defense. While true, so too are the points raised.

A blog from an opinionated clown won’t change or shape the narrative, but those with legitimate platforms can — and have.

Bulls analysts on the TV broadcast have largely fuelled the discussion about Carter’s defense. Pre- and post-game discussions on NBCS Chicago broached the topic. During live game action, colour analyst Stacey King has consistently aired his gripes with the defense. If you’ve tuned into any Bulls games this season, you’ve heard the repetitive critiques. Here’s an example.

There’s a couple things to note here.

Firstly, the Bulls have used Thad Young at center a lot this season, in part because of his ability to move laterally, guard on the perimeter, and switch on pick-and-roll coverages. The Bulls rarely switch defensive assignments on screens — because their base defense is drop coverage — but when they do mix up their scheme and get more aggressive it’s typically only done when Young is out there (less so Carter and Gafford).

Additionally, King rightly notes that Carter is dropping back on defense, referring to it as “playing that Shaquille O’Neal defense where you (kind of) drop into the paint and try to block shots as they come to the rim.” Despite accurately describing what Carter is doing on defense, King still doesn’t understand why this is happening (because this is the Bulls’ base defensive coverage).

King is accurately detailing what is occurring on the floor. However, the context of why it’s happening is missing in his explanation. The latter is just as important, if not more so, particularly when it comes to educating fans watching the game. That’s why this next clip is so disappointing.

From the same game, here’s King openly admitting on the broadcast that he doesn’t know what the Bulls’ defensive coverage actually is (1:07 mark).

While this admission was jaw dropping, I’m not even sure the defense on this possesion was that egregious.

King rightly notes that Carter is dropping back (yes, again, because this is the Bulls’ base defensive coverage). Carter continues to drop because his man (Isaiah Roby) is a lob threat. If the Bulls center steps out too far and meets Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the free throw line, that’s an easy oop pass and dunk. There’s also no Bull to help the helper (Carter), making the decision to leave his man less straightforward. (If help was to come over both LaVine and Williams are there, too. So why is this only on Carter?) Also, unlike the previous example, White actually does a decent job staying connected to Gilgeous-Alexander. If the Bulls defense is going to give up contested mid-range runners, that’s actually good!

King not knowing the defensive scheme the Bulls use is problematic. Freely admitting as much for all to hear is an interesting decision. Ignorance aside, the audacity to conjure up critical assessments of what players are doing wrong — despite having no clue what they should be doing — is even worse!

So it’s clear, it pains me to come after King like this. I generally enjoy his commentary and wit. He’s fun, engaging, and a pure homer. That’s everything local broadcasts seek from their analysts. Better still, I particularly love it when he takes to Twitter to shit on the Bad Beat Man.

I’d like to see this adjustment on the broadcast: voice concerns about the efficacy of the defensive scheme instead of criticising players when it isn’t warranted. Question the decision to implement such a scheme. That would actually be interesting to hear!

King is entertaining as heck, but that shouldn’t absolve him from lazy analysis. This matters because those tuning in view him as a source of knowledge and truth. Fans take his words as gospel. They repeat it because King said so. And so we arrive where we are today: folks believing Carter is an inconsistent defender who doesn’t understand how to guard opposing offenses (despite flashing phenom-level of defensive nous and poise during his first two seasons in the league).

This level of commentary leads to stuff like this.

These two questions featured in K.C. Johnson’s most recent mailbag. Sure, it’s a bunch of words by two random people in one article. Or is it? To my eyes and ears, at least, this rhetoric is representative of the larger discourse surrounding Carter this season.

Again, as noted, I’m a staunch Carter believer. With this in mind, perhaps comments like the above — and those I consistently receive in my Twitter mentions — send me into a rage too quickly. Amplifying the words of a select few and assuming a vocal minority speaks for most may be silly to do (outside of bad Wendell takes I’m sure Mark F and BigRicky34 are upstanding citizens).

But maybe it isn’t a small, loud anti-Carter faction? I could be wrong, but it feels like this is a rising sentiment among the fan base. If so, that’s disappointing given it’s largely founded on bad, misinformed analysis that revels in the ‘TAKEZ’ culture we digest in sports.