Confounding Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are 17-12, stuck in the mud with about eight other teams in the Eastern middle class. New coach Fred Hoiberg has been shaky at best, leading star guard Jimmy Butler to call him out publicly last week. We can debate whether or not Jimmy should’ve kept those thoughts behind closed doors, but you can feel his frustration. Looking at the Bulls roster, they should not be sixth in the East and fighting for position with the likes of Orlando, Boston and Charlotte.

Since Butler’s outburst, the Bulls have shown signs of life offensively against quality opponents. Interestingly, the offensive outbursts have come from players other than Butler, who has struggled to score at his normal rate lately. Hoiberg responded to the “need to be coached harder” comments by calling three practices Christmas week prior to the OKC game on Christmas day. Be careful what you wish for Jimmy. The Bulls came out firing against the Thunder, winning on the road against one of the top teams in the league. A season ago Chicago was one of only three teams to beat every other team in the league, and they’re on a similar track this year with wins over San Antonio, Cleveland and two over OKC. However, they then tend to lose games to inferior opponents like the Knicks, Nets, even the Sixers last year.

The Bulls followed up the big win in Oklahoma with a tough loss on the road against the Mavs, a game I happened to have good seats for. Which means I witnessed many Nikola Mirotic head fakes like this…Jealous?

Version 2

Against Dallas, the Bulls’ offense was humming. Derrick Rose was slashing to the rim and finishing, while pushing the pace often. Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson couldn’t miss from mid-range and Mirotic found his three point stroke in the first half. All five starters scored in double-figures, in a high scoring game. But this time the Bulls’ defense betrayed them. You’ve got to hand it to Rick Carlisle, who always plays to his personnel’s strengths. Without Deron Williams, the Mavs relied on high pick and rolls, secondary pick and rolls and the ball moved like a hot potato until a three point shooter was open. At halftime, half of the Mavs’ made baskets came from three. The Bulls and Hoiberg played right into Carlisle’s hands here unfortunately. Gasol and Mirotic refuse to step up to stop the ball handler on the pick and roll, while Gibson flat out didn’t switch onto JJ Barea, leaving him wide open for one of his seven threes just before the half. Barea killed the Bulls from the outside and by the time Hoiberg decided to stick Butler on him, the damage had already been done. The Bulls got crushed in the last two minutes of each and every quarter. Hoiberg was playing checkers on Carlisle’s chessboard.

My dad and I were discussing the merits of putting your wing stopper (Butler) on the tiny guard with the hot hand (Barea) as early as the second quarter. The Bulls didn’t make this adjustment until late in the fourth, and it worked to perfection. Butler’s great defense on Barea helped get the Bulls a desperately needed stop down three with less than a minute left. But now it was the offense’s turn to sabotage the Bulls. For some reason, Hoiberg had Rose throwing the ball in with no timeouts left, when Rose is the one guy you can count on to get open if an inbounds play turns desperate. The play that was drawn up got sniffed out by the Mavs, as Doug McDermott ran into a defender, and with no safety valve the Bulls got whistled for a five second violation. Game over. In confounding fashion.

The rollercoaster Bulls then went home for a Monday night tilt with the Toronto Raptors, the “second best team in the East” du jour, who were getting DeMarre Carroll back from injury. After a back and forth first half, the Bulls dominated the last 20 minutes, mostly on the backs of the bench. Gasol and Rose got to sit most of the fourth quarter as Bobby Portis, Aaron Brooks, Tony Snell and Gibson put the hammer down on Toronto. The bench-heavy lineup, with Butler in the game, played lockdown defense as well. Without Mirotic and Gasol in the game, suddenly teams can’t pick and roll to the Bulls’ D to death.

On a side note, Joakim Noah’s shoulder injury is a blessing in disguise. With Noah out the rotation is less cluttered, the floor spacing has improved and most importantly, Portis has gotten a chance to play. Outside of the Dallas game where he looked a bit hesitant and the refs did the rookie no favors, Portis has been a revelation. He hustles, mixes it up for rebounds in traffic and has shown outside range. His continued development may lead to a “big man for a wing” trade sooner than later, and gives the Bulls offense a dimension it’s sorely lacked. The foundations of a real contender are starting to take shape here, as Chicago’s talent is showing signs of jelling. If the supporting cast plays to its potential, with Rose improving and Gasol and Butler providing consistent offense, this team should claw out of the East muck and challenge Cleveland.

A lack of consistent effort and shooting, mixed with more curious coaching is what can hold them back. For now, they’re a confounding 17-12. To be continued.

Wizards and Bucks – What’s the Deal?

We’re far enough along in the NBA season to start figuring out some trends and deciding who’s actually good and who isn’t. Stubbornly, I still want to hold out hope for two Eastern Conference playoff representatives from a year ago that I expected big things out of, but who have not delivered at all. Of course I’m talking about the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards. Actually, the Wizards and Bucks are the only two teams in the East that you can call disappointing through 20 or so games. I mean, were Philly and Brooklyn fans really expecting much? I hope not. As I covered yesterday, teams like the Magic, Hornets, Pacers and Pistons have made the Central and Southeast Divisions suddenly deep. The Celtics are about what we expected, and the New York Knickerbockers are riding the giant Latvian rookie Kristaps Porzignis to a surprisingly positive start. All three divisions in the East are more competitive and overall better than expected.

But there’s always a flip side to that coin. If most of the East is coming up Heads, then the Wiz and Bucks are left chasing their Tails. Let’s try to figure out what’s wrong, and whether either situation is salvageable.


What’s up with the Wiz?

Washington, fresh off an inspiring postseason run and sporting a shiny backcourt, has stumbled to a 7-9 start. Fans actually booed franchise point guard John Wall the other night after he missed free throws in a terrible loss to the Lakers. Shooting guard Bradley Beal has continued to struggle with minor injuries, Nene is banged up and now Marcin Gortat is away from the team for a personal matter. The frustration last season from NBA viewers was that coach Randy Wittman seemed unaware of the fact that his dynamic backcourt plays best when they are attacking on the fast break and pushing the pace. Wall, in particular, is a unique weapon that runs circles around opponents and creates opportunities on defense with his quick hands. Wittman did a 180 in the playoffs, finally playing a smaller lineup and revving up the engines on offense – the result was a first round spanking of Toronto in four games. They then took the 60-win Hawks to six games, losing the final two by a combined four points. It seemed Wittman had finally figured out what he had in his roster. And they have mostly continued the pace and space strategy in 2015-16 (they’re currently 3rd in pace), but the wins haven’t followed. So what’s wrong?

For one, Wall hasn’t been good. The fanciest Tesla that Elon Musk can build won’t work without a charge, and Wall is the battery that Washington runs on. He’s more than two assists per game below is career-high 10 per game last season, and his field goal percentage is slightly down. He’s shooting more threes and making them at an OK rate (33%) but teams will concede a long range shot to Wall all day long over a drive to the rack. In Washington’s 3-1 start, Wall was great (21 and 8 per game). They’ve been 4-8 since and maddeningly inconsistent, following their star’s lead. Wall had 35 and 10 in a fantastic 97-85 win over Cleveland on Dec. 1. The next night they lost to the Lakers at home. To be fair, Wall had great numbers against L.A. but he did miss the key free throws that led to the booing.

Second issue has been Bradley Beal, who was expected to make another leap in a contract year. He leads the team in scoring but remains in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries. In general his shooting numbers are good but I guess the leap hasn’t been as great as I expected, especially for  a guy who will be looking for a max contract after the season.

The third issue I see is a fundamental one that many teams are facing in the “We want to emulate the Warriors” era. I covered this before with the Bulls, and the Wizards are an even better example of this struggle. That being, if you’re going to play fast that equals more possessions, and more possessions equals more shots. YOU NEED TO HAVE GUYS THAT CAN MAKE SHOTS IN ORDER TO MAKE THIS A SUCCESSFUL PLAN. Sorry for yelling. But outside of Beal, who are the shotmakers on this team? Otto Porter has made 15 threes on 57 attempts. Jared Dudley is always solid and is shooting 50 percent from the field but he’s a bit player. Gary Neal can knock down shots but he’s not going to win you many games. In theory Kris Humphries stretches the floor and he’s done well this year at 36 percent from beyond the arc, but he’s basically a seventh man. They really need another guy or two on the wing that scares defenses – Porter was supposed to be that guy, but he hasn’t flourished in a bigger role.

Are the Wizards salvageable?

I really, really want to say yes, and I’m not going to count out Wall and Beal just yet, but let’s reexamine in a month. The Wizards are entering a murderous stretch in their schedule, as 15 of their next 20 opponents currently have winning records. They are dead last in the Southeast and every other team in their division has a winning record. The East is back from a 15 year hiatus (at least so far this season) and it won’t be easy to dig out of their current hole, God forbid they dig any deeper in the tough month ahead. It’s amazing to consider, but the Wizards could be a lottery team by mid-January, unless they quickly right the ship.


What’s up with the Bucks?

Milwaukee was a great story last year, riding a bunch of fresh faces with long wingspans and bouncy legs to a surprise playoff spot. They punched the heavily-favored Bulls in the mouth in the first round before bowing out in six games. This created hope, that ever-fragile and sometimes dangerous thing that gets fanbases fired up and GMs occasionally fired. Why not be hopeful? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are two legitimate stars in the making, with fingers crossed for good health (Parker) and proper development (Giannis). Jason Kidd seems a natural at this NBA coaching thing and he’s a former point guard that fixed his broken shot, creating more hope still that he can fix the Bucks’ point guard Michael Carter-Williams’ broken shot. So the Bucks decided they were ready to go for it, signing big-time free agent Greg Monroe and extending promising wing Khris Middleton. In the meantime they let veterans like Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova walk. They unveiled shiny new uniforms (very nice actually) and a new court design and prepared to continue their ascendance up the Eastern Conference ladder.

So what’s happened? The shiny toys (Giannis!, Parker!, Middleton!, Monroe!, playoff excitement!, rebranding!) drove “hope” and “potential” but distracted them from some of the core reasons behind last year’s success. Less sexy things like veteran leadership and toughness were sacrificed to bring in Monroe. The former Pistons big man has not panned out thus far, to put it nicely. Not to say Monroe isn’t a good player, but it’s a square peg in a round hole situation. He doesn’t fit the rangy, bouncy, tenacious D profile that drove the Bucks last season. The team thought guys like Giannis and Jon Henson could make up for Monroe’s deficiencies on defense and the loss of Zaza, but the drop has been precipitous. Defense was key to this team’s identity last season, and they currently are the second-worst defense in the league. MCW is also not great on defense, and his shot is still broken. Methinks Milwaukee regrets jettisoning Brandon Knight to Phoenix last year. They just don’t have enough punch on offense to overcome bad defense. The Bucks should be grinding teams down and winning slugfests in the low 90s. Right now they allow 103 points per game.

That’s how a great deal of hope turns into a 7-12 start.

Are the Bucks salvageable?

In any other year, probably. But with the way the East is playing out this season, sadly the answer has to be no. That’s right, I’m writing off one of my NBA Risers from the preseason in December.

Long-term, yes, they are salvageable. But they currently sit last in the Central and 13th in the East. They are headed for the lottery. There will be some tough choices to make, but a core of Giannis, Parker and Middleton can still be special. I think MCW needs to go, more shooting will need to be acquired and somehow they need to fit Monroe into the mix or trade him if it really goes bad.

It’s sad because a season ago this team had a real identity – they thrived on creating chaos, forcing turnovers and brought attitude to the table, thanks mostly to Zaza. I’m always amazed when NBA teams add more talent and get worse on the court. Chemistry, identity, hope – it’s all very fragile in the NBA.

Rising(?) East – Examining the Southeast Division

The Southeast Division has rarely been relevant in the past decade, outside of the Miami super-teams and Atlanta’s 60 win season last year. But as mentioned in my last post, the Southeast is one of two divisions with four teams over .500. Charlotte and Orlando have been frisky, jumping out to 10-8 records. They both potentially join division mates Atlanta and Miami in the playoff conversation. I mentioned this already but it bears repeating: the top eight teams in the Southeast and Central divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. One of the toughest questions for NBA analysis is always, “is this a blip or a real thing?”

What makes me confident that the East is actually gaining ground on the West is that two East teams I most expected to be near the top are at the bottom – Milwaukee and Washington. I still have faith in both teams, but the East is no longer one big doormat and these two slow starters are learning that the hard way. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s go back to the goodness.

Southeast Division

  1. Miami (10-6)
  2. Atlanta (12-9)
  3. Charlotte (10-8)
  4. Orlando (10-8)

Quick hits on each team:

Miami can throw out a starting-5 that can stand toe to toe with just about anyone, and they do one thing exceedingly well – play efficient defense. Opponents shoot so poorly against the Heat it’s like they’re using those tight carnival rims that always screw me out of a useless prize dammit. The Heat hold opponents to 41% from the field (1st in NBA), 32% from three (4th), allow the second fewest free throw attempts per game and lead the league in point allowed per game (92.5). The reason they aren’t, say 14-2, rather than 10-6, is an almost equally anemic offense. Basically Heat games this season have been brick-laying contests in which Miami forces slightly more clanks from their opponent than they produce. They’ve only gotten off for more than 100 points four times this season, but three were against Houston, Sacramento and the Lakers. Those three may as well spot the other team 15 points at the start of each game. With the talent on Miami’s roster – Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh – you expect the scoring to go up at some point. The mantra for these guys is to keep healthy for the playoffs.

Atlanta will not win 60 games again this season. We all knew that. But an early 7-game win streak (albeit against less than stellar competition) shot them to the top of the conference early. Their defense has taken a bit of a hit without DeMarre Carroll, and with Tiago Splitter on the injured list. But Budenholzer ball continues to thrive – the Hawks are second in the league in assists and top half in most shooting categories. They should compete for a top four seed all year.

Charlotte is a team that I had completely written off after the season-ending injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That they are 10-8 is a testament to the coaching staff, Nic Batum’s bounce back season and a more efficient Kemba Walker. The narrative around this team is that they are hoisting threes at will and just trying to outscore teams with their defensive stopper MKG on the shelf. They have gone nuts in certain games, scoring 130 on the Bulls and 108 on the Mavs in back to back games. They hit 14 threes in that Bulls beatdown, but only 6 against the Mavs. They rank 6th in scoring and 12th in three point attempts, numbers that seem improbable for a team that features Al Jefferson. I love Big Al, but he slows the game down and has never been known as a great kick out passer once he gets the ball down low. Nice job by coach Steve Clifford pivoting their style after MKG went down and helping Marvin Williams find a niche as a stretch four.

Orlando is just awesome. They are a joy to watch. They are filled with pedigreed athletes (due to so many years of high lottery picks), they play hard for Scott Skiles, they make mistakes but always seem to put up a fight against tougher competition. This is the trajectory I hoped they’d be on and I expect their above-average play to continue. Victor Oladipo has taken the next step and has slightly improved his jumper but it still needs work. Elfrid Payton has fantastic hair but also needs work on his jumper. Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon are fascinating swiss army knife type of players and Evan Fournier has surprised me with his scoring. Nikola Vucevic gives them a constant 15 and 10 post presence. With so many pieces Skiles can roll out many different lineup combinations to mix things up and keep other teams guessing. For instance, potentially their toughest lineup to defend this season is Fournier, Payton, Vucevic, Channing Frye and Tobias Harris. Figure out a way to slow that group down, and here comes Oladipo and Gordon; two more difficult problems to solve. Orlando may slip in to the playoffs as an 8 seed, and drive Cleveland batty in Round 1.

Back in a bit with a diagnosis and analysis of Milwaukee and Washington.

Rising(?) East – Examining the Central Division

Over a month into the NBA season, there are many early returns I didn’t see coming (hello Houston and NoLA), but I will take credit for predicting the rise of the Central Division. Since it’s only been a month I can’t say it’s eclipsed the Southwest Division as the class of the league, but it’s much closer than expected thanks to some stumbling teams (hello again, H-Town & N.O.).

Three of the four Central teams won again last night (Cleveland was off), leaving four teams in the division above .500 on the season. The only other division in the NBA with four teams over .500 is the surprising Southeast, where Charlotte and Orlando have overachieved to 10-8 records. Amazingly, the top eight teams in these two divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. This is where I remind you that the West has bested the East in regular season record 15 of the last 16 years. It’s only early December, but we can officially raise an eyebrow at the perpetual little brother, the East.

What’s most crazy about these early results is who is not doing well in these divisions. Unquestionably, the two worst teams in the Central/Southeast have been Milwaukee and Washington, two playoff teams that went all in to win this season. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s start with the good.

Central Division

  1. Cleveland (13-5)
  2. Indiana (12-5)
  3. Chicago (11-5)
  4. Detroit (10-9)

Cleveland came in as the clear favorite to win the East and that hasn’t changed. I’m loving the all-business version of LeBron we’re getting right now; he has his guys humming and their fast start will allow Kyrie Irving to ease back into the lineup when healthy. Get Kyrie back, get Iman Shumpert back, hit full stride going into the playoffs. That’s the script for Cleveland and nothing has diverted them from it so far.

Indiana is the true surprise of the division early on. Frank Vogel is a great coach because he has shown the ability to adapt. Much like Erik Spoelstra in Miami or Gregg Popovich in San Antonio have done, Vogel has changed to fit the personnel and whims of the front office. Roster turnover is a thing that happens quickly in the NBA, especially when you factor in injuries. Before Paul George went down prior to the 2014-15 season, Indiana was one of the top teams in the West, by playing a plodding, physical style anchored in defense and rebounding. Roy Hibbert and David West were great on the boards but not ideal for spacing on offense. So Vogel shaped a team that wasn’t all that fun to watch but they were damn successful, with those bigs clogging the middle and the versatile Paul George, Lance Stephenson, George Hill wing combo slowing down shooters and creating turnovers. Losing George before the start of the season made last year a lost cause, but Indiana has quickly pivoted into a totally different attack. PG-13 is back playing at an All-NBA level on both sides of the court and the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating, 9th in pace and 2nd in three-point percentage. The truly amazing thing is that their defense hasn’t slipped a bit when they’ve gone small. I really don’t have a great explanation for that, outside of Vogel’s game planning and George’s all-around brilliance. They are blitzing teams with one lineup that’s featuring Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen as the only “bigs”to the tune of +55 points and +6 rebounds. Another lineup with Jordan Hill as the lone big is +40 in points. I have doubts on whether any of this is sustainable but the Pacers have proven me wrong thus far.

Chicago keeps winning yet I’m not quite sure how they’re doing it. As a Bulls fan I’m very happy with an 11-5 start, but I also worry about sustainability here. Let’s take a closer look. First off, who are the Bulls beating? All the good teams, seemingly. Chicago has knocked off Cleveland, OKC, San Antonio, Indiana, Charlotte and earned a nice road win in Phoenix. They played Golden State tough in Oracle before the Warriors’ practically unfair, Draymond at the 5 lineup torched them in the final two minutes. The Bulls have only scored over 100 points in five of their wins, while ranking 4th in defensive rating. So their well-renowned defense hasn’t been hurt, curiously, by Fred Hoiberg’s new system. Season-long, a Hoiberg team can’t compete with a Thibs scheme in defensive efficiency, right? (However, considering most of the roster has been around for a while, we do need to give them some credit for retaining Thibs’ principles and knowing how to play the game at a high level. They are NBA players, after all). Of their five losses, two have been in overtime and only one occurred at the United Center. So no worries right? All good, moving on…

…OK now taking my head out of the sand. There are a few concerns worth mentioning quickly. A) Derrick Rose is shooting 34% and 19%(!) from three; B) Nikola Mirotic may not actually be a good shooter (which they desperately need him to be), and his incessant pump-faking is ridiculous; C) Hoiberg has them playing 11th in pace yet 26th in offensive efficiency. So they are getting shots up quickly just not making them. If this doesn’t right itself, how can their defense possibly hold up?; D) four of the top five Bulls’ lineups in terms of +/- don’t include D-Rose, but four of the bottom five +/- lineups do include D-Rose. E) As a D-Rose fan, I’m sad.

Detroit raced out to a 5-1 start, lost four straight, then have played about even ball since. They are much improved, but still have glaring flaws, which show up in their multiple blowout losses. Six of their losses have been by nine points or more. It boils down to a serious lack of shooting. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond can be magic on the pick-and-roll, but when defenses clamp down and force Detroit to beat them from the outside, they simply don’t have the firepower. Marcus Morris is shooting just 28% from three, so not doing his part to stretch the defense, while Stanley Johnson has shown flashes and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been up and down. On nights when they can be close to league average in field goal / three point shooting they will be dangerous. Once they get Brandon Jennings back, they may get a much needed shot in the arm, at least for small stretches. But basketball is definitely back in the Motor City, and I can’t get enough of Mr. Drummond.

Southeast Division breakdown coming up next…