[In honor of the Knicks-Bulls matchup this weekend, today’s blog comes from Matt of Bulls Blog. KnickerBlogger’s post is published on Matt’s site..]
Greetings Knickerblogger readers, my name is Matt and I am the creative force behind Bulls Blog. While it can be said that such a title is the blogging equivalent of being the valedictorian of summer school, I still enjoy being in my own corner of the blogosphere writing about the post-dynasty trials of the Chicago Bulls. It’s an honor to write to you on one of the most prolific (and one of my favorite) basketball blogs around.
Your New York Knicks are coming to the United Center on Saturday, so Knickerblogger and I decided to switch places for a good-ole-fashioned preview. Since it’s the first meeting of these two teams, you may not be fully aware of how things are going in Chicago. With so many new players shuffling in and out of the house that Jordan built these past 6 years. That said, unless you haven’t been paying attention to the league lately, you’ve heard that the Bulls are one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Riding a 5-game winning streak (and 11 out of their last 14), the Bulls have rebounded from a disastrous 0-9 start to the 8th best record in the Eastern Conference. But enough about the wins, how are they getting them?
GM John Paxson’s first two drafts since taking over for Jerry Krause have gone particularly well, with 3 his first round picks of Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, and Ben Gordon now the foundation of the team. Hinrich (PER of 16.39) is probably the Bulls’ most recognizable player, and this season has shifted more to the off-guard position to accommodate the smaller Gordon and 2nd round pick Chris Duhon in the rotation. While you will find him moving off of the ball moreso than last year, he still exhibits his playmaking ability (14 assists against Boston last saturday), and remains the floor leader of the team. Deng (14.79) leads the team in +/- ratio and while he lacks the outstanding athleticism you see of most 19 year old draftees, he more than makes up for it with basketball skills and court awareness that makes him seem a lot older than he is. Ben Gordon (13.03), while not a starter, is definitely the energizing 6th man and ‘closer’ for the Bulls. As the best creator on the team, Ben can take nearly anyone off the dribble to get off his accurate (50.1% eFG) shot launched, an invaluable resource at the end of close games.
Another place where you can see Paxson’s fingerprints is the veteran bench. Through trades of Jalen Rose and Jamal Crawford, Paxson not only gained cap flexibility but picked up veterans Antonio Davis, Eric Piatkowski, Adrian Griffin, and a familiar face to Knick fans in Othella Harrington. While all past their prime, they also are an upgrade from the CBA talents that used to fill the Bulls bench, and help maintain head coach Scott Skiles’ desire to instill the principles hard work and discipline into the younger players. Another bench contributor is 24-year-old Argentian Andres Nocioni. His rookie campaign in the NBA hasn’t shown the offense he exhibited while helping his country win a gold medal in Greece, but especially as a defender he’s equal parts effective and hilarious. Baiting of opponents into technicals, drawing charges on flops, and performing an act on the officials to the point where any call against him is met with no less than bombastic exasperation. These tactics, I’m guessing, will have most opposing fans loving to hate ‘Chapu’.
Now onto the once-heralded cornerstones of the franchise, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. Curry (14.58) still isn’t the dominant player he can be, but finally in his 4th year and at the age of 22, he is becoming a big part of the team’s success. Look for Eddy in the first 5 or 6 possessions of the game to establish post position early, and going right into his increasing assortment of post moves. His talent has always been evident, but now he’s showing it more consistently, which is a scary message to Eastern Conference frontcourts. Chandler (16.56), as you probably know already, is the opposite of Curry. With small hands and awkward moves, his offense is limited. But while Eddy still drifts through defensive assignments and rebounding, Tyson has become one of the premier rebounders (8th in the league in rebound rate) and shotblockers in the league. At 7’1″ and the ability to jump out of the gym, he alters nearly any shot that’s near him, and would have even more rebounds if he were strong enough to hold on to them.
And that brings me to the most important factor in attributing the Bulls success: Defense. Using defensive efficiency as a metric, which as you may know factors in the possessions accrued during a game as well as points allowed, the Bulls are second in the NBA in team defense, behind only San Antonio. The Bulls defense starts in the paint, with Chandler, Davis, and an improving Curry making their capable perimeter teammates’ jobs much easier. This defensive success is mainly due to Skiles, who always has his players playing hard and within the designed scheme. Assuming they keep up their usual intensity on that end, the Bulls’ defense will keep them in nearly any game they play throughout the season.
But all this ‘homer’ praise is not to make you assume that the Bulls do not have weaknesses. Their most glaring weakness defensively is their trouble against opposing guards. No matter which combination of Hinrich/Duhon/Gordon is in the game, there is nearly always a size disadvantage. Gordon especially is immediately targeted by opponents as a post-up victim and despite Skiles’ claims to the contrary, Duhon isn’t much better. And all 3 (along with Curry and Chandler) are known to get in early foul trouble. If Marbury and Houston can be agressive, foul problems could arise for both their man defenders and help defenders alike. Another major problem is turnovers. Both Gordon and Curry are in the league leaders in TO/40 minutes, and while I have mentioned that they play a great team defensive game, they are still a very young team and often throw away possessions on offense. One workable strategy to force the Bulls into these mistakes is to use Duhon’s man to double on Eddy right when he gets the ball. On most occasions either Eddy is rushed into a poor shot or turnover, or an open Duhon bricks a shot of his own (and if you read my blog you’ll know that picking on Duhon is a pretty consistent theme).
To use a generality in terms of how to beat the Bulls, anything that keeps the Bulls from defending effectively will help the Knicks win. The Knicks’ big men will need to crash the glass for offensive rebounds and tip-ins, and getting out on the break after forcing turnovers to not allow the Bulls to dig in. It also means their guards being aggressive and getting to the line, both to shoot free throws and to get the Bulls younger foul-prone players relegated to their bench early. The Bulls aren’t a stellar offensive team, and are prone to long scoreless stretches when Hinrich and Gordon aren’t playing their best. But what they do is stay close, and by crunch time, Gordon and Chandler will use their specialized excellence to try and take over both ends of the court.
Hopefully after reading this you’ll have a better understanding of what to expect on Saturday afternoon. Although after watching the Bulls go from 0-9 to a potential playoff birth, its hard for myself to know what to expect anymore.