(Guest Post) – You’re back in the NBA now, Chicago Bulls

[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.

Introducing The New Stats Page

I’ve been working on this for a bit, and I think it’s time to release it out into the general public: the new stat page. A little Merry Christmas from me to my readers. It actually started as an automated tool for myself, so I could have a few key stats handy when I’m writing, but it just snowballed into what you see today. Since I don’t have much of an index, let me give you a quick rundown, interspersed with comments from today’s Knick win over the hapless Bobcats.

The best place to start is the Team Totals. On that page, you can see each team’s scoring per possession, the best measure of a team’s offense or defense. At the very top of the defensive page are teams like the Spurs, Pistons, and Rockets. At the bottom are teams like the Jazz, Hawks, Bucks, and unfortunately, my New York Knicks. New York was 23rd when I checked a month and a half ago, so that means they’ve gotten worse since then. Wilkens has to deal with this disturbing trend either by trying out different defenses, getting the team to play better fundamentals, or by giving more minutes to better defensive players. I’ve begged & pleaded in this space for the Knicks to press & trap, something which the Knicks almost never do. In fact as far as I can recall, they play man nearly exclusively. Certainly it’s not working.

My least favorite defensive breakdown is what I call ‘defensive indifference’. Today Tim Thomas had two great examples of this. In the first quarter, Thomas got caught on a switch, and Primoz Brezec had the ball with Thomas at least 10 feet away. Brezec went up for the jumper as Thomas raced toward him. He closed the distance quickly, but realized he wouldn’t get there in time to block the attempt, and just gave up right in front of Brezec, without putting up a hand. Those kinds of plays kill me as a viewer, because every kid on a team in America has a coach that has taught him if he can’t block a shot to get a hand in the shooter face to stop him from getting a good look at the basket.

In the next quarter, Charlotte had a possession where they got a few offensive rebounds. At one point Okafor pulled one down facing the basket and Tim Thomas came behind him. Now, I have Thomas listed as 6’10, Okafor at 6’10, and Okafor’s FT% at 62%. If Thomas tries hard enough, the worst he can do is give Okafor a 38% chance of scoring two points. At best, it would have been a blind side block, the kind that little guys like Boykins, and Brevin Knight salivate for. But Thomas just watched as Emeka scored an easy two. Defensive indifference.

Anyway back to the stat page, not only can you rank the teams by efficiency, but by pace, or any of the four factors. You may notice that each team name is underlined, and clicking on the name will bring you to the team page. Here I have a few stats I use, including John Hollinger’s PER. It came in handy today when one of the announcers (Al Trautwig?) claimed that Moochie Norris was doing a good job bringing energy off the bench & setting up the offense. He’s got to be kidding me. Norris (2.9 PER) runs the offense like the Ukrainians run an election.

John Hollinger did a great job coming up with ways of rating a player’s ability, but what does Norris’ 19.5 turnover ratio mean? Click on the leaders link at the top, and then on the X above TO-r. This brings you to the League Leaders page, sorted by Hollinger’s turnover ratio. Norris doesn’t have enough minutes to qualify for league leaders, but if he could, his 19.5 would be 6th worst. Right between Antonio Davis and Erick Dampier. That’s just what you want in a backup PG, someone that turns the ball over like two old centers.

A special thanks goes to Kevin Pelton of supersonics.com fame for eyeing over my work & helping me get over that final hump in PER. Kevin, a cold beer awaits you in New York if you can make the trip with the team in March.