Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fire Thibodeau? Are Bulls Fans Absolutely Fucking Nuts?

Devastated as I am by Rose's season-ending (and championship-dream-shattering) injury, stuff like this drives me insane.

Bulls fans, I'm going to explain something, and you're going to have to take my word for it that I am absolutely 100% correct. Tom Thibodeau is not responsible for Derrick Rose's ACL tear. Do you know who or what is responsible? Nobody. There is no reason for it. There is no one to blame. This isn't the Iraq war or the financial crisis, caused by real villains who left behind a paper trail of their heinous acts for us to weigh and examine and dole out the appropriate condemnation. This was a freak accident, a ligament that snapped during a routine jump stop. Yes, it happened late in the game with the Bulls leading by 12; it could've just as likely happened during the third quarter with the lead at 5, or during the first quarter of Game Two with the Bulls trailing by 2. 

Bulls fans, I know it's comforting to think that all of life's contingencies can be managed or controlled, that all of its risk can be identified and avoided. I am here to tell you that such thinking is false, and that it is desperate and childish and profoundly wrong-headed to think that it could ever be true. Sure, it would be swell to think that if only we had the Phoenix Suns' training staff, this terrible injury would not have occurred. But the Phoenix Suns training staff, though markedly better than most staffs, are not omnipotent. You see it on bumper stickers everywhere because it's true: Shit Happens.*

Meanwhile, the coach whose head people are calling for has almost literally given his life to basketball and this Bulls team. That which he has been able to control, he has controlled, masterfully, indeed more so than any other head coach in the NBA over the past two years. Chicago almost certainly won't win a title now, but they STILL have an excellent chance of knocking off the Sixers, and the hated Celtics in the next round, because they have a head coach who has helped them play the best defense in the NBA over the past two years. If Bulls fans want to throw that away because of an accident he had absolutely nothing to do with, well, then they'll deserve what comes next, which I can guarantee won't be anywhere near as excellent.

*It might also be worth keeping this injury in perspective. One way to do so is to Google "Chicago 2012 toddler shot." Shit, this wasn't the worst thing to befall a child of Englewood in the past two weeks. Not even close.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Unbearable Shortness of Linsanity, or, JL3's Claim to Most Improved Player

It appears all over but the shouting that Jeremy Lin will take home this year's Most Improved Player award. This is all well and good, because only a sour-faced curmudgeon could argue against or deny the total fucking awesomeness that was Linsanity. But if you will permit me, I would like to get my sour-faced curmudgeon on. 

Certainly on nearly all of the numbers, Lin has a rock-solid claim to the award. His PER jumped 5 points, he raised his TS% nearly 10 percentage points from this year to last, and per 36 min., his point and assist averages increased by 10 and 3, respectively. That type of improvement could go up against anyone's, in any year, and have a damn good shot of walking away with the MIP.

However, it seems relevant that Lin only played in 35 games total this year, and played only a meaningful role in 26 (the 25 he started, and the first game of Linsanity in which he came off the bench to torch New Jersey). Lin certainly made his presence felt in the games he played, but he played big minutes in under 40% of New York's games. It wasn't Lin's fault he didn't play in more games to start the season, but he's missed the entire last month with a knee injury, and it has to be mentioned that the Knicks haven't exactly struggled without him, going 10-5 on a schedule that included 9 Playoff teams. (In comparison, their 10-3 record during the opening blast of Linsanity featured at most 4 Playoff teams.) It appears as if Lin is about to receive an award for a season in which he played 6 weeks of meaningful basketball, and in which, lest we forget, during two of those 6 weeks, his team went 1-7.*

So if not Lin, then who? A lot of people might put in a brief for Ryan Anderson, but when you look at the numbers, you see a player who hasn't so much improved as finally gotten the proper amount of minutes that his production has long suggested he receive. You could actually make a damn good case for James Harden, but he's a shoo-in for the Sixth Man Award and there's been far too much consolidation of prestige in this country as is; we don't want the NBA pressing its finger down further on the scales in favor of inequality.

And indeed, it is in the spirit of thoughtful egalitarianism that we put forward the name of John Lucas III, a true MIP candidate for the 99 Percent. On its face, it might seem ridiculous, but delve deeper and there's a fair bit of there there. For starters, the man was barely in the league last year, and even then it seemed like the Bulls signed him out of some kind of affirmative action program for former players coached by Thibs (a.k.a., The Scalabrine Foundation for Locker Room Achievers). And yet this year, with Rose's myriad injuries, JL3 was pressed into regular service, and he not only stepped up to the challenge,  he outright excelled at times. Stats-wise, we're looking at a guy who played nearly twice as many minutes this year as he did during his three previous NBA seasons combined, and who ended up with a 15.3 PER. The man shot 39% on 133 three point attempts, had an assist : turnover ratio better than 2 to 1, and, even aside from his aforementioned mauling of Miami, had a number of signature games against good teams. 

In fact, given that the Bulls played without their MVP point guard for nearly 40 percent of the season and appear likely to finish with the same winning percentage as last year's 62-win team, and given that Lucas appears to have been as good as, if not better than, C.J. Watson this season, I think there's a case to be made that JL3's inspired play this season might be as important as any other factor when it comes to figuring out how the Bulls continued to play at such a high level without Rose. Check out the Bulls' top units of adjusted +/-, and you find that JL3 is part of a number of the better ones, including some with serious minutes played. (In particular, the Lucas-Korver-Deng-Taj-Omer is flat-out beastly, at +29.3 efficiency differential in 148 minutes. And especially so when compared to the otherwise similar Watson-Korver-Deng-Taj-Omer, which is -3.58 in 49 minutes played.)

Everyone fell in love with Lin this year because he rose from the D-League to play a role in reviving the Knicks' season. Well, JL3 has played in the D-League too (and Italy, and Spain, and fucking China), and if he didn't revive the Bulls season, he helped keep it from needing one. Lin's a great story and a great MIP candidate, but Lucas might have a better claim for both.**

*In fairness, this stretch had much more to do with Melo quitting on D'Antoni than with anything that Lin did or did not do. But the fact remains, Lin had trouble productively co-existing with Melo, and regardless of blame apportionment, that's hardly a point in his favor.

**I should admit, the argument for Lucas vs. Lin falls apart a bit when one looks at minutes played, in that Lin has more minutes this season than Lucas. But my response to that is, "Look, if Lin had been behind Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson instead of Mike Bibby and rookie Iman Shumpert, he'd have had trouble getting a lot of minutes too."

UPDATE: I have to admit, I completely forgot about DeMarcus Cousins, whose case for MIP seems pretty open-and-shut to me. Still, JL3 should be getting more recognition than he's received thus far.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Bulls Offense Worrisome But Not Fatal (Yet)

It's been noted elsewhere, but after being among the top 3 offenses in the NBA throughout most of this year, the Bulls' offense has fallen out of the top 5 (down to sixth), and has been downright ugly since the start of April. I ran the numbers for points per 100 possessions since their April 1 stinker against OKC and got 98.1, which, over the course of a full season, would have the Bulls tied with Cleveland for 4th worst offense in the NBA, ahead of only Detroit, Washington, and the historically atrocious Bobcats. Take away the Bulls' game against the Bobcats (who also have the league's worst D), in which they scored a scintillating 117.6 pts. per 100 possessions, and that number plummets to 96.1, ahead of only Charlotte. Last night against Miami, they managed all of 80.9 pts. per 100 possessions, a number that even Charlotte could LOLZ at. 

So what's been the problem? I think a couple things. Their True Shooting percentage hasn't really been elite all year, but it was hovering slightly around and even above the league average for most of the season. That's changed, with the Bulls now pretty firmly in the latter half of the league. This doesn't hurt the Bulls as much as it would most teams because THEY ARE FUCKING TERRORS ON THE OFFENSIVE BOARDS, and with the exception of last night's game vs. Miami, that (thankfully) hasn't changed in April. If it had, instead of watching a run-of-the-mill poor NBA offense, we'd be watching a historically shitty one. 

Much more destructive has been the increase in turnovers this month, with the Bulls giving away the rock 19 times in three of April's 10 games thus far, with another game of 17 miscues and one of 15. This run of sloppy play has seen the Bulls fall out of the top 10 in TO rate for the first time all season. 

Also worth noting is that the Bulls' FT shooting, never anything to write home about, has been downright awful in April. They've gotten there at a very decent clip in some games, but have pissed away any advantage they might accrue from that. April has seen Deng getting to the line more than he has at any time since his wrist injury, but that increase has totally been offset by his 70% pct. once he's there, the worst he's had in a month this season. And it's not just Luol. Boozer, never much better than low 70%, is shooting 55% this month. Asik, always terrible, has been especially so, at 42%. And that's still better than Brewer's 41.5% from the line in April. Taj and Noah have both had good months at the line for them, but they haven't been able to make up for the plummeting averages of their teammates.

In some sense, this is good news. The Bulls are never going to be a good FT shooting team so long as they play Boozer, Brewer, and Asik big minutes, but going forward those three shouldn't be as terrible as they've been recently, and if they can return to shooting at their career averages, that would be a considerable bump. 

Still the TOs and offensive struggles in general are extremely concerning. Over the past month, the Bulls have remained an elite defensive team (overtaking Boston recently to become the most efficient defensive team in the league) and that might still be enough to take down a flailing Sixers squad in the first round. But beyond that, an offense that's scoring at one of the worst rates in the league over the past month is not going to be able to seriously compete for a title. Simple as that.

However, recent history suggests all is not lost. Last year, the Mavs, like the Bulls this year, were a surprisingly effectively offensive team throughout the season, but in the final month, their offense was severely hampered by injuries to some key players. They stumbled toward the Playoffs, but they got healthy and managed to get things working offensively just in time. There's still a ton of uncertainty surrounding Rose's ankle injury, but assuming he can come back healthy, it's certainly conceivable the Bulls could regain their elite offensive status fairly quickly. The Bulls' recent offensive swoon isn't ideal by any stretch, but it isn't necessarily fatal to their Title hopes.**

**(Unless Rose can't come back, in which case, yeah, we're pretty fucked.)