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.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

In Defense of Luol Deng, All-Star

On Twitter, John Hollinger's been having some fun ridiculing Deng's All-Star selection. I'm not sure why he feels like Rondo is such a snub--dude's missed more games than Deng, and his PER isn't as good as Jennings'--but Hollinger isn't alone in feeling Deng's not deserving. The equally brilliant Zach Lowe made a point of sniffing at Deng's credentials earlier in the week.

A lot of this comes down to the nebulous criteria for picking All-Stars. From an individual statistical level, even the most diehard Deng partisan (and I am not quite that, but close) would have to admit that when it comes to either conventional stats or advanced metrics, Deng seems to fall short. But one criteria bandied about--that players should come from winning teams--is relevant, and when it comes to measuring that, the metrics that we have suggest Deng might be more deserving than some people believe.

The most familiar one is Adjusted Plus/Minus. Obviously, LeBron James (having one of the best seasons of his career) leads all Eastern forwards, but where does Deng fit in after him? Actually, he fits in ahead of LeBron, in first place among all forwards.

We see it in the Top Units with regards to Adjusted +/- as well. There is only one team with two units in the Top 10 of the league, and that team is Chicago. But strangely there is only one common denominator in those two lineups, and it's not Derrick Rose: It's Luol Deng.

Perhaps that could be waved aside due to the relatively small sample of minutes for most of the top units. Indeed, looking at all of the top units, only three have played more than 100 minutes together. But the highest one among those three (with a +/- of 21.08 in 188 minutes) is Rose-Brewer-Deng-Boozer-Noah.

But let's make this a little more concrete and examine how the Bulls did in their recent seven-game stretch without Deng. Yes, they went 4-3 (compared to 18-3 with him), but what I found even more interesting was that their point differential over that stretch was a measly +1.43. Considering the Bulls' overall point differential is a league-leading 9.68, that's a pretty stunning difference. And while it's true they've played a ridiculously easy schedule thus far (with their opponents' winning percentage only .451), it's not like their strength-of-schedule during the Deng-less stretch was particularly tough. I calculated it at .489, which would rank 21st in the league. Seven games is obviously an absurdly small sample size, but I can't help but find it significant, particularly in light of the fact the Bulls have simply been murdering (admittedly shitty) teams since Deng's return.

A lot of stat geeks have grown accustomed to rolling their eyes whenever they hear someone like Thibodeau say "Lu affects winning," which is basically Thibs' mantra whenever he's asked about Deng. Affecting winning? That's too vague, just horseshit "coach-speak." Show us concrete statistical production! Preferably directly correlated to Dean Oliver's Four Factors!

I don't mean to dismiss such demands because a) Dean Oliver is a genius and b) a lot of coach speak is plain horseshit. (Cough! Vinny! Cough! Del Negro! Cough!) But it might also be the case that Thibodeau and some other coaches in the league do understand which players are among the elite when it comes to helping their teams win games. And we do have some statistical tools to test whether they're right, if we choose to apply them.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

With No Great Moves Availables, Why Not Make A Dick Move?

Reading Zach Lowe’s analysis of Miami signing Shane Battier got me thinking…

Lowe writes about the move’s financial ripple effects for Miami’s roster, and notes, “The Heat have tendered Chalmers a $1.1 million qualifying offer, and Battier’s decision to take less than the full mid-level should allow Miami to retain its point guard at that cost. [But] if another team offers much more, Miami might have to let Chalmers go…”

I know that the Bulls’ biggest need is at 2-guard, but seeing as Jason Richardson (a great shooter, but only a middling defender and not much of a shot creator) is probably the best realistic option on the free agency market, I’m wondering if whether instead the Bulls should swoop in and offer Chalmers a part of their MLE (say, a 3-year, $9 mil. deal) to backup Derrick Rose and maybe even play alongside him at times.

Chalmers would obviously be woefully under-sized as a two-guard, but he can shoot the three, handle the rock and create for others, play hard on-the-ball D, and he hit some of Miami’s biggest shots in the Finals against Dallas (i.e., he has a bit of Simmons’ “Irrational Confidence Guy” in him). He’d allow the Bulls to part much more easily with C.J. Watson in any future trades for a starting 2, and perhaps more importantly, stealing him from Miami would leave the Heat with only one player, rookie Norris Cole, at PG, and there sure as hell aren’t a lot of other appetizing options out there on the market.

With Wade and James, Miami can obviously play without a traditional point, but adding one more thing (primary ballhandler) to either player’s list of duties is likely to make them somewhat worse in another area, considering just how many things Miami calls on both players to do (scoring, rebounding, playmaking, shotblocking, wing-defending, etc.). Signing away Chalmers from Miami may not be a great move for the Bulls, but it would be a dick move to Miami, which might make it the Bulls’ best option at this point.