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Should We Fear Them, Part IV: The Bulls

 

Picture 9This is the fourth look at whether we have anything to fear from Eastern Conference teams outside the Holy Triumvirate of Cleveland-Boston-Orlando. (See prior installments on the Raptors, Wizards and Hawks). 

Next up: The Bulls

Last year’s record: 41-41

In: James Johnson (R), Taj Gibson (R), Jannero Pargo

Out: Ben Gordon

Should we fear them?

Oh Lord yes. I never want to see this team again as long as I live. I’m still having flashbacks to Tony Allen bricking shots as the C’s collapsed at the end of Game 6 in Chicago and Ben Gordon doing that stupid circle-over-my-eye thing after each of his approximately 829 made three-pointers in that series. Not to mention the occasional night terror involving Joakim Noah in a moo-moo.

But seriously: Is it relevant in 2009-10 that last year’s Bulls team was able to push a KG-less Celtics squad to the limit? I mean, the 2010 Bulls could be scary with a Rose-Salmons-Deng-Thomas-Noah starting line-up and a Miller/Hinrich bench duo if everything goes right. Four of those guys can fly around, three have enormous potential as defensive menaces (Deng, Noah and Thomas, one of the league’s great shot-blockers) and Salmons could fill the role as the ballsy scorer. But to make me worry about a repeat of last season, the Bulls will need to answer most of the following questions with an emphatic “yes.”

Can this team guard anyone?

The Bulls ranked 18th last season in points allowed per 100 possessions, the worst among the 16 playoff teams. That represented a far drop-off from the height of the Scott Skiles era in 2007, when the Bulls led the NBA in that category with a very different team that ranks among the greatest defensive squads of the post-2004 No Hand Check Era. The drop-off began in 2008, when the Bulls tuned out Skiles and fell from league best to league average (#14) in defensive efficiency. Last year’s problems continued in the playoffs, when the C’s scored about 110 points per 100 possessions against Chicago—the equivalent of a top-five NBA offense over a full season.

The conventional wisdom is that the Bulls can’t help but improve on defense by replacing the 6’3” Ben Gordon with the 6’7” John Salmons at the two. The Bulls gave up more than four points more per 100 possessions with Gordon on the floor last season, and the team has been worse with him defensively in each of the least three seasons, according to 82games. Salmons and Luol Deng, who will start at the small forward spot, haven’t helped their teams defensively during that span, according to the various metrics at 82games, Basketball Prospectus and Basketball Value. Even so, simply losing Gordon should improve the team’s defense.

But you can’t lay all the blame on Gordon.

After all, he played for that 2007 team, too. Interesting thing about that 2007 team: Kirk Hinrich, statistically Chicago’s best defender, played 72 percent of available minutes in 2007. He played just 34 percent of available minutes last season, largely due to injuries and the presence of rookie stud Derrick Rose. And Rose, by some measures, was awful defensively; the Bulls gave up almost eight points more per 100 possessions with Rose on the floor, one of the worst discrepancies in the league for an individual player. Rose has the size and speed to be a solid NBA defender, but guarding the screen/roll in an NBA that bans hand-checking is close to an impossible task. Telling a player to “stay in front” of someone like Rajon Rondo when Glen Davis is setting a screen—that’s borderline unreasonable.

Still, it’s clear Rose is doing something wrong defensively. He’ll have to improve or the Bulls will have to build a system that mitigates the impact of Rose’s troubles. Because he’s so damn good offensively he has to play a ton of minutes.

Ah, but to truly diagnose the Bulls defensive problems, you’ve got to look down low, too. Namely…

Will someone get a damn rebound?

The Bulls grabbed just 70.9 percent of available defensive rebounds last season, according to Basketball Reference; only the Kings and Warriors were worse. People who know a lot more about the Bulls than I do will tell you a small-ish front court of Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas just doesn’t get it done on the boards. Their individual defensive rebounding numbers aren’t horrible, and neither were the team’s plus/minus stats when the two shared the court. But one thing is (weirdly) clear: The team weirdly played a lot better when Brad Miller was in the game, lending credence to stats guru Wayne Winston’s theory that Brad Miller, bizarrely, has been one of the most productive players in the NBA over the last decade.

The Miller controversy aside, this is true: It’s hard to win in the NBA when you give up as many offensive boards as the Bulls did last season. Replacing the (relatively) short Gordon with Salmons and Deng will help, but everyone is going to have be better for the Bulls to repair the problem. But…

Can this team score?

The 2009 Bulls were a mediocre offensive team last season who barely shot any three-pointers (only two teams shot fewer threes per FGA), couldn’t convert inside shots and relied to an unhealthy degree on two-point jump shots. And they lost their best three-point shooter and leading scorer. This would seem to be a problem.

It probably is. But there are a few ways the Bulls can make up for the loss of Gordon’s 21 points per game, 41 percent three-point shooting and generally huge testicles. Call these the mini-questions within this larger question:

1) How much will Derrick Rose and Tyrus Thomas improve on offense, if at all? Rose is going to get better. There is no question about this. He’s not going to be a long-distance sniper (he made just 16 threes last season), but his jump shot will improve, his turnovers will drop and his assist rate will jump. He is undeniably awesome, and undeniably awesome players get better when they hit the drinking age (and party with Craigslist-recruited models to celebrate).

Thomas is another question. This will be Year Four for Ty-Ty, and it’s time for him to either stop shooting so many damn jump shots or start making more than 35 percent of them, his conversation rate on jumpers last season, according to 82games. If Thomas were a better offensive player, Vinny Del Negro may have been reluctant to pull him and mess around with super-small line-ups against the Celtics in the playoffs, a coaching move that was either a disaster or a stroke of genius, depending who you talk to. (My thoughts: It was neither).

2) Can John Salmons have his second outrageously good year in a row?

Did you know Salmons is about to turn 30? Doesn’t he seem like a kid? He’s not, and that’s why it’s somewhat of a concern that last year was such an outlier in Salmons’ career. This was not the case of a 24-year-old figuring things out as part of a predictable developmental pattern. This was a 29-year-old dude recording a 16.0 PER when he had never cracked 14.0 before and shooting nearly 42 percent from three after never sniffing 40 percent. Salmons, in fact, barely took one three-pointer a game before suddenly jacking 3.5 per game last season in Sacramento and 4.5 (!) per after the trade that sent he and Miller to the Bulls for Andres Nocioni.

In stat wonk terms, Salmons did something unusual: He scored more efficiently while carrying a heavier offensive load and using more possessions. Can he do it again?

3) Will Luol Deng rise again?

Maybe the biggest wild card on a team of wild cards. Deng’s game has been in a free fall since his monster 2007 season netted him a monstrous $71 million deal. Seriously, check his player page on Basketball Reference. Everything is down—shooting percentage, true shooting percentage (which factors in threes and foul shots), rebounding, assists, defense. It’s all gotten worse, in part due to some serious injuries.

Deng has (had?) monster potential. Like 6’8”, long-limbed Shawn Marion-style unconventional skill set potential. If he can get it back, this team could make some noise. 

Bad news for Bulls fans: Deng has been awful in the pre-season, shooting just 38 percent. Good news for Bulls fans: It’s only pre-season

The Final Verdict: Too many ifs, and too much of a possibility the struggle to score or that Vinny messes things up. No fear.*

 

*I take this sentence back if they play the Celtics in the first round.

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