The Raptors crawled into Chicago on Saturday night. Normally, you'd write something like "visited" or "played in" or "came calling" or some other time-worn sportswriting cliche. In this instance, "crawl" is the verb of choice because that's almost literally what Toronto was doing, as has been the case with so many NBA teams this season. Luckily for the Raptors, the Bulls weren't too spritely either, so the game was competitive if less than artistic.
Don't get me wrong. I don't believe such a thing as unwatchable basketball exists. I might throw that term out in a moment of disgust, but if I was really that cynical about the NBA, I wouldn't have been surrendering my Saturday night to go see the Bulls-Raptors. No, I'll take the NBA however I can get it. That doesn't mean I haven't noticed the preponderance of substandard play so far this season.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau doesn't care about that. His squad was a league-best 12-2 after riding a late burst to a 77-64 win over Toronto, a score more appropriate for the ACC than the NBA. The Bulls are now 5-0 at the United Center for the first time since 1996-97. What's more, Chicago has allowed an incredible 66.8 points per game in those five wins. Think about that. In the five years previous to this season, there were 55 regular-season games in which a team scored under 70 points--just 0.9 percent of all games played. Last season, there were just five. The Bulls have allowed under 70 points to four of their first five home opponents and 74 to the other one.
"We are not concerned with the aesthetics," Thibodeau said. "We just want the wins."
Well said, sir, but we are concerned with the aesthetics. Your defense is good, but no defense is that good. Jeff Van Gundy warned us about this before the season, saying, "There will be very discouraging regular-season games for all teams because of the fatigue and inequities of the schedule." You may also remember that Van Gundy accused the league of a "cash grab," saying the NBA was trying to get as many games in as possible, not as a service the fans or to maximize the credibility of this season's results, but simply to lessen the damage to the bottom line.
One thing seems certain: From a quality of play standpoint, the league would have been better off pushing opening day back 10 days or so and playing a few more exhibitions. The season could have been crunched to 50 games per team and if you minimize the number of interconference matchups, you'd still have credible conference standings. The travel schedule would be less of factor than it has been. The Raptors were playing for the seventh time in nine days; for the Bulls, it was nine out of 12. The effects were obvious on the court. Anyone who has ever played organized basketball can attest to the fact that it hard to run, shoot and defend with tired legs.
At the same time, it's uncertain that the poor quality of play is a competitive issue. There are disparities in the schedule but our preseason analysis suggested that such a factor would be suitably dulled by the time all 990 games have been played. Oklahoma City had the largest variance in opponent/travel-adjusted schedule strength from the original 82-game slate--1.3 percent more difficult, or less than one win over the course of 66 games. It seems more stark right now because you have, for instance, the Bulls who have played 14 games and the Clippers, who have played only nine. The point is that all teams will have some tough stretches and other somewhat easier ones and in the end, it will more or less even out.
Toronto must be looking forward to that because their recent schedule has been brutal. All of the bad calendar groupings were against the Raptors--second game of a back-to-back, third game in four nights, fifth in six, seventh in nine. It's been a tough road for first-year Raptors coach Dwane Casey, the author of the foreword in our most recent edition of Pro Basketball Prospectus. Toronto had lost five of six entering Saturday's game and when I caught up with Casey before the game to offer personal thanks for his help with the book, he said jokingly, "It hasn't helped us win many games so far."
After the loss, the 4-9 Raptors had a Pythagorean win percentage (.308) almost identical to last season (.293), but the early effects of Casey's arrival have been obvious. Toronto is coming off back-to-back seasons of finishing last in the league in Defensive Rating and despite working without the benefit of an offseason program, training camp or a full preseason schedule, Casey's team has made tremendous strides on the defensive end. The Raptors are much more physical these days and as it was when Scott Skiles took over the defensively-soft Milwaukee Bucks three years ago, that has manifested in a league-high foul rate. Toronto has risen from 28th to fourth in opponents' effective field-goal percentage and all the way to 20th in Defensive Rating.
"From day one, I've said it's going to be a work in progress," Casey said. "We have so many young players. (There has been) a change of culture, going from an offensive mentality to a defensive mentality, which I think is probably the hardest thing do in this sport.
"When we win, I don't get too excited because I see a lot of mistakes. When we lose, I don't get over-concerned because this season is going to be ... it's a lot of work to be done from scratch. Ground zero."
While Casey has focused on his team's defensive performance, Andrea Bargnani has carried the offense. Bargnani is one of the few Raptors rotation that players who has been more efficient this season and if he continues on his current path, he will be playing at an All-Star level for the first time in his six-year career. Last season, Toronto's first after Chris Bosh's departure for Miami, Bargnani upped his usage rate by nearly six percent. His efficiency sunk disproportionately and because he's been weak in other facets of the game, his overall value actually sunk despite the greater offensive role. In the early stages of this season, Bargnani's True Shooting Percentage (.579) is at a career peak, his usage rate is even higher, and he's become a better playmaker. More importantly, there are signs that Bargnani is learning to be more physical. His foul-drawing rate is up, he's rebounding better and the Raptors have actually been a hairsbreadth better defensively with Bargnani on the floor.
None of that mattered on Saturday, as Bargnani sat out for the second straight game because of a left calf strain. Despite his absence, the Raptors were down by just four points as the fourth quarter began. Unfortunately, one of the sparks for Toronto on Saturday was James Johnson, the former Bull who has had a dreadful beginning to the season. Johnson was having a breakout game with 12 points when, late in the third quarter, he stepped on the foot of teammate Leandro Barbosa and sprained an ankle. He was unable to return. He was missed as the Raptors simply didn't have the energy to compete for 48 minutes. Johnson had really been the most energetic player on the floor on either side that night. Toronto wasn't just missing Bargnani--Jerryd Bayless sat again because of an ankle sprain and Aaron Gray is recovering from a heart ablation. The rotation is so short that Casey again used wing Gary Forbes--a power forward in his days at Massachusetts--as his backup point guard.
With Chicago ahead just 56-52 as the fourth quarter began, basketball purists at the United Center might have hope a tight finish might salvage what had been an ugly game. Not on this night, not with the road team playing for the seventh time in nine nights. Derrick Rose, slowed by a turf toe, went into Steve Nash mode, assisting on four straight field goals and Taj Gibson went off after taking a cheap shot from Jamaal Magloire on the boards. With Johnson out, Casey tried to dust off Linas Kleiza, who is coming off knee surgery. It wasn't nearly enough and the game wasn't close down the stretch. The Raptors made just one free throw in the game, in seven attempts.
"I thought our guys fought hard, but there just weren't enough bullets to fight this well-coached and run team," Casey said.
It's been a familiar refrain for so many teams this season. Not enough players. Not enough energy. Not enough practice time. It's wonderful to have the NBA back, but the real cost of the lockout to fans has turned out to be subpar NBA basketball, a slew of non-competitive games and more nagging injuries than usual. I talked to one fan on Saturday who bemoaned the fact that because the schedule has resulted in so many more 10-, 11- and 12-game nights in the NBA, he's able to watch a significantly lower percentage of LeaguePass games than in the past. He said this before the game. I didn't see him after the Bulls and Raptors combined for 141 points and 37.5 percent shooting, but I wondered if he felt the same way.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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