Both Kevin Pelton and I picked the Bulls to make it all the way to next June's NBA Finals. Now that the Bulls have started 2-8, are we feeling shaky about that pick?
I can't speak for Kevin, but it almost goes without saying that it's far too early to jump ship, even if the gap between the Bulls and the beasts of the East--Boston and Orlando--seems awfully wide to bridge. There's no reason to panic yet, but when a championship contender starts off this bad, it warrants examination.
As every Bulls fan can attest, these slow starts are nothing new under Scott Skiles. During Skiles' three full seasons at the helm in Chicago, the Bulls have posted 1-9, 5-5 and 3-7 records in their first 10 games on the schedule. Of those 30 games, only 10 of them have been played at home. The culprit, of course, is that snakeoil salesman of yore, P.T. Barnum. The circus that bears his name invades the United Center each November, forcing the Bulls out on the road for two weeks. This season, the Bulls have had four games at the U.C. and dropped three of them, so you can't blame Barnum for everything. Elephants and dancing bears aside, this is a team that just hasn't played very good basketball. The Bulls are on pace to win 16 games and their Pythagorean pace is 15.3 wins. Ouch.
The Bulls' true-shooting percentage (45.6) is easily the worst in the NBA. The Nets are the only other team below break-even. Three Chicago starters are shooting under 38 percent from the field, with starting guards Kirk Hinrich (34.2 percent, third in field-goal attempts per game) and Ben Gordon (37.2 percent, second) the primary culprits in the brickfest.
Shooting percentage ebbs and flows, kind of like batting average in baseball. Hinrich and Gordon will eventually get their strokes going and their percentages will regress to the mean. Gordon is a notoriously slow starter--his career shooting percentage in games before the first of December is 32.2 percent, then increases to 43.8 percent thereafter. November has also been Hinrich's worst shooting month.
One player move that Skiles could make in an effort to boost his team's overall field-goal percentage, and perhaps help free up his best players on the perimeter, is to boost the minutes of rookie center Aaron Gray. Gray is averaging just over nine minutes in the four games he has played, and is averaging 17.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per 40 minutes in his limited time. This performance in a small sample size is comparable to the numbers he posted in the preseason. With the Bulls devoid of any interior offensive presence, Gray is probably the team's best post player on the offensive end. As an added bonus, Gray has shown a knack for getting to the line, which would be a boon to this perimeter-oriented squad. Chicago is well below average in free-throw attempts per game and has been outscored by nearly seven points per contest from the charity stripe.
The downside of giving more time to Gray--and less to Ben Wallace--is a huge dropoff in defense. Gray is slow afoot and doesn't jump well; he hasn't blocked a shot yet this season. Since most of his minutes so far have come in garbage time, his foul rate isn't that high, but in the preseason, Gray looked like a typical rookie who would have trouble staying on the court. So Skiles would have to pick the situations he uses in which he uses Gray very carefully.
However, it's not like the Bulls' defense has been all that stellar even with aging center Ben Wallace playing 28 minutes per night, with a team defensive efficiency merely in the middle of the pack. Wallace's 40-minute rebound rate (10.3) is more than three boards off his career rate (13.6). His block and steal rates are holding up but his positional defense, according to the early returns in my rating system, has been shaky. I found it telling that in a November 8 game against the Pistons (one of the Bulls' two wins), Wallace was mostly a spectator as Tyrus Thomas guarded Rasheed Wallace and was torched for 36 points. Ben Wallace is 33 years old now, in his 12th NBA season, and as a player with negative offensive value, he may simply not be a full-time player any longer. What would the Bulls give to swap him for Tyson Chandler at this point?
If Gray's minutes are increased, it shouldn't be at the expense of Joakim Noah's time on the floor. Noah is averaging 11.9 boards and more than two steals and two blocks apiece per 40 minutes and gets to the line at a nice rate. He's a little foul prone and isn't ready for a starting role, but he clearly has a solid place in the Bulls' rotation.
Thomas' role has been reduced the last two games. Why? Here's what Skiles told the Chicago Sun-Times:
"We ask [Thomas] to sprint the floor," Skiles said. "To my knowledge, in his career, he hasn't done it one time--not one time. You guys, sit and watch the game tonight. If he gets in there, is he jogging or is he sprinting the floor? I've got to not only look for, especially young guys, can someone help me win a game tonight and balance that against trying to get him to be a high, high-level player. He's not going to be if he doesn't do that one thing. If he did that, that's about all he has to do--change ends like a train. We have not been able to get him to do that."
Skiles is overstating the matter. I personally witnessed Thomas beat Drew Gooden like a drum during a game at the U.C. last March, mostly because he repeatedly beat Gooden down the floor. There is no question, however, that Thomas' effort has been inconsistent. Hopefully, the extra time on the bench will send a clear message to the talented second-year player, because Skiles has resorted to starting Adrian Griffin in his stead; that's not going to help. If it were me, I'd divy up the big-man minutes something like Thomas for 30 minutes, Noah and Wallace for 24 minutes each and Gray for 18 minutes.
The Bulls are not nearly as bad as they've looked in their first 10 games. It's clear they have a long way to go if they are going to fulfill the expectations set by their preseason projections.
The Bulls and Player Trends
Looking at player trends illustrates something else about the Bulls' start that sounds the early-season, sample-size alarm. I sorted the numbers for all NBA players who had played at least 100 minutes through Tuesday's games by years played, trying to get a feel for which age groups have improved or deteriorated the most. Going in, I expected second-year players to show the most improvement. I was wrong, but that's not really my point.
First, I have to offer a quick explanation of the two primary metrics in NBAPET, my tracking system. (The name stands for NBA projection, evaluation and tracking.) The first is WA82, which is shorthand for wins-added per 82 games. I'll offer an more detailed explanation of what goes into WA82 when I get my online glossary finished, but its expression is simple: The number of wins a player adds to an otherwise league-average team given his minutes played. Right now, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James are tied atop the league with a WA82 mark of 9.4. That means that if every other minute played by their teammates were exactly league average, their teams could be expected to win 50.4 games. The worst player in the league among qualifying players so far has been Willie Green at -5.6. His team could be expected to win 35.4 games. Easy enough? The companion to WA82 is the rate stat WA3280, which is the number of wins a player would add (or subtract) if he were to play 40 minutes per game for 82 games, or 3,280 minutes.
Here's a chart of the average change in WA3280 over last season, broken into groups by years played in the NBA, with a minimum of at least 100 minutes played:
EXP No. CHNG
1 24 0.73
2 30 1.07
3 32 -1.27
4 32 0.11
5 24 -1.14
6 28 -0.97
7 19 0.66
8 14 -1.71
9 22 -1.11
10 9 -2.40
11 12 -1.25
12 9 -0.80
13 3 -4.54
14 2 -2.57
15 1 -3.37
KEY: EXP - experience; No. - number of players in group;
CHNG - change in WA3280 over last season
These sample sizes are way too small, of course, but what jumps out is the group of fourth-year players, players with three years of NBA experience. Without getting too detailed and looking at player ages, you'd expect the four-year guys to be on the ascension, at a rate somewhere between the three- and five-year players, if you were looking at large enough sample over multiple seasons. As it turns out, this year's numbers are driven down by a quartet of our aforementioned struggling Bulls. Here's the complete list of changes in WA3280 by fourth-year players:
T.J. Ford, TOR 4.85
Kris Humphries, TOR 3.87
Jameer Nelson, ORL 3.79
Damien Wilkins, SEA 3.39
J.R. Smith, DEN 2.95
Delonte West, SEA 2.24
Charlie Bell, MIL 1.58
Devin Harris, DAL 1.30
Nick Collison, SEA 1.18
Josh Smith, ATL 0.86
David Harrison, IND 0.84
Andre Iguodala, PHI 0.29
Sebastian Telfair, MIN -0.09
Al Jefferson, MIN -0.11
Matt Bonner, SAS -0.20
Dwight Howard, ORL -0.69
Beno Udrih, SAC -1.37
Carlos Delfino, TOR -1.79
Josh Childress, ATL -1.81
Quinton Ross, LAC -1.83
Trevor Ariza, ORL -2.12
Kevin Martin, SAC -2.20
Andres Nocioni, CHI -2.97
Andris Biedrins, GSW -3.45
Tony Allen, BOS -3.48
Dorell Wright, MIA -4.05
Emeka Okafor, CHA -5.32
Casey Jacobsen, MEM -6.45
Ben Gordon, CHI -6.99
Nenad Krstic, NJN -7.01
Chris Duhon, CHI -7.39
Luol Deng, CHI -8.51
Four key members of the Bulls' rotation are way off of their pace of last season. All, except arguably the 27-year-old Andres Nocioni, are at ages at which they should still be on the upswing. What is it with Gordon and Deng? Is it really those Kobe Bryant trade whisperings? The fact that the Bulls didn't sign them to extensions? Probably neither. They're just off to bad starts. When they bounce back, so will the Bulls.
- The Nets' Jason Kidd is shooting 34.2 percent from the field, yet still ranks 20th in the league in with a 3.7 WA82. Why? Checked out his 40-minutes numbers this season: 12.2 points, 9.7 rebounds, 11.6 assists. Until a two-rebound effort at Utah on Monday, Kidd had been averaging a 40-minute triple-double.
- The two-through-five ranked players in terms of assists per 40 minutes are a pretty solid list of the NBA's best passers: Chris Paul (12.3), Steve Nash (12.3), Jason Kidd (11.6) and T.J. Ford (11.1). Who is the top dime dog? Well, among players with at least 15 minutes per team game played, it's Ford's backup in Toronto, Jose Calderon. Calderon is averaging 12.6 assists per 40 minutes. He also ranks 18th in the league in WA3280--two spots ahead of Ford.
- Speaking of passers, Utah's Andrei Kirilenko got over his summertime sulking and has rebounded from a lackluster 2006-07 season with some of the most inspired basketball of his career. Kirilenko is averaging 7.2 assists per 40 minutes this season. His career average in that category is 3.3 and his career high is the 4.6 rate he posted in 2005-2006.
Game Scores (11/12-11/20)
(Game scores were explained last time around.)
No. Date Player Opp. GS
1 14-Nov Lebron James, CLE ORL 65
2 14-Nov Dwight Howard, ORL CLE 49
3 16-Nov Lebron James, CLE UTA 46
4 16-Nov Damien Wilkins, SEA ATL 46
5 16-Nov Andris Biedrins, GSW LAC 46
6 20-Nov Lebron James, CLE MIL 45
7 12-Nov Allen Iverson, DEN CLE 44
8 13-Nov Dirk Nowitzki, DAL PHI 44
9 14-Nov Caron Butler, WAS IND 43
10 20-Nov Michael Redd, MIL CLE 43
11 13-Nov Tony Parker, SAS LAL 43
12 18-Nov T.J. Ford, TOR GSW 42
13 16-Nov Kevin Garnett, BOS MIA 41
14 16-Nov Kevin Martin, SAC NYK 41
15 13-Nov Shawn Marion, PHX NYK 41
16 19-Nov Deron Williams, UTA NJN 41
17 17-Nov Amare Stoudemire, PHX HOU 41
19 14-Nov Gilbert Arenas, WAS IND 41
20 20-Nov Kobe Bryant, LAL IND 40
21 12-Nov Carlos Boozer, UTA SAC 40
22 14-Nov Drew Gooden, CLE ORL 39
23 16-Nov Michael Finley, SAS HOU 39
24 13-Nov Paul Pierce, BOS IND 39
25 14-Nov Yao Ming, HOU LAL 39
No. Date Player Opp. GS
1 16-Nov Bonzi Wells, HOU SAS -19
2 16-Nov Rasual Butler, NWO MEM -15
3 17-Nov Taurean Green, POR WAS -13
4 13-Nov Derek Fisher, LAL SAS -12
5 12-Nov Damon Jones, CLE DEN -11
6 20-Nov Sasha Pavlovic, CLE MIL -10
7 14-Nov Jamaal Tinsley, IND WAS -10
8 20-Nov Willie Green, PHI WAS -10
9 16-Nov Eddie House, BOS MIA -9
10 12-Nov Steven Hunter, DEN CLE -8
11 17-Nov Bostjan Nachbar, NJN MIA -8
12 17-Nov Chris Richard, MIN NWO -8
13 17-Nov Roger Mason, WAS POR -7
14 12-Nov Daniel Gibson, CLE DEN -7
15 13-Nov Kevin Durant, SEA ORL -7
16 17-Nov Channing Frye, POR WAS -7
17 20-Nov Bobby Jones, DEN CHI -7
19 18-Nov Jason Maxiell, DET SAC -7
20 12-Nov Von Wafer, DEN CLE -6
21 17-Nov Jared Jeffries, NYK DEN -6
22 13-Nov Anfernee Hardaway, MIA CHA -6
23 17-Nov Zaza Pachulia, ATL MIL -6
24 20-Nov Nate Robinson, NYK GSW -6
25 13-Nov Eric Piatkowski, PHX NYK -6
26 16-Nov Lindsey Hunter, DET LAL -6
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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