Monday, March 28, 2011

Let's add two more...

... qualities of Championship teams that the Bulls displayed in their last two wins, over Memphis and Milwaukee:

10. The ability to win a game when you don't bring your "A" game. The Bulls didn't look sharp or especially inspired against the Grizzlies or Bucks, but still found ways to gut out wins in the heat of a late season race for the top seed.

11. That "other gear". When the Bulls found themselves down by 15 midway through the 3rd quarter at the Bradley Center, they just decided that they were through messing around with these guys. Thibodeau switched Luol Deng onto John Salmons, who had seemingly scored about 90% of Milwaukee's points at that juncture, and put an end to that. (I'll say what I've been saying since a month into the season: Deng deserves All-Defense recognition this year.) And then Derrick Rose went off. Not that he hasn't been growing rapidly into this role all season, but that last 90 seconds or so of the game, there was a ruthless, cold-blooded, throat-slitting, supremely talented closer on display in Milwaukee.

Speaking of other gears, let's switch gears now and for just a moment put down the Kool-Aid and get into something a tad bit troubling:

I'm kind of over Carlos Boozer.

In the latter stages of his career when he was still winning rebounding titles, Dennis Rodman had more or less stopped playing any defense whatsoever and just hung around the basket to go chase rebounds. It takes a lot less work, and a rebound goes on the stat sheet while a defensive stop does not.

Watching Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute knock down a handful of foul line jumpers while Boozer watched indifferently from the semi-circle made me crazy. A rebound on the stat sheet is absolutely empty if you tracked it down by ignoring your defensive responsibilities. It took me back to the last time the Bulls faced Miami and Mario Chalmers got an uncontested layup with the game in doubt in the closing seconds, while Boozer stood frozen nearby and couldn't be troubled to take the three steps it would have required to defend the rim.

He waves his arms. He yaps. He grimaces and slams the ball in his hands after an opponent's made basket, as if they had just scored despite his heroic efforts. All demonstrations meant to give the illusion that he's interested in defense without actually putting any effort whatsoever into that end of the floor.

Right now, unless Carlos Boozer gives you 15 & 10 on a given night, he's a liability on the floor.

Kyle Korver is bad defensively because, well... he's bad defensively. Carlos Boozer is bad defensively because he doesn't put any real effort into it. He doesn't have to be Larry Nance, but he needs to contest a 15-foot jump shot and defend the rim. He's the only Bull not to have bought into Thibodeau's defensive teaching and strategy.

Were it me, I would move Boozer to the bench and start Taj Gibson. This would serve a few purposes...

1. It would lighten Luol Deng's minutes load by letting Boozer be the scoring anchor for the second team.

2. It would match Boozer up against a power forward less capable of exploiting his defensive deficiencies.

3. Boozer might just get the message. (Or the memo.)

Additionally, I would explore trade options involving Boozer after the season. If you significantly upgrade the scoring at the shooting guard position in the deal, you can afford to lose the 4-5 points you'd sacrifice by going from Boozer at Gibson at power forward. And you make your team even better defensively in the process.

Playing GM for a moment here - as well as giving you another numbered list - here are three trades that would work under the cap that I think would make the Bulls a better basketball team:

1. ... to Portland for Brandon Roy.

This deal is only acceptable if Roy's knees check out between now and July. Portland is woefully short on big men (no pun intended) - literally all they have on the roster is LaMarcus Aldridge and the 103 year-old Marcus Camby. But the Blazers are loaded on the wings with Wesley Matthews, Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez. If Roy is healthy, the deal makes perfect sense for both teams.

2. ... to Charlotte for Boris Diaw and either Shaun Livingston or Gerald Henderson

The Bobcats have no inside scoring whatsoever and can't start both Henderson and Livingston - both of whom are still fairly young and would represent significant upgrades over Keith Bogans. Diaw has one year left at $9 million and would be far more likely to re-up with the Bulls than Bobcats.

3. ... to Orlando - along with Joakim Noah - for Dwight Howard.

A plug-and-play frontcourt with cost certainty for 4 years is by far the best offer the Magic will ever get for Howard, who they will lose anyway when he can opt out in another year. Rose and Howard... minimum eight-peat, my friend!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

9 Common Elements of an NBA Champion

1. You need to have one of the best 3-5 players in the game. This isn't an absolute - the Pistons have won 3 of the last 23 NBA titles without it. But 80-90% of the time, you need that.

Do the Bulls have it? YES.

2. Your second best player should probably be in the top 10-15 players in the NBA. This helps, but it's not as mandatory as #1. None of the three Pistons championship teams had it. Nor did either of the Rockets championship teams. You can argue about whether the Spurs championship teams did - was the Admiral still at that level? Were Ginobili and Parker there? Shaq was probably there when he won it in Miami, and Kobe was clearly there when he won three with Shaq in LA. Scottie Pippen, Pau Gasol... definitely. But plenty of teams have had two of the top 15 or so and not won anything - Stockton/Malone, Barkley/KJ, Shaq/Penny, Melo/Iverson... you'll be able to add Melo/Stoudemire to that list this year.

Do the Bulls have it? NO.

3. Four starters who are in the top 5-10 players in the NBA at their position.

This may be the most absolute. You can have your one pure role player in the starting lineup, your Derek Fisher, your John Paxson, your Udonis Haslem, your Bruce Bowen. But you need four guys who are better than the guy they're facing on most nights, and aren't a major matchup disadvantage against anyone. You won't find a single NBA Championship team in the last 25 years that doesn't have this.

Do the Bulls have it? Rose, Deng, Boozer, Noah... YES.

4. You need to be a very good defensive team. Over the last 25 years, the average defensive rank of the NBA Champions has been #7 in the league - which, frankly, is lower than I would have expected. There have been only one or two outliers, teams that have managed to win an NBA title without being in the top half of the league, defensively, and most have been in the top ten. (Looking at you, Carmelophiles...)

Do the Bulls have it? Um... yeah.

5. You need to own your home court - be close to unbeatable there.

Do the Bulls have it? 31-4 says YES.

Now we get into the more subjective, qualitative stuff.

6. You need a coach/player partnership. The relationship between a coach and his players is different in the NBA than anywhere else in pro sports. A coach is not so much the "boss" in a managerial/executive sense, because he's lower paid than his top subordinates. An NBA coach is more of a consultant who, like a consultant in any field, is fungible, well paid but not as well paid as the top guys in the organization, brings a particular expertise to the table, and can only do his work if he achieves buy-in from the team leadership.

Do the Bulls have it? Unquestionably. The degree of buy-in Thibodeau has gained from not only Rose but from Deng and Noah has set the tone for everyone to pull in the same direction.

7. Your top player or players need to set the tone in terms of work ethic and professionalism. If your "alpha dog" doesnt put in the work on defense, the work in the weight room, the work in the gym during the offseason, the work in practice (yes, we're talkin' about PRACTICE)... no one else will. A coach can't demand this nearly as effectively as a team's best player can. Michael Jordan competed in practice like it was a game, and if you couldn't bring it like that every day, you couldn't play on his team.

Do the Bulls have it? YES. Watching the way Derrick Rose has worked on his game this offseason, he has led the way on how things will be done on his team.

8. You need to have 8 or 9 players in a rotation who not only know their roles, but are comfortable in those roles and enthusiastic about playing them. Robert Horry made a career out of being that 5th or 6th guy who would defend and make a big jump shot. John Paxson and Derek Fisher made a living doing nothing but knocking down shots off ball rotation, never looking to create anything. Ron Harper reinvented himself as a defensive player after a career as a volume shooter. You can't have anyone concerned with "getting theirs" - the only guys who play have to be concerned with winning above all else, and know what they can contribute in order to effect that. This is a special mix that you rarely see anywhere BUT a championship team.

Do the Bulls have it? You betcha.

9. An X factor. A little bit of fairy dust. Some magic. An impossible to define but easy to identify "it" factor.

It's sure starting to look that way, isn't it?

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Courtesy of the folks at Rotoworld a couple of days ago...

"Carmelo Anthony hit just 2-of-12 shots for six points, four rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block as the Knicks lost to the Pistons on Friday. Melo didn't even get off the bench for a timeout at one point, sitting and sulking without showing any interest in what was going on in the huddle. And the fact the Pistons had their entire bench on the floor with the game on line is not going to sit well with anyone in New York."

There were those who felt that the Bulls should have acquired Carmelo Anthony at all costs, even if it meant trading Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, just because he's, well... Carmelo Anthony, and winning an NBA title is all about how many stars you can accumulate at the top of your roster. The rest is "easy" to fill in.

Others were not so sure. They were concerned that Anthony shows little interest in defense and tends to just stop the offense when he gets the ball. They (we) were also concerned that introducing another "alpha dog" might make the Bulls less of Derrick Rose's team, and undermine the defensive development of a team that was clearly taking to Tom Thibodeau's defensive teachings. In short, they (we) felt like the name of Carmelo Anthony was bigger than the reality of the player.

There were those who felt that if you put Anthony on a team with a defensive minded head coach, he would suddenly start to care about defense. Essentially, Denver's defensive issues were on George Karl.

Others (me) felt that Carmelo was, in fact, the driver of the defensive issues that had prevented Denver from making it out of the first round of the playoffs in all but one year of Anthony's career.

So I decided to dig into the numbers to see what the early returns are since Anthony was traded to the Knicks. To say the results are striking would be an understatement.

Before trading Anthony for Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Ray Felton, the Nuggets were one of the worst defenses in the NBA, allowing 105 points per game on 46.5% shooting.

In 13 games since the trade, Denver's points allowed have dropped a whopping 10 per game (!) to 95, and their field goal percentage defense has improved 2% to 44.5%.

Even more stunning is that 9 of the 13 games Denver has played since the trade have been against winning teams.

Simply removing an offensive star who didn't have the least bit of interest in playing defense has transformed Denver from a bottom 5 into a top 10 defense in the NBA!

The Nuggets are 9-4 since the deal.

The Knicks, meanwhile, were bad defensively before the trade... and they're still bad.

There is no question that a head coach who stresses defense and knows how to teach individual and team defense can make a huge difference to a team. (See: Thibodeau, Tom)

But if your leaders on the floor, your "alpha dogs", don't buy in... it won't matter.

Carmelo Anthony vs. Tom Thibodeau would have been an interesting battle of wills. Would a $20 million man who has never been asked to D up in his life suddenly find God? Carlos Boozer hasn't, so you set the odds on 'Melo.

At the cost of Deng and Noah, it would have been a tremendous risk to find out. The Bulls have a nose in front of the Eastern Conference pack heading into the season's final lap. They're a title contender right now. Making that trade would have run the risk of screwing up the chemistry of the team, eviscerating the defense that has been so central to their success and status as a contender, and in the long run risked losing Derrick Rose if he no longer felt the Bulls were a place where he could win a title.

All for what?

What we can see in the early returns in Denver and New York only confirms what you should have known all along: Deng and Noah for Anthony would have been a high risk/low reward endeavor that John Paxson and Gar Forman were very, very smart not to even consider.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Backstretch

Let's take a look at the Bulls' remaining 15 games:

@ Indiana (29-39)
vs. Sacramento (16-50)
@ Atlanta (39-29)
vs. Memphis (37-32)
@ Milwaukee (26-41)
vs. Philadelphia (35-33)
@ Minnesota (17-52)
@ Detroit (24-44)
vs. Toronto (18-49)
vs. Phoenix (33-33)
vs. Boston (48-18)
@ Cleveland (14-54)
@ Orlando (43-26)
@ New York (35-32)
vs. New Jersey (22-44)

Miami is currently 4 back of the Bulls in the loss column - which is functionally 5 games, as the Bulls own the tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping the season series with the Two-And-A-Half Men.

The Bulls have the best record in the NBA against winning teams. Let's assume the Bulls beat all the losing teams left on their schedule and lose all five games against the winning teams...

... Miami would have to run the table to catch the Bulls.

It's not going to happen.

How about Boston, who is currently tied with the Bulls in the loss column? What does their remaining schedule look like?

@ Houston
@ New Orleans
@ New York
vs. Memphis
vs. Charlotte
@ Minnesota
@ Indiana
@ San Antonio
@ Atlanta
vs. Detroit
vs. Philadelphia
vs. Washington
@ Miami
@ Washington
vs. New York

For starters, the Celtics have 10 remaining road games to the Bulls' 8. And they have 9 games remaining against winning teams to the Bulls' 5. They have 5 remaining road games against winning teams, the Bulls only have 3.

Barring any serious slip-ups beyond just losing a bad game (or even two)... the Bulls are very much in the catbird's seat for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. And this is huge. It means you get Indiana or Charlotte in the first round instead of the Knicks or Sixers. And it means Miami and Boston can duke it out in the second round, while the Bulls would get the Atlanta/Orlando winner.

There are no guarantees, but the Bulls have some well-paved road between them and the East Finals right now...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Response To Grant Hill From A Michigan Contemporary

I was a student at Michigan during the Fab Five years, and I knew then that it was the most fun I would ever have as a sports fan. I was vaguely aware of the cultural significance of the Fab Five, but as a 19 year-old sophomore I was swept up in so much of it myself, wearing baggy shorts and black socks on the basketball court and listening to Dr. Dre and Naughty By Nature off of it, that I didn't have the perspective I have on it now.

I hated Duke. Despised them. Not for any particular reason. Not for what they stood for. (They didn't really stand for anything except being really, really good at basketball.) They were the big, bad rival, and you wanted to knock their smug arses off their perch, that's all.

It stands to reason that Jalen Rose and his Fab teammates would view them a bit differently. To them, Duke were the kids from the right side of the tracks, and someone like Rose from Detroit Southwestern or Juwan Howard from Chicago Vocational would be understandably resentful of this. Rose, in particular, would be resentful of Grant Hill; as Jalen said, they both had professional athletes as fathers, but Grant's was around to raise him - Jalen's was not.

Now, I like Grant Hill a lot. I loved him when I saw him play like a man as a freshman in taking down the "Darth Vader" that was UNLV. And even while his Duke teams were beating Michigan, I found it hard to dislike him. He lacked the amorphously, A.J. Pierzynski-ish "annoying" quality of Christian Laettner or Bobby Hurley. Grant Hill was cool.

And I have been a fan of Grant Hill in the years since he left Duke. He has always seemed to be anything but a typical NBA prima donna. He has been an apparently nice and obviously intelligent guy who has persevered through a terribly unfortunate string of injuries to continue performing at the NBA level to a very advanced age.

I am absolutely a Grant Hill fan.

And this is why his exceptionally literate rebuttal to Jalen Rose in the New York Times so disappoints me. Hill had a visceral response to the term "Uncle Tom" and the other less-than-flattering words the Fab Five used to describe their feelings for Duke nearly two decades ago, and he so disregarded the context of what Rose had to say in the film that it makes me wonder if Hill even watched the documentary at all.

Rose openly said that this was how he felt at the time about Grant Hill and Duke, because when he was 18 years old he was jealous of Hill for his privileged upbringing. When Rose and his teammates used derogatory terms to describe Duke players, they were talking about how they felt then. Rose said in as many words that after the 1992 Championship Game, they respected Duke and knew they had lost to a better team.

Yes, Grant, we can all agree that "Unlce Tom" is a deeply insulting and derogatory term. And we can all agree that the accomplishments of your black teammates and of your own family are commendable - indeed, a model to be emulated by everyone, no matter their race. And we understand that it doesn't somehow make you "less black".

Jalen Rose bared his soul to the world in a moment of reflection, admitting to Grant Hill and to all of us the extremely undignified emotions he felt as a youth and how his experience taught him better. Before the documentary even aired, Jalen expressed an awareness that many were going to simply read the headline that included the words "Jalen Rose - Duke - Uncle Tom" and immediately draw their conclusions without even watching the movie. The response from others was predictable. But I expect more from Grant Hill.

Hill responded to Rose's honesty with an exceedingly pedantic missive that lectures the teenage Jalen Rose but doesn't acknowledge the words and feelings expressed by the grown man. Hill took the opportunity to celebrate his own heritage and the progress of his race, and, frankly, to try and show the world how smart he, his family, and his Duke teammates are. I expect better from Hill than self-congratulatory grandstanding.

What incredible irony. In 1992, the Fab Five represented kids with street cred playing street ball, shoving their game and their personalities brashly (and often inappropriately) in your face, while Duke represented the polished prep school set. And here we are, 19 years later, and this is exactly how each group is still processing and re-living the experience: the Fab Five, in your face, giving you the raw, unvarnished truth of who they were as teenagers and who they are now as grown men... and Duke presenting itself as skilled, soft and arrogant.

In one op-ed, Grant Hill manages to validate the resentment of college basketball fans everywhere who view Duke as the arrogant elite. Thank you, Dennis Green: they are who we thought they were!

That Hill has enough intellectual gravitas to write such a piece means he also has enough intellectual gravitas to have gotten Jalen Rose's point more clearly than he did and not displayed such rabbit ears.

As a fan of Hill's, I would have liked to hear him say, "That Jalen Rose could admit those youthful feelings to the world and show us all how he has grown beyond them is also a part of our great legacy."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Welcome to Miami (Bienvenido a Miami)

-Miami is THIS CLOSE to being locked into the #3 seed. Their next game is against the Lakers. They lose that game - and if the Bulls beat Charlotte and win the revenge game at home against Atlanta - Miami can start scoreboard watching and hope that the Sixers overtake the Knicks for the #6 seed. They'll be 4 games in the loss column behind the Bulls with 17 to play. It's functionally 5 games, as the Bulls own the tiebreaker. The Lukewarm are already 6 games in the loss column behind Boston (functionally 7). No way Miami can make that up in 17 games.

-Prediction: if the Heat lose to the Lakers, Spoelstra's cooked. Pat Riley will come down and do it himself. He's too competitive to just watch this thing fail in front of his eyes.

-Some people (cough)me(cough) were saying back in July that three superstars surrounded by a bunch of scrubs wasn't a sure thing to work. Miami is now severely limited in how they can build around the Two-And-A-Half Men. They have no midlevel exception. The Bulls own their first round pick. There is only one logical course of action here:

Make LeBron James into your Herschel Walker.

In one fell swoop, add an entire team around Wade and Bosh. LeBron would have NO leverage to stop such a thing. Now, it's not as easy as it sounds, because he's *only* making $16 million next year and that limits how much you can take back. But here are some interesting permutations that would work...

1. LeBron and Mike Miller to Philly for Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday and a #1 pick.

Young, 23, is a good player who has found himself blocked by a resurgent Elton Brand. He's a legit young starting forward in this league. Holiday, 21, is an emerging young point guard (who at 6'4" could also shift to the 2 when playing with Chalmers) who is averaging 14 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds and almost 2 steals per game. And Iguodala is an established very good player who has been racking up more than his share of triple doubles this year. A lineup of Holiday, Wade, Iguodala, Young and Bosh - with Chalmers and Haslem off the bench - is just better than what Miami has now.

Philly would obviously do it in a heartbeat and go with a lineup of Louis Williams, Jodie Meeks, LeBron, Brand and Spencer Hawes/Marrese Speights. Evan Turner is their super 6th man.

2. LeBron and Miller to Golden State for Steph Curry, David Lee and Dorell Wright.

Curry is a star player and Lee is averaging 16 & 10 (after 20 & 12 last year and 16 & 12 the year before that). Dorell Wright is one of the league's best kept secrets. The former DePaul commitment (and former Heat first round pick) is 25 years old and averaging 16 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.5 steals while shooting close to 40% on threes. A lineup of Curry, Wade, Wright, Bosh and Lee is WAY better than what the Heat throw out there now.

Golden State re-tools around LeBron with Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Andris Biedrins.

3. LeBron and Miller to Minnesota for Kevin Love, Wesley Johnson, Wayne Ellington and the rights to Ricky Rubio.

This is actually kind of my favorite because it's interesting on so many levels. First, just the awesome schadenfruede of not only forcing LeBron to leave his buddies and take his talents from South Beach to the coldest market in the NBA, but it reunites him with Delonte West. Delicious. Kevin Love has turned into a legitimate star in this league. Wesley Johnson is a high upside youngster. Ellington is not a bad bench player - he's a very good three point shooter. Rubio has some delayed value for Miami. But this deal uses Minnesota's available cap space to free up $12 million for the Heat on top of an existing lineup of Chalmers, Wade, Johnson, Love and Bosh (with Haslem returning to come off the bench with Ellington).

Minnesota builds around LeBron with Anthony Randolph - who is showing in Love's absence that he is a perfectly viable solution at the 4, along with a top 3 draft pick this year and a TON of cap space in the summer of 2012. They'd have a legitimate shot at attracting Deron Williams or Chris Paul to play with LeBron in a year.

There are ways to do this that work for everyone: they let another team that's currently in NBA hell have the dream situation of building around LeBron, while making the Heat a more viable title contender with a better-constructed TEAM than they have now.