A few days ago, I emailed Kelly Dwyer wondering what was up with the Bulls. His response came in late last night:
There's little reason for Bulls supporters to get too upset with the team's Thursday night loss in Phoenix. The defense could have played a little smarter, the team could have done without an initial starting lineup change, or the three-guard lineup that finished the contest; but the 2006-07 Bulls would probably drop a game against a healthy Suns team by about ten points, so no point in reading too much into last night's loss.
What does count, and scare, and singe, is Chicago's first six games. That was a scary, scary basketball team. 30th in offensive efficiency. 14th in defensive efficiency, a year after rallying late behind the work of Sir Tyrus Thomas to top the league in that particular stat. You're in a hurry, you want easy answers. I'm also in a hurry, I've got some strings to change, but I can't mind easy answers when I know actual analysis will do. No gym-teacher buzzwords here. And yet, for those who love acronyms and own "Success Is a Choice," I'll bold some things for the quick read.
Lazy Luol Deng
Lu isn't lazy. He works his tail off, is a right giant off the court, and is a sublime talent between the lines. For the first six games of the season, however, he was a mess offensively. Why's that, top cat? Because the man wasn't putting any effort into the mid-range jump shots he used to dominate with. The knees weren't bending, the follow-through wasn't there, and (not most-importantly, but most-egregiously), and his body wasn't squared. Even on quick-hits, ones that saw him flashing to the front or left side of the rim (Paul Pierce-style) for the short hook, he wasn't jumping high enough and getting his shot swatted. With five gears in reverse, Luol turned into an ordinary mug, and the results weren't pretty.
Shaky Ben Gordon
Gordon's the hardest working Bull, he was an absolute fixture at the team's practice facility over the offseason, working on a series of moves he anticipated having to implement as teams grew wise to his machinations. As a Bulls fan, it was a lovely thing to behold; mainly because a day's spent working on practice court by yourself turns a talent worth your time. A day spent scrimmaging turns you into Antoine Walker.
But early on, Gordon looks as if he's surprised a bit by the actual defenders, stiff-arms, and hand-checks. With nine other people on the court, it will take a while for Gordon to find his flow. Throw in a wasted preseason (Gordon missed nearly all of it with a sprained ankle) and the specter of his usual slow start, and the whole thing seems downright passable.
A Mopey Iowan
Nobody likes one, which is why Kirk Hinrich can't find a table to sit at during lunch. Hinrich's body language has been inappropriate-but-accurate-curse-word all season, his streaky shooting touch has been bothered by it, and his propensity for one-handed passes continues to unnerve. Chicago fans have learned to love the sound of Kirk's voice being picked up by the TV mics, which is why the second half of the Phoenix loss was a bit of a pick-me-up. When his shoulders are slumped, his shooting form resembles a crescent moon, and his facial expressions resemble those of your typical Pitchfork-reader; then a 2-of-11 night is the usual result. Throw in the abject lack of free throws (even at his best) and poor percentage finishing in the paint (even at his best), and you have a mini-Ben Wallace running point.
Ben Wallace Was Hurt
Ben Wallace was hurt. He's not that great anymore, but he'll be around average this year. Before that, not sure if you've heard, he was hurt. Joe Smith needed to play about four minutes to Ben's one.
Too Much Coaching
It's not Scott Skiles' fault that Hinrich is shooting so poorly, Deng isn't showcasing his usual fundamentally-sound streak, Gordon is streaky, or that Wallace sprained his ankle. The Bulls coach knows the games, draws up some gorgeous plays out of timeouts, and generally does a fine job with his team.
So why is he constantly trying to make life harder on himself? We're a quick-fix society, I grok, but there's no reason to make lineup changes for the sake of lineup changes like he does ... every damn December. Throwing Nocioni out at power forward against an up-tempo team like the Suns sounds about right; until you realize that Nocioni's strengths (drawing power forwards out to the three-point line to either defend a shot they don't want to defend, or blow by the slower big men) work against just about any other team BESIDES the Phoenix Suns. Shawn Marion doesn't mind sticking to that three-point line, and he's hardly the type of lumbering big that Noc can drive past.
So what's the point? Chicago's typical starting five (drop Noc, add Thomas) are likely going to be the team's five-best players by the time all 82 have been drained, and they're easily the five-best players at their respective positions. This team is going to have to learn how to win games with that lineup eventually, so why abandon things now ... "just 'cause?"
(By the way, the Bulls were down seven points after the first five minutes against the Suns on Thursday night, with Nocioni unable to drive past Marion, while getting burned on the defensive end by the quicker Grant Hill.)
Listen To Me, Because I've Met the Bass Player From the Meters
For all those scribes and TV-types still chiding the team for not trading for Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol, or Kobe Bryant ... stop it. Kindly please stop talking and send me twenty bucks for what you are about to read:
Kevin McHale wasn't trading Kevin Garnett last season. The Bulls offered him Tyson Chandler, Luol Deng, and the second pick in the 2006 Draft (perhaps Brandon Roy, Tyrus Thomas, LaMarcus Aldridge ... and McHale would be selecting, so maybe I should throw Hilton Armstrong in the mix) for Garnett, and was told that Minnesota wanted nothing to do with trading KG. He fired Dwane Casey, who had led the Wolves to a 20-20 record at that point, mainly because McHale assumed that this was an underachieving 50-win team. It took a trade demand from Garnett, a third-straight playoff miss, and the work of Garnett's agent to even convince the Wolves to trade KG last summer. By then, the Bulls didn't have the pieces to put a deal together, unless you think Minnesota was interested in Ben Wallace.
Memphis's final offer in return for the services of Pau Gasol last February was Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, PJ Brown, and Tyrus Thomas. This would leave the Bulls with Hinrich, Thabo Sefalosha, Nocioni, Gasol, and Ben Wallace. That's a team that - even with Gasol scoring 25 a game and making half his shots - would average about 52 points per game.
Kobe's not coming to the Bulls because any collection of salaries Chicago could put together in order to approximate Kobe's 2007-08 salary would decimate the Bulls, and Kobe would likely pass on signing off on being sent to a gutted team. Now, a deal involving Ben Gordon, Viktor Khryapa, Andres Nocioni, Chris Duhon, and Joe Smith would work after December 15th, and that's the only deal that would actually see the Bulls coming out ahead talent-wise, but the Lakers would have to waive a whole host of players to make the deal work. The overwhelming majority of these proposed deals (and proposed analysis: "the Bulls need to trade for Kobe!") don't really make sense - and it's getting frustrated reading and listening to a whole host of people paid to lend thei
r insights about the NBA who don't understand even rudimentary NBA salary cap procedure.
This is still a damn good basketball team. Should they make the playoffs, I like Chicago's chances with any Eastern team outside of the Nets (whom I loathe, to be candid, but match up well against the Bulls). Some of the best defensive games of Hinrich's career have come against Ray Allen, the same goes for Luol Deng when it comes to Paul Pierce, and Chicago's record against the Western giants last year is pretty solid.
The Bulls stink offensively, but its turnovers, rebounding issues, and inability to get to the free throw line is right in line with what went down last year, when the team finished 20th in offensive efficiency. If and when the team starts to hit shots, they'll improve, and hopefully ascend to the ranks of the mediocre. That, and the defense (first overall last season), should vault this team back into the race. It's that start, and the missed chances at home against mediocre teams, that worries.
That said, this is your date, and it's still only half past eight. No coaching change or lineup reshuffle or Important Trade Worth These Capital Letters is either in the offing or probable or likely to help. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to write another poem about Tyson Chandler (what rhymes with "weak-side exploits?"), and pretend I believe any of this.