TrueHoop: Scott Skiles

Friday Bullets

December, 7, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Conversation starters for 2012-13

October, 31, 2012
By Kevin Arnovitz and Beckley Mason

Getty ImagesMoving the needle in 2012-13: Andre Iguodala, LeBron James and Blake Griffin.

1. Will the Nuggets finally reward their army of boosters?

Beckley Mason: Oh man, I don’t wager money on the NBA, but let’s just say I emptied my vanity coffers investing preseason plaudits on this team. I’m worried that I’m so excited about how fun this team will be, I have overestimated how much it will actually win. The Nuggets represent the open style of team play I wish was more common in the league, getting the best possible shots -- layups and 3-pointers -- all game.

But I have also been encouraged by the preseason.

The early offense is clicking. Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried have been as advertised in the open court, and Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer look ready to make unexpected contributions. For guys like John Hollinger and Kevin Pelton, both of whom have Denver finishing second in the Western Conference, there’s clearly something here. As usual, the Nuggets project as a juggernaut top-three offense, but this season they’ll have the personnel to play defense in the half court.

Kevin Arnovitz: Aside from the stylistic appeal, where does this collective love for Denver come from? Is it a sincere belief the Nuggets have the necessary tools to mount a guerrilla war in the West and take down the likes of the Thunder or the Lakers or just a desire to see a verdict rendered once and for all that Carmelo Anthony is a bad guy?

I also wonder if the post-Melo Nuggets haven’t become a symbol for those who were repelled by the Anthony saga two years ago. In the era of the superteam, romantics want the Nuggets to prove that a team of non-superstars can compete for an NBA title through sheer effort, athleticism and creativity. A lot of basketball junkies want to live in a world where the 2004 Pistons aren’t a historical outlier and Anthony is the fool. The Nuggets represent their best hope.

Mason: Unlike those Pistons, the Nuggets are a rare case of a superstar-less team that wins without a superstar. Two different models. The question is …

2. What do you do in the NBA if you can’t recruit a superstar?

Arnovitz: The Moneyball principle was never about putting data ahead of scouting. It was about identifying an undervalued commodity in a sport and finding bargains in players who bring that commodity to a roster.

Individual defense -- loosely defined -- is probably that undervalued commodity at the moment, largely because we have a hard time defining it statistically. Players have traditionally been paid based on their offensive stats. You can jump up and down about this guy being a top-five defender (think Tony Allen) and that defense is 50 percent of the game, but we rarely see defensive specialists score the kind of contracts one-way offensive players like Monta Ellis do.

That’s what made Houston’s three-year, $25.2 million deal for Omer Asik so interesting. That’s a significant investment in a guy who most people around the league would regard as a one-way defensive player. Some thought it was an outlandish offer, but would anyone raise an eyebrow if a top-20 offensive player landed the same contract?

Mason: Let's just say Asik has a better chance of being worth $8 million a year than Charlie Villanueva.

Arnovitz: Sure, and if you’re a team that can’t get meetings with the LeBrons of the world and can’t realistically find your way onto the wish list of the truly elite offensive free agents, your best course of action might be to stock your roster with the best value defenders in the league, aspire to be a top-three defense and play it out from there.

Drew Hallowell/NBAE/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau: Defense first.
Mason: I agree, particularly because it takes a certain ingenuity to be a truly great offensive player. That’s just not the case on the defensive end, where position, intelligence and effort are the hallmarks of excellence.

I’d argue it’s easier to teach a player to be a great defender than it is to teach a player to be a dominant offensive force, which means coaching is key. Is there anything a young athletic team -- and aren’t all young teams athletic? -- can benefit from more than a great defensive mind?

Tom Thibodeau’s success in Chicago is an example of the impact a great defensive system can have, but what about Scott Skiles’ work with the 2009-10 Bucks? That team worked incredibly hard and, anchored by guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Andrew Bogut, had the league’s second-best defense. Even with a rookie point guard and Bogut out with an injury for the playoffs, Milwaukee came within a game of reaching the second round -- all on a serious budget (if you don’t count an injured Michael Redd’s $17 million contract).

Arnovitz: Here’s a question for the defensive savants ...

3. How can anyone match up with LeBron James and three or four shooters?

Mason: Thibodeau has been a master of aggravating big scorers in big series, but this might be the NBA’s unsolvable riddle between the lines. James’ new comfort as a scorer with his back to the basket has made him even better at commanding space near the paint. His most underrated skill is his ability to, with the flick of a wrist, throw a basketball 40 feet on a frozen rope to an open shooter. He throws passes so hard, and with such little warning to the defense, that he forces defenses to stay closer to shooters than any other player while simultaneously overwhelming any individual defender in front of him. Barring a player who can tangle with James in pick-and-rolls and one-on-ones on the block, I’m not sure there is a reliable way to defend the Heat with actual defense.

You have to defend them with your offense. Keep the turnovers low, take good shots and either pound the offensive glass or send at least four men back on every shot. James really kills in transition when defensive help is hard to organize, and he loves to receive a drag screen in the middle of the court and blast past the defense to the rim.

In terms of actual defense, no one bothers James as much as Chicago. Having two bigs -- Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah -- who can handle James in a switch at the end of the shot clock is vital to that success.

Arnovitz: Erik Spoelstra is cracking that code. Getting LeBron to buy into this role was probably the biggest coaching achievement in the NBA last season.

So much of the innovation in coaching today is assignment-based rather than the sculpting of a coherent system for your team. It’s about getting LeBron to buy in as a multitasking power forward, figuring out how to horse-whisper Carmelo into a similar role with the Knicks or crafting an offense for a team that has virtually no reliable outside shooting.

The great system coaches are an endangered species. Phil Jackson is back on his ranch, like Lyndon Johnson after vacating the White House. Although Ty Corbin has preserved much of what flourished over the past quarter-decade in Utah, Jerry Sloan is gone too. Mike D’Antoni is in exodus. Stan Van Gundy tailored a provisional system around Dwight Howard. Even a guy like Eddie Jordan was not successful but certainly ambitious.

Rick Adelman might be the lone graybeard, systems coach left. The rest of the league has moved to a predictable half-court game. The high pick-and-roll is the new iso, and why not? It stretches the defense across the floor for quick point guards who can devour most coverages and dance into the paint.

4. Is most of the cool innovation happening on defense, while NBA offenses are simplifying?

Mason: Thibodeau, Spoelstra and Dwane Casey are young coaches developing creative, principle-based systems for their defenses, which supports that.

The offensive piece we can trace back 20 years, when the NBA began to change the rules in ways that opened up the court and encouraged perimeter-based play. Coaches have come along with systems that can better account for the dangers presented by a quick point guard and three shooters, but we may be stuck with the spread pick-and-roll’s ubiquity until the next round of rule changes.

Still, I sense there is a crop of coaches toiling with terrible teams that will one day number among the NBA’s most visionary. Monty Williams has a record as a strong defensive coach and might have the most creative pick-and-roll schemes in the league. Rick Carlisle is one of the most flexible minds in the game. No one coaches to personnel as well, and his strange roster in Dallas augurs well for those who like to see a hoops genius pushed to his creative limits. I’m also intrigued by Terry Stotts, a Carlisle disciple. Who knows what he has in Portland? If his development chops are legit, that’s another interesting team that will fall well short of contending.

Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
DeMarcus Cousins: Beast or burden?
Arnovitz: Development is another one of the great unknowns in basketball, and here’s a head-scratcher of a case study:

5. If DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t evolve into a beast, whose fault is that?

Mason: I’ve seen Cousins play in person only once, and it wasn’t even in an NBA game. It was at the Goodman League versus Drew League exhibition in Baltimore during the 2011 lockout, a game that pitted NBA players from the Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles areas against each other.

The game was a microcosm of Cousins’ NBA career. He made jumpers and sharp passes, he bullied JaVale McGee and dunked all over him, and there was a moment when he picked James Harden’s pocket and gathered up the loose ball on the run, keeping his dribble at knee height. His skill and dexterity, at that incredible size, was jarring.

He also failed to finish the game. He argued with his exhibition coach (whoever that was) about playing time and touches, was constantly annoyed with the ref and let the event’s emcee, who dubbed Cousins “Bad Attitude,” get under his skin.

Cousins makes you shake your head for reasons both good and bad, and we have to attribute some of that weirdness to Cousins himself. But doesn’t it feel like the Sacramento franchise hasn’t been doing him any favors?

Arnovitz: This is one of my favorite counterfactuals: What if Cousins were drafted by the San Antonio Spurs? You can try it with any young player who has come through the league. Are we absolutely certain Adam Morrison or Michael Olowokandi couldn’t have put together decent NBA careers had they landed with more resourceful or nurturing organizations? An apprentice can thrive if the workshop is conducive to good training and his mentor rocks (see Lawson, Ty).

Fundamentally, these teams are workplaces, and more professional offices tend to get the best of their team. Individual strengths are fostered; shortcomings are neutralized.

If you’re lucky, you get to work at a place like this. Cousins hasn’t been lucky. So he can either succumb to the worst instincts of his environment or take it a personal imperative to defy them.

Mason: Player development is such a tricky issue because so much happens behind the scenes. But maybe the Internet’s leading Clipperologist can help answer this one ...

6. What does Blake Griffin have in store for the world, and what does the world have in store for Blake?

Arnovitz: I’ve been trying to figure out what to take away from Griffin’s drop this year in #NBARank. Last season, Griffin beat his rookie shooting and efficiency numbers, yet there was constant sniping about his shortcomings. Much of that criticism was legitimate but disproportionate, driven in some part by a certain strain of antipathy.

Yes, his defense needs to be faster and smarter, but it’s not as if Kevin Love and Zach Randolph are winning games as defenders. When Dirk Nowitzki and Lamar Odom came into the league, they had few instincts defensively. But the Mavs have been significantly better defensively with Dirk on the floor the past few seasons, and Odom established himself as a strong, versatile -- even aggressive -- defender before he started taking on weight like a loading dock.

I sense most of the Blake-lashers know that, which means the charges are a little excessive.

Still, a lot of rational people's hoop sensibilities are offended by Griffin’s on-court persona. Many of them love playing the game, but Griffin wouldn’t be a guy they’d enjoy sharing the court with. At least that’s my interpretation.

Beck, it’s fair to say you’re one of those people, isn’t it? You asked Blake last season to cool it with the “WWE heel routine.” Over the summer, did you harvest any affection for Blake? If not, what’s wrong with playing the heel for a few hours a week?

Mason: One of the primary criticisms of Griffin’s play is that he is just a dunking machine. But if you were to design a power forward, you could do much worse than a machine that did a lot of dunking. Griffin led the NBA in dunks last season by a wide margin, which means he did a better job of getting the highest percentage shot in the league than anyone else. That’s a really good thing no matter how you slice it.

As you wrote, I still have a hard time squaring the guy who is pitch perfect as a book club sensei and the one who gets a preseason technical foul for going after an ostensibly innocent Paul Millsap. Blake stays mean-mugging at opponents and refs, but except for in the instances where it keeps him from getting back on defense, I can live with it -- and even smile at it.

I’m actually bullish on Blake going into this season. He has looked just as freaky explosive and deft around the rim as ever in the preseason, and his passing is world class at the power forward position.

Look, Griffin is going to learn to shoot and play better defense, but it will be a careerlong project. Because Griffin’s flaws are so glaring -- he doesn’t just miss free throws, he air-balls them -- they can seem to counterbalance all the good stuff he does. But that’s ludicrous. He is only 23, and every part of his game is on the upswing. His lower ranking this season was probably a reaction to being overrated after his first season and not an accurate representation of where his game is headed.
The most dramatic shot of the Las Vegas Summer League came at the buzzer of the 58th and final game -- a side-winding heave by Mark Tyndale to give the D-League Select a 79-78 win over the Clippers:
  • How will Larry Sanders' game fit in with Milwaukee's existing parts? His sound face-up 18-footer will help a Bucks offense that was choked for open space in the half court. He also gives Brandon Jennings another dependable partner on the pick-and-roll and wins almost every race to the rim in transition. A Sanders-Andrew Bogut tandem could eventually constitute the best defensive frontcourt in the league. Milwaukee is unlikely to reach the highest echelon in the East with its firepower, but by blanketing the paint with two capable pick-and-roll defenders who can block shots and clean the glass, the Bucks have the makings of a team that could post a stingy defensive efficiency rating in the high 90s.
  • Luke Babbitt will be a deadly catch-and-shoot threat and will give Portland the spacing it needs when he's on the floor at either forward spot. On dribble-drives, Babbitt's handle is strong enough, but he had trouble finishing at the rim this week through traffic. In his final game, Babbitt made an adjustment. He was still aggressive off the dribble, but looked to draw and absorb contact. Babbitt got to the stripe eight times (8-for-8) after earning only 13 attempts in his first four games.
  • After turning the ball over 28 times in his first four games, Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe put together a heady, controlled performance against the D-League Select team. He changed speeds and read the defense beautifully off high ball screens from Rod Benson -- bursting into the paint only when invited, and making smart passes or drawing contact when the defense converged. He scored 13 points (6-for-10 from the field), grabbed five rebounds and dished out five assists against three turnovers.
  • The Spurs bludgeoned the Grizzlies by sticking Benetton Treviso guard Gary Neal in the left corner and creating open looks for him off drive-and-kicks or curls. When sets broke down for the Spurs, Neal was the safety valve. He hit 6-of-9 attempts from beyond the arc in the first half.
  • Greivis Vasquez finished up an unremarkable week at the point for Memphis. Never has so much dribbling produced so few results.
  • DeMarre Carroll, who has also struggled this week, looked more like the active, versatile forward whose intensity gave the Griz a jolt of energy at selective moments last season. He looked most comfortable at the 3 on Sunday.
  • It's not unusual for a player to take a tour with one team in summer league and then hook on with another squad after the first team finishes up or has gotten a sufficient glimpse of him. Sun Yue started summer league with the Wizards, then moved over to the Bucks midway through the schedule. Meanwhile, Gary Forbes played sparingly with Houston, then got a call from the Clippers, who wanted to get a look at his game.
  • At 6-foot-9, Wayne Chism defends all over the floor, fights through perimeter screens, keeps the ball moving and will battle -- even if he doesn't excel -- as a post defender. If he can get a little stretchier with his range, he could help out an NBA team in the future as a thinking man's Brian Cook.
  • Yaroslav Korolev was in action against the Clippers, the team that drafted him in 2005 with the 12th overall pick. Now 23 years old, the 6-foot-9 Korolev has filled out and looks the part of the rangy, athletic all-purpose forward, but he still lacks an intuitive rhythm for the game. Against a small Clippers lineup, Korolev could've been a strong defensive presence, but he's far too timid as a helper. Offensively, he's decisive only as a spot-up shooter from distance. The closer he ventures to the basket, the less assertive he is.
  • John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog on Omar Samhan: "Samhan has really worked on that pick-and-pop jump shot, and it's looked good throughout his time in Vegas. When he can get his feet set, he's very comfortable -- it's a very natural shot for him. He went 0-10 from the three-point line during his time at St. Mary's, but earlier today he stepped out behind the college three-point line and calmly swished one. He told me earlier in the week that he's working on extending his range to the NBA three, and he's making strides in that direction. Hopefully he performs well in Lithuania."
  • New rule for Las Vegas Summer League 2010: Defenses are required to implement a full-court press for at least three possessions per half.

Thursday Bullets

December, 31, 2009
Posted by Royce Young
  • Brett LaGree of Hoopinion on the "malfunction": "On one hand, the Hawks' behavior on this possession is fairly typical of their second half possessions as a whole. That the Hawks were initiating their halfcourt offense relatively late in the shot clock was not, in and of itself, unusual. None of which negates the fact that the officials should have noticed a ten-second discrepancy on the shot clock, that the shot clock should have reset, or that the Hawks should have noticed and said something (or called a timeout) at the time rather than one possession later."
  • Video breakdown of three crucial possessions in the Clippers-Blazers game including two big 3-pointers by Steve Blake. Kevin Arnovitz adds this note: "Baron, like a lot of point guards, spends most of his time playing the ball and is less instinctive defending off it. He’s drawn to the ball, but his man, Blake, functions as a wing on this set. I suppose you could say that, as a defensive unit, you can never have too many bodies between Roy and the basket given the personnel out there for Portland. But the better play by Baron here is to squeeze Blake and, at the very least, make it a much tougher pass."
  • Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns says Phoenix may have gotten its swagger back after the big win over Boston: "A couple months down the line when we look back on the Dec. 30 game on Phoenix’s schedule, “Suns 116, Celtics 98” will look much better than it was in real life. The game notes say the Suns joined last year’s world champion Lakers as the only teams to sweep a season series from the Celtics before the Big Three joined up prior to the 2007-08 campaign. But anybody who watched this game knows that the Suns beat a woefully undermanned Boston team missing Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce that wouldn’t contend for the eighth spot in the East with the lineup they threw out there."
  • If you haven't checked out Hoopdata, you should right now. Like stop reading and check it out. You can spend hours just staring at the awesome advanced box scores. Tom Haberstoh had an interesting piece yesterday about how the Lakers give up the most shots at the rim: "The Lakers allow 29.9 shot attempts per game from at the rim but opponents only convert 57.5 percent of these shots, which ranks the sixth lowest in the league. So while the Lakers give up a lot of shot attempts at the rim, they are not necessarily easy buckets. Instead ... the Lakers defend the hoop by not fouling close to the basket and forcing opponents to shoot over trees in the form of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In all likelihood, the Lakers utilize their length by standing tall to alter shots in the paint as opposed to overtly swatting lofted balls into the stands, given their league-average block rate, league-leading at rim shot frequency, and second-lowest opponent free throw rate."
  • David Berri tries to explain the incredible disappointment that is the Washington Wizards. Cliff notes: Play better. He makes it sound so simple.
  • Basketbawful noticed an interesting quote from Doc Rivers about the Celtics' 1-3 road trip. Said Rivers: "'The lesson that's learned on this trip is not from tonight. The lesson that we should learn on this trip is when you give away a game with the Clippers when you're healthy, then you do it again, then when you're injured you need those games back.' I love the fact that he singled out the Clippers and not the Warriors."

Monday Bullets

December, 28, 2009
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Today marks the beginning of the NBA's third season -- the free agency chase and transactional bonanza. The Bucks have a mess on their hands with the departure of Charlie Villanueva. Meanwhile, Ben Gordon and the Bulls enter their third year of contract negotiations. 

Charlie VillanuevaRob Mahoney of Hardwood Paroxysm: "In theory, you shouldn't let go of assets without compensation. C-Nuv is a fairly valuable player, as evidenced by the insane amount of money the Pistons will pay him shortly. But did the Bucks really have any call to re-sign him? Was there really any possibility that a non-star scorer should be at the core of this team, tying the purse strings and giving Scott Skiles an aneurysm? [Charlie] Villanueva is a better talent than [Ramon] Sessions, and one that fills what is likely a greater need in regards to both position and skill. Yet, when it came down to deciding between the two, the Bucks' hands were tied. Sessions isn't likely to receive anything more than the midlevel, while the subtle sexiness of Villanueva's game could net him some serious dough. I'm definitely of the opinion that he doesn't deserve that kind of cash to begin with, but that's not really the issue here. The market for Villanueva's services is about to be set, and we'll soon see that the Bucks never really stood a chance. Even if the Bucks reserved the right to match offers for Charlie, the decision was never really theirs. The Bucks' hands were tied when they signed Bobby Simmons to an absurd contract, when they gave Michael Redd more money than he was worth, and when they made Dan Gazuric the richest man ever named Dan Gadzuric. Some of that is mismanagement and some of it is the horrors of small market basketball, but all of it has ensured that Villanueva isn't sticking around with the Bucks."

Ben GordonMatt McHale of By the Horns: "Losing [Ben] Gordon -- his 20 PPG, his big shot-making ability, his enormous biceps -- would partially cripple the Bulls this season, even as it left them with some serious financial flexibility going into the already-fabled Summer of 2010 ... Keeping Gordon would almost certainly mean shipping off Kirk Hinrich, which would sort of make team defense the sacrificial lamb. And who, exactly, would back up Derrick Rose? A sign-and-trade involving Gordon is possible, too. Man, anything seems possible at this point. How long has Gordon's contract been an issue? Three straight summers now? ... However this thing ends, one thing is certain: The Baby Bulls Era is over. Team building blocks are going to be discarded and rearranged. In all likelihood, this squad will look remarkably different in the next year or so. Something unknown (and, currently, unknowable) is being put together here in Chicago, we just don't know what it is yet…and we don't know whether Ben Gordon will be a part of it. "

Bryant & DuncanTimothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell: "When the dust settles, Kobe Bryant will have played the majority of his career between two definitive eras. Between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. I suspect Kobe Bryant will be remembered as the best player of his era, but careful historians with caution against a quick response to the question. Kobe is not alone. Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal stand alongside him as the defining players of the post-Jordan/pre-Lebron parenthetical.  All three players have won 4 championships. Their accomplishments surpass Hall of Fame talk. They walk where Kobe walks. But here's where it gets fun. LeBron James and Dwight Howard are pounding on the gate, but they've not yet stormed the castle. There is still time for Kobe, Duncan and Shaq to break the tie that exists between them. It's early to say this, but the 2009-10 season will feature 5 legitimate contenders: the Lakers, Spurs, Cavs, Magic, and Celtics. The Nuggets and Blazers could get there, but are still wait and see. Three of the five surefire contenders feature Shaq, Duncan or Kobe. The stage is set for a proper send off. It's not too late to arrive at a definitive answer to the question of who claimed majority ownership of this decade."

Orlando Magic Daily: Your Orlando Magic, summer league edition.
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Cavs the Blog: Learn more about Tarence Kinsey

(Photos by Rocky Widner, Larry W. Smith, Harry How/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.