One of the reasons I was glad that the University of Missouri moved to the SEC is that it gives the football program a chance to differentiate itself. While the program has made amazing strides since the days I graced the campus in Columbia, it felt like only so much could be achieved in the Big 12. Gary Pinkel and his staff did a great job of closing down the in-state borders when it came to recruiting, but there is only so much you can do with players strictly from the Show-Me state. The bulk of the out-of-state talent came Texas. The Tigers have done well there, too, but still as deep as the pool of talent is in Texas, they were still choosing from the leftovers of Texas and Oklahoma. They weren't going to get to the same level as those schools without diversifying the recruiting base. By moving to the higher-profile conference, Mizzou should be drawing a better class of leftovers from a wider geographic region, all while sharpening its national brand. It's still an uphill climb, but if Mizzou is ever going to challenge for a national championship, it seems like the SEC will prove to have been a stepping stone towards that purpose.
Believe it or not, Mizzou's former plight in the Big 12 reminds me of the task facing the 76ers as they prepare to take on the top-seeded Chicago Bulls. The tenets of Doug Collins' Philly squad are very similar to those of Tom Thibodeau's Bulls. They rely on balance, depth, ball sharing and elite defense to win in the NBA, with a style of play that is appealing to basketball purists. The problem is talent. The Bulls have better players, and everything the Sixers do, Chicago does just a little bit better.
Not that the Bulls are without issues of their own. In what has become a widely-stated statistic, Thibodeau's starting lineup has been together for just 15 games and, as a unit, has accounted for just eight percent of the minutes Chicago has played this season. It hasn't been just a major injury to a single player either; Derrick Rose has missed 27 games, Richard Hamilton 38 and Luol Deng 12. Continuity has been a problem and when you delve into on-court/off-court metrics, you can see that much of Chicago's success can be traced to fantastic bench play. That's great in the regular season, but in the playoffs, the frontliners have to step forward.
That's why the Sixers' Evan Turner declared this week that he wanted to play Chicago instead of Miami, a statement which drummed up a mini-controversy. Turner's sentiment wasn't wrong, but his decision to express it was. Why give a team with better talent a rallying cry? But it's not like the Bulls needed the motivation. One of the main reasons Thibodeau was able to land another top overall seed is because of the consistent effort he gets from his roster almost every night. That's another thing the Sixers strive for as well, only once again they don't do it as well as the Bulls. Nevertheless, this could be a competitive series as Thibodeau uses the matchup to get his roster to coalesce for the greater challenges that lie ahead.
The Bulls won two of three from Philly during the regular season. As you'd expect, Chicago was short-handed in the loss, with Deng and Hamilton sitting out. The Bulls will have all hands on deck as the playoffs open, but the health of Rose, Deng and Hamilton remain ongoing concerns. The Sixers have some flux in their rotation as well. Collins is apparently leaning towards starting rookie Lavoy Allen at center because of his preference for bringing Spencer Hawes off the bench. Allen started 15 games in the regular season and is a plus-minus darling. But he's not a polished offensive performer, and scoring points is going to be the major issue for the Sixers in this series.
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)
WHEN CHICAGO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.8 possessions per 48 minutes (26th NBA)
CHICAGO Offensive Rating: 104.5 points per 100 possessions (5th NBA)
PHILADELPHIA Defensive Rating: 96.6 points per 100 possessions (3rd NBA)
With Rose out of action so often this season, the Bulls increasingly became a team that relied on ball sharing and jump shooting for its offense which, come to think of it, is the formula that helped the Mavericks win the championship last season. The Bulls crash the offensive glass better than any other team in the league, which makes up for a lot of their shortcomings on this end. But will that kind of max effort have the same impact in the postseason, when everyone is playing balls-out? That's what we'll find out.
Rose became more of a playmaker this season, a consistent trend since he came into the NBA. Rose will never win a scoring title -- he has no desire to. His willingness to make the right play, rather than always imposing his will, is the reason Thibodeau's been able to establish such a balanced team. With Rose still recovering from foot and ankle issues, it's likely that he'll pick his spots when it comes to attacking the rim. In last year's playoffs, the Bulls' offense often dried up when Rose wasn't creating for himself. The hope for Chicago is that the offensive identity it established for itself while compensating for the absence of its leader carries over to the playoffs.
That's why the Sixers are an ideal first-round opponent for Chicago. Collins rolls out an elite defense, so the Bulls will be able to polish its offense against a team that shouldn't be able to bury them on the other end.
Like the Bulls, the Sixers' defense forces teams to live in the low-percentage midrange zone. Philly forced the fourth-most attempts from that area. They were second in limiting looks in both the restricted area and from behind the arc, also ranking in the top six in limiting shooting percentages in those spots. The Bulls will have to make jump shots. During the regular season, just three teams took more mid-range shots. They like to shoot from there, and the Sixers will let them. Philly is not special in limiting midrange shooting but, then again, no one really is.
The real action will begin when the Bulls miss shots. Chicago led the league in both offensive rebounding percentage and second-chance points. They send waves of big men to the glass, from Carlos Boozer to Joakim Noah to Omer Asik to Taj Gibson. Philly ranked fourth in defensive rebounding and second in limiting second-chance points. This is going to be a key battlefield on this end and an indicator of how well the Bulls will be able to carry this trait into the postseason.
The biggest difference in the defenses of these teams is that Philadelphia relies more forcing turnovers, and turning those into points on the other end. The Sixers don't take as many chances as they did a few years ago. Collins wouldn't stand for that. But they do rely on fastbreak points, so Collins will, or should, be hoping for a few miscues by a Chicago attack not yet functioning on all cylinders.
Allen's metrics on the defensive end are terrific. The Sixers picked up 6.6 points of efficiency with him on the floor, even better than Andre Iguodala, who might be this year's Defensive Player of the Year. It's questionable how often Collins can afford to leave Allen on the floor, however. Hawes' offense will be sorely needed and jump-shooting big men have given the Bulls trouble at times.
If the games stay close, the advantage swings to the Bulls, who posted the fourth-best efficiency in clutch situations, while the Sixers' defense lagged with a surprisingly poor No. 21 ranking. Chicago, which doesn't run much isolation or run it that well, will turn to Rose to close out games, and it's likely the Sixers will counter by moving Iguodala onto him. Iguodala actually ranked just 169th in the league versus isolations*, so it will be interesting to see if the Bulls try to clear out for Rose. If so, it will be fascinating to watch.
* - This reminds me of an online discussion I had recently. Someone had gotten their hands on some MySynergySports data and decided that Iggy is overrated on defense. Indeed, his No. 72 overall ranking on defensive points per possession isn't as elite as you'd imagine. But you have to look at opportunities. Iguodala had about 13 plays per 48 minutes run against him this season. Given the Sixers' pace of play, that equates to roughly a 14 percent defensive usage rate. That, my friends, is elite. I do wish that MySynergySports would take the next step and incorporate a defensive usage metric into its fabulous data set.
WHEN PHILADELPHIA HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.9 possessions per 48 minutes (24th NBA)
PHILADELPHIA Offensive Rating: 101.7 points per 100 possessions (17th NBA)
CHICAGO Defensive Rating: 95.3 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA)
This is the end that will likely do the Sixers in. However, don't be surprised if the Bulls' defense struggles in early parts of the series. Down the stretch, on the rare occasions Chicago's first unit played together, it was on the defensive end where it looked like the Bulls were still in training camp mode. In 99 post-All-Star minutes, the Bulls' first unit posted a 105.8 Defensive Rating. So there may be a sliver of opportunity here for the Sixers, who will have to make hay early in the series if they are going to provide any drama whatsoever.
The Philly offense relies on penetration, transition and ball protection, and is one of the more extreme units in the league. The ranked first in the league in offensive turnover rate, and first in limiting points off turnovers. The Bulls don't gamble much on defense, and ranked just 24th in forcing miscues. So don't expect a lot of wasted possession by the Sixers.
Philly ranked eighth in fastbreak points, and Collins will need his squad to run early and often, because points are going to be hard to come by in halfcourt sets. The Sixers run a lot of isolation in the halfcourt, but they terminate in jump shots. Philly had the lowest FT/FGA in the league and got the smallest portion of their points from the foul line of any team. Anyway, the Bulls eat isolations for lunch, so transition opportunities are paramount to the Sixers' attack.
As mentioned, Hawes can be a key player in this series because of his ability to step out onto the floor. Chicago's big men are trained in locking down the lane and overloading to the strong side of the offense. A big man that can drift out on the weakside to receive swing passes can find himself open. Jump shooters like B.J. Mullens and Andrea Bargnani have had big nights against the Bulls. It might not be the kind of peg Collins wants to hang his offensive hat on, but it is an option to consider.
A look at quarter-by-quarter splits gives you glimpse of the quandary Collins faces in this matchup. His tepid offense functions best when his reserve mob gets into the fray, led by Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams. Philly's offensive rating jumps by nine points with Young on the court, and 4.8 points with Williams. Turner has become an emergent offensive performer, but the Sixers lose 5.8 points of defensive rating with him on the court. The defensive drop is an issue with all the bench player. Nevertheless, the Sixers' bench mob, which will apparently include Hawes, has helped them to dominate the second and third quarters in their games this season. They've also put up their best offensive numbers in those quarters. However, that's when they'll be going up against the Bulls' second unit which, I've written many times, is the best overall defensive unit in the NBA. It's a problem when your best defensive players aren't your best offensive players, and vice versa.
It's possible that the everything will come together and the Bulls will dominate from the outset, but I don't see it happening that way. There just hasn't been enough continuity in Chicago's rotation, and to think that they can just flip a switch, I'm not seeing it. Then there is the matter of getting Rose healthy, which is going to be problematic if this proves to be a long series. I expect the Sixers to steal an early game in Chicago and also take one in Philadelphia. Then the narrative will be that the Bulls are choking, or some such nonsense. The Bulls will survive, and they'll get better and better as the postseason unfolds.
CHICAGO in 6
Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.