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November 23, 2007
Game Reax
Starting Slow in the Windy City

by Bradford Doolittle

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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:

PLAYER                 CHANGE
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.

Buzzer Beaters

  • 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.)

Leaders

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

Laggards

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. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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Tar Heel Optical Illus... (11/23)
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Game Reax (12/02)
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