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January 8, 2010
Five Thoughts
Magic, Thunder & Bulls

by Bradford Doolittle


Despite being a lifelong fan of the NBA, I'd shared a city with a team in the league for only a too-brief period in the 1990s. That was my first stint in Chicago. As it turned out, it was a pretty good time to be an NBA fan in the Windy City. Giants named Jordan, Pippen and Rodman roamed the United Center, shepherded by an almost mystical figure named Phil Jackson. Two championship seasons, one of them a 72-win campaign, and innumerable memories followed.

Back then, I wasn't writing about the league. The Web hadn't taken off yet and most people still turned to newspapers to get their information fix. I wasn't a journalist then--I was an accountant--and attended only five or six games in three years. I left town before the beginning of the last season in the Bulls' second three-peat. Twelve years, a couple of career changes, the rise of new mediums, the fall of others, the end of a century and so much more went by ... then I moved back.

There were two things that jumped out at me when I first moved back, about two miles north of where I lived the first time. It's strange the things that you don't really take notice of but seem so striking when you return to a long-lost place where you've spent a lot of time. As I rode the Red Line train back in July, I couldn't believe how many satellite dishes were on the apartment buildings. Thousands of them. (Plus one, now that I live here.) Also cell phones ... everywhere. Obvious things. Things I never noticed as they proliferated while I lived in Kansas City. But when I looked at Chicago with 1997 eyes, these things jabbed me right in the forehead.

When the basketball season started, I took some of that sense of wonderment with me to the United Center. By then, I was a an experienced sports journalist and new co-author of what I felt was a very fine NBA book, the first of what I hope will be many such volumes of Pro Basketball Prospectus. I'd spent enough time behind the curtain at ballparks, football stadiums and even the NCAA Tournament that it shouldn't have felt unusual. But it did. The first day I drove to the UC and saw a gaggle of tourists posing with Michael Jordan's statue three hours before an exhibition game, I knew why. In my 1997 brain, the United Center was a place for Big Events. Tickets were hard to come by, the atmosphere always electric. When I passed through security and found myself in the hallways outside the locker rooms, no matter how hard I tried to maintain a professional demeanor, I couldn't help but think about the basketball legends that had walked in this same space. (It's hard to forget the ones that played for the Bulls -- their likenesses are painted on the walls.)

Luckily, that minor bout of awe passed quickly and it was down to business. For the first time in my sports writing career, I had the opportunity to augment my statistical work and study of games on television with a full season of first-hand observation. Even better, whenever I wondered why the hell a player or coach did something, I could merely walk up to him and ask. Properly handled, it can be an excellent education.

At the same time, my previous modes of analyzing the game taught me to be wary of what my eyes told me. There are many scoutastic things you can get from a good vantage point at a game that you have a hard time picking up on television. First and foremost, you get a much better feel for the relative quickness of players. You also get a more accurate gauge of player height. Best of all, you get a much better sense of team offensive schemes and the defensive systems that combat them. These are valuable insights to be gained. However, you also have to be careful about drawing too much from what you see.

A single basketball game is not necessarily a microcosm of a team's season, though it can be. The Lakers team I saw barely beat the Bulls on Dec. 15 is not the Lakers team that is a favorite to repeat as champions. After watching the Bulls in person 12 times so far this season, I think I have handle on what works and doesn't work for Vinny Del Negro's team. However, the single games I saw Orlando and Oklahoma City play a few days ago only told me so much. Based on the game I saw, I might be inclined to say that the Magic take far too many three-pointers, have a hard time defending in transition and that Ryan Anderson is a better player than Rashard Lewis. I don't think any of those things are necessarily true. First-hand observation is merely another tool in the toolbox and it's been interesting to incorporate it into my work this season.

The access you get to the teams is what really makes being credentialed worthwhile. I've watched Orlando several times this season on television. I looked at the Magic's numbers and formed my own opinions of its strengths and weaknesses. I felt like I knew what areas that the Magic still needed to improve in. Was I right? I asked Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy.

"(We need) to be able to sustain good play on both ends of the court for longer periods of time," Van Gundy said. "We've been very up and down, (both) in games and from game to game. We've done a pretty good job of finding ways to win on most nights, but I still don't think we've functioned at a level anywhere near what we're capable of. I'd like to see our energy level be a lot more consistent than it is."

I do not have a metric for consistent effort, so that wasn't on my checklist for improving the Magic. But when I watched Orlando later that night, I could see what Van Gundy was getting at. Orlando was playing the second game of a back-to-back, but nevertheless cruised through three periods. Chicago's often fetid offense was humming, while the Magic were launching even more three-pointers than usual. It wasn't until the fourth quarter, when Orlando's defense came alive, that I saw evidence of a team that made the NBA Finals only seven months ago.

During games, I write on Twitter, take notes and look up numbers whenever something in the game prompts me to do so. Afterwards, I try to write up a few observations that I've put to the statistical test, copying the format developed by my colleague Kevin Pelton. When you read a 'Five Thoughts' piece by me, what you're reading is my attempt at reconciling a first-hand account with the quantitative foundation that I've come rely on. From time to time, you might see me put a comment made to me by a player or coach to the test.

So why the preamble? Well, I'm looking for help in fine-tuning my version of the 'Five Thoughts' series. So I'm opening up the floor ... given what I've laid out, what would you like to see here? We don't do game stories at H-Pro. We aren't interested in scoops or rumor mongering and, personally, I don't really care about Brandon Jennings' hairstyle. We do basketball analysis and commentary, in a fun way, I hope. If there is something that you'd like to see in Five Thoughts, drop me a line. Also, if your team is on the schedule to play the Bulls in Chicago and there is an issue you want me to explore or a question you want asked of a player or a coach, just ask.

There will only be a couple of more 'Five Thoughts' opportunities this month. Minnesota is in Chicago on Saturday, but I won't be able to attend. Next week, the Pistons and the Wizards are in town, so perk up Detroit and Washington fans. There is plenty to write about concerning both of your teams. I'll also be striving to be less Bulls-centric as this installment is a little Chicago-heavy. The Bulls are on the road the second half of this month, so no ‘Five Thoughts’ till February after next week.

Five thoughts from the last two games in Chicago:

1. A productive Tyrus Thomas makes the Bulls a much better team.
Not really going out on a limb here, but at the time Tyrus Thomas hurt himself while lifting weights back in November, I'd pretty much written off his chances of remaining with the Bulls long term. Part of that was because I just didn't think he was worth the trouble. Despite amazing athleticism, Thomas just didn't seem to get it. Too often, Bulls possessions would terminate in a Thomas midrange jumper that clanged off the back of the rim. He didn't pass well. He was an undisciplined defender. I thought the Bulls saw the same things because when the time came to extend Thomas beyond this season, Chicago stood pat. Then Thomas sulked. He was benched in the fourth quarter of a loss to Miami, then chewed out by Vinny Del Negro in practice. He turned up with the flu, missing another practice and a game. He played 12 minutes of a Bulls' win in Cleveland, then came the injury.

I've since softened my stance on Thomas after seeing the way he's responded since his return, and the way the Bulls have responded to him. Since Thomas' return, the Bulls have gone 4-2. He's still only appeared in 10 games, but in my version of statistical plus-minus (which rates a player's net effect per 100 team possessions), his +5.1 is second to Luol Deng among all Bulls. He's been more willing to pass up that low-percentage long two-point jumper in favor of crashing the boards and working the baseline. His shooting percentages don't yet reflect this improvement as he's had a tough time finishing in the lane beyond the immediate vicinity of the basket. And his shot chart still features more long twos than you'd want, especially being that he's 2-of-15 from that range since returning. But his rebound rate is at a career best, he's passing the ball the way he did in his second NBA season and he's still far and away the Bulls' best weakside help defender. Most importantly, when Thomas comes in off the bench--a role he's embraced--it gives the Bulls a player that can beat his defender down the floor, helping to alleviate the plodding ways of John Salmons and Brad Miller.

After the season, Thomas will be a restricted free agent. If the Gar Forman/John Paxson braintrust can't find a taker for Salmons or even Kirk Hinrich, the best avenue for the Bulls to afford a max contract player next summer will be to renounce Thomas' rights. They won't have to do that until they hook one of the free-agent biggies--Dwyane Wade or Joe Johnson being most likely. But timing will be everything. Thomas could sign with another team, forcing a Bulls decision on whether to match. If Chicago can move some salary, then the ideal scenario would involve the Bulls signing Wade, then turning their attention to retaining a developing Thomas. The first step towards that happy ending will be for Thomas to continue his stellar effort of late.

2. "I'm looking at the numbers the last five games and watching them on film, but I'm reading about all these other guys. Here's the difference: Their best player is playing like he did in the playoffs last year." | Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, on the reason for the Bulls' recent improvement.
My brother sent me an email the other night, saying "Don't really care to watch the Bulls, wish they would become more fun to watch." This is a disturbing indictment of Chicago's style of play considering that my brother watches as much NBA basketball as humanly possible. It's even worse when you consider that the Bulls have one of the fastest players in the league at the point guard position, a gaggle of young floor runners around him and a coach whose pre-Chicago gig was with the "Seven Seconds or Less" Mike D'Antoni Suns. Alas, my brother's perception of the Bulls was right on the money.

That may be changing. Not only has the Bulls' offense perked up of late, but so has the aesthetic appeal of their brand of hoops. Rose has been on top of his game and Del Negro's lineup switch which moved Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich into the starting five in place of Brad Miller and John Salmons has really paid dividends. Chicago may have taken a step back with two losses since its victory over Orlando last Saturday--we'll know more after it plays in Milwaukee tonight and at home against Minnesota tomorrow--but prior to that, the Bulls enjoyed an eight-game surge that may have salvaged their season, not to mention Del Negro's job.

               ORTG   DRTG   NET  PACE
Prior   8-15   99.6  109.2  -9.6  90.1
Streak   6-2  106.9  101.4  +5.5  90.8
And, yes, even though the roster has gotten healthier, the bulk of the credit for this run goes to the re-discovered assertiveness of Derrick Rose.
ROSE       USG   ORTG   W-L
First 23  .254   98.3  8-15
Next 8    .295  111.1   6-2

For the season, the Bulls are 4-8 when Rose uses less than 25 percent of Chicago's possessions and 10-9 the rest of the time. Rose isn't quick to acknowledge his role as the Bulls' ringleader. When asked about the key to the Bulls' streak, he simply said, "Rebounding."

3. Bulls are aggressive by nature.
Vinny Del Negro often uses the term "run selectively" when talking about his plans for a given game. It bothers me. For the reasons I've already alluded to, I think the Bulls would be best-suited to push the ball down the floor as much as humanly possible.

If you break down Chicago's games by pace this season, Del Negro's approach seems to have some merit. In games with 94 or more possessions per 48 minutes, the Bulls are 0-6. They are 8-3 in games between about 90.9 and 93.9 possessions, while they are 6-10 in games at a slower pace. You can't isolate it to either end of the floor--the offense and the defense breaks down in fast-paced games. That is also true, though to a lesser extent, in slow games. So Vinny is right to a degree, it appears, but the Bulls still have to guard against letting games get too bogged down in half-court sets.

This isn't to say that aggressiveness doesn't count for anything. In the 11 games in which the Bulls have made 20 or more free throws, they are 8-3.

4. Are the Magic better off with more Ryan Anderson ... and less Rashard Lewis?
This is what I mean by taking too much from what you see from one team in one game, whether or not you've seen it up close and personal. The night the Magic played the Bulls in Chicago, Ryan Anderson looked like a better player than Rashard Lewis, in every phase of the game. His outside shot looked more pure, he looked more active on offense with a superior ability to get his own shot and he even looked more physically able to defend the Bulls' respectable arsenal of power forwards. The Bulls started off both halves isolating Taj Gibson on the blocks against Lewis and even as unpolished as Gibson is with his back to the basket, Lewis looked physically overmatched.

Lewis was one of the 20 best players in the league last season, so I'm not quite ready to advocate a power forward coup in Orlando. However ... it wouldn't be the craziest suggestion ever. Anderson is a player that statheads such as myself have liked since his days at Cal, when he was third in the nation in Offensive Rating among high-possession players, according to KenPom.com. (The top two were George Hill and Stephen Curry. Blake Griffin was fifth.)

This season, Anderson is using 26 percent of Orlando's possessions when on the floor and is creating 1.19 points per possession used. Lewis' figures are at 21 percent and 1.21. For each 100 team possessions, Anderson is contributing five more points than Lewis. His defensive metrics are also superior. Anderson's statistical plus/minus is an outstanding +11.5, second to Dwight Howard on the Magic. (Lewis is at +4.6). Anderson just misses qualifying on NBAPET's leaderboards since he's only played 29 percent of the available minutes at his position. If he did qualify, his SPM would rank 12th in the league. According to 82games.com, the Magic are 5.4 points per 100 possessions better with Anderson on the floor; it is 1.9 points WORSE with Lewis playing.

I'm just saying ...

5. Does Oklahoma City have enough outside shooting?
Chicago did a reasonably good job defending Kevin Durant on Tuesday. Durant was held to 14 field-goal attempts, his second-lowest total of the season. He scored 25 points on those 14 FGAs in a very professional outing for the third-year scoring star. Durant looked content to let the game come to him and to allow Russell Westbrook, who was having a big night against Derrick Rose, take the leading role in the Thunder's offense.

Luol Deng started the game on Durant, but Vinny Del Negro also mixed in bigs Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah against Durant. It seemed to work, to a degree. Durant was less willing to shoot over the bigger defenders from the perimeter. When he tried to drive, the Bulls rotated to help and force Durant to kick the ball out. This worked so well for awhile that it led me to jot down the question that leads off this section.

Only four teams have a worse three-point field goal percentage than OKC. Even the Bulls are better. Seven teams have made fewer overall threes and the picture is even more grim when you consider Durant leads the Thunder with 47 treys. New Orleans seemed to take a page from Chicago's Deny Durant scheme, as he was held to 15 FGAs* and the Thunder managed just 11 fourth-quarter points in a late-game crumble against the Hornets. Overall, despite owning one of the game's most dynamic scorers, the young Thunder are just 19th in Offensive Rating. Given the fierce competition for the last playoff slots in the West, Sam Presti may need to add a shooter.

* Durant did twist his ankle against the Bulls. I saw him limping around after the game and according to OKC beat writer Darnell Mayberry, he was unable to practice on Friday. His status for the Thunder's game Saturday against the Pacers is uncertain.

You can go back and read my in-game comments and get future Tweets at @bdoolittle.

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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Around the Rim (01/08)
<< Previous Column
Five Thoughts (12/16)
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Five Thoughts (01/09)
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Five Thoughts (01/09)

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2010-01-20 - : Week ending Jan. 17, 2010
2010-01-18 - Five Thoughts: Pistons
2010-01-12 - : 2009-10 Premier Edition
2010-01-08 - Five Thoughts: Magic, Thunder & Bulls
2009-12-16 - Five Thoughts: Lakers-Bulls
2009-12-14 - Five Thoughts: Celtics-Bulls
2009-12-02 - Game Reax: Iverson's last stand

2010-01-18 - Five Thoughts: Pistons
2010-01-14 - Five Thoughts: Milwaukee-Portland
2010-01-09 - Five Thoughts: Portland-L.A. Lakers
2010-01-08 - Five Thoughts: Magic, Thunder & Bulls
2009-12-16 - Five Thoughts: Portland-Sacramento
2009-12-16 - Five Thoughts: Lakers-Bulls
2009-12-14 - Five Thoughts: Celtics-Bulls

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