Some people (Bill Simmons, for instance) look at the Bulls signing Ben Wallace to a four-year, $60 million contract and think all Chicago is getting is an aging big man who only plays defense and is an absolute liability on offense. $60 million is a lot for a guy who only contributes at one end of the floor. Rebounding is tough, sure, and Wallace rebounds well. But isn’t defense the area players excel at because they can’t play good offense? Shooting a ball through a small hoop from 20 feet away is skill. Passing a ball to a teammate through a small window while running at full speed is a skill. Everything on offense is a skill. Rebounding is mostly a function of height and position–the Bulls already have the height and players for the position–and blocking shots and whatever the hell else it is Wallace does (sport huge biceps to intimidate opposing players?), that too is mostly a function of size and position. Wallace isn’t so much skilled as he is fortunate to be born tall and huge. There aren’t many guys like Wallace in the world, but there are a number of guys like him in the NBA. You know, tall, big, other stuff. Granted, Wallace is good at defense. He’s better than most even. But he’s not that much better than the rest, so why pay Wallace $60 million when you can sign another player for a quarter of that who, sure, might not play as good of defense as Wallace but who’ll contribute on offense?
Or so the thinking goes.
How the casual fan approaches basketball, in particular players who excel at defense, is remarkably similar, I think, to show NFL executives approached offensive linemen in the 1960s and 1970s (read Michael Lewis in either last week’s SI or NYT Magazine for more on this). Players are interchangeable for the most part if all one considers is their defense, much as it was believed that linemen were interchangeable. The difference in production between a guy who scores 24.7 ppg and a guy who scores 7.9 ppg is easily quantified. All of the traditional NBA statistics lend themselves to this sort of quantitative comparison, and most of the statistics are either entirely offense-based (scoring, assists, shooting percentage, free throw shooting percentage) or ambiguous (rebounds) with the exception of blocks, an exclusively defense-based statistic. But blocks occur so infrequently (the Rockets scored 7387 points but only had 320 blocks) and can be so inconsequential (more or less just a missed shot–and there are a lot of those) that their magnitude is minuscule when compared to points or rebounds. We have no good, statistical measure of individual defensive play. What are we to do?
When the old saw is that defense wins championships and when, by virtue of the rules of the game, half of a game is played on defense, one would think that defense would get more consideration than it does despite the lack of statistical measures. Even if we have only a vague impression of what an elite defensive player does that makes him better than an average defensive player, certainly that should count for something. But for some people, it doesn’t. These people regard that vague impression as something that, by virtue of being vague, is easily transferable between players and as such is less an aspect of the player’s skill than it is an aspect of something more fleeting. If center X is really so much better than center Z, why can’t we see it in the data? How do we know center X is really so much better than center Z? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You know the story.
Fortunately for Bulls fans (and unfortunately for Cavs fans) Ben Wallace does more than play really great defense. He also rebounds. Last season Wallace played only 14.5% of Detroit’s total minutes but was responsible for 27.8% of the total rebounds. This is no inconsequential feat. This is phenomenal. Drew Gooden led the Cavs in rebounds but was only responsible for 19.1% of the total, for the sake of comparison. However elite a defensive player Wallace is, he is equally elite on the boards. Wallace only scored .2 points per minute, but he grabbed 301 offensive rebounds. This is a staggering total. If each extra possession resulted in one additional shot then Wallace was responsible for roughly 250 points. Not bad. Wallace doesn’t score and he’s an offensive liability if scoring is taken as the extent to which one can contribute on offense, but having Wallace on offense isn’t the same as a having me on offense. I’m a true offensive liability.
That said, Wallace more than makes up for any offensive deficiencies (real or imagined) by being highly productive in other areas. Last season Wallace produced 20.1 wins, the most of any Piston (Billups was second, with 17.2 WP). 20.1 wins easily puts him in the upper tier of NBA players. The Bulls, meanwhile, had no player produce more than 10.9 wins, and only two players produce at least 10 wins (Deng and Chandler). With Chandler gone the Bulls are in serious need of help on the front line, which is where Wallace fits in. With Wallace under contract through 2010 the Bulls have a lock on a solid front court for four more seasons, and if Tyrus Thomas (4 years, $15.2 million) develops into an above-average PF/C, the Bulls could easily have the best front court in the Eastern Conference in a couple of seasons.
Unfortunately for the Cavs (yet again) the Bulls also have a nice pair of back court players in Chris Duhon and Kirk Hinrich. Hinrich’s rookie contract (4 years, $10.2 million) expires after this season and Duhon’s contract (3 years, $9 million) after 2008, so the Bulls are going to have to spend money in the next couple of off-seasons if they wish to keep these players. The likely scenario is that one will be traded (probably Duhon but if the Bulls were smart they’d trade Hinrich) and the other will get a lucrative deal, which the Bulls will be able to afford to pay since there are no contracts other than Wallace’s that put any significant financial burden on the team.
The summer of 2007 could be a defining time for the Bulls. Not only does Hinrich’s contract expire but so do the contracts of Nocioni, Brown, and Sweetney (and Eisley, but he doesn’t matter). Nocioni is a solid player, Brown is OK and Sweetney is below average. If the Bulls sign both Hinrich and Nocioni then they’ll have had a very successful summer. If they sign Sweetney for more than, say, a very small amount, it’ll likely be a (small) detriment to the team.
The good news for Cavs fans is that Ben Gordon will be around for the next couple of seasons. If the start of his career is any indication–and as a Cavs fan I hope it is–then plan on Gordon shooting the Bulls in the foot on a nightly basis with his highly inefficient shooting. Gordon will almost certainly sign an extended contract when his rookie contract expires. The bigger the contract, the better (for Cavs fans).
Gordon is the only glaring weakness on the Bulls roster. Of all the teams in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are probably in the best shape going forward as things stand right now–a number of talented players, only one big contract, no bad contracts (yet). If the Cavs plan on winning a championship, the next few seasons would be a good time to do it.