The Disappointment Zone

Musings from a Cleveland sports fan

Eastern Conference preview (for the next five seasons): Chicago Bulls

Posted by disappointmentzone on 28 September 2006

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.


10 Responses to “Eastern Conference preview (for the next five seasons): Chicago Bulls”

  1. Ben said

    Your first paragraph… were you agreeing with rebounding ‘not being a skill’ or not? Because if you believe that, you are very very wrong. But if I’m misreading that, I’m an idiot and I aplogize.

    As for the Bulls and Wallace… I agree with Simmons, mostly, that signing Wallace helps, but doesn’t really address their needs.

    The Bulls were a good defensive team last season. They played Miami very tough in the first round. But what did the Bulls in? Offense.

    The Bulls shoot way too many jump shots and don’t shoot nearly enough free throws for a good team. Wallace should help grab a few more offensive boards a game, but the problem is that the Bulls gave 4 year $60 million deal to a 32 year old center with a ton of miles on him (lots of long playoff runs behind him as well) who does nothing to address their most glaring weakness: scoring.

    Wallace should improve their defense (taking them from ‘good’ to ‘elite’). But they still have no post play and inside scoring. They still won’t get to the line and they still will shoot a ton of jumpshots.

    I think Wallace’s biggest contributrions will come in the locker room. Everyone on that team is going to play defense and play it hard (even Ben Gordon might be shamed into making the effort). They are going to have a different mindset going into this season; a “we belong” mindset (instead of “if we play we’ll we should compete” mindset). Wallace will bring them confidence. Also, don’t underestimate the fact that they signed Wallace away from the Pistons; they weakened a division rival significantly, that is big too (making their run through the playoffs a little bit easier).

    I have to say I disagree with you about Ben Gordon. If the Bulls don’t re-sign Gordon, who is their primary scorer? Hinrich? Nocioni? Deng?

    Gordon give them that ‘go to guy’ down the stretch. Someone who can create his own shot if need be. They’ll have no inside scoring with Wallace, Nocioni (more of a jump shooter than post player) and Thomas. I love Hinrich and I think he can score when need be, but he’s not a number one option. I strongly disagree that Gordon is a “glaring weakness”. Sure, he’s not perfect, but he’s far and away the best scorer they have.

    The Cavs should be wary of the Bulls but not worried. Sure, LeBron and co. should probably bring shoulder pads to the arena when they play Chicago, but if the Cavs play decent defense themselves they’ll have a good shot of winning.

  2. The first paragraph was a (failed) attempt at sarcasm. I think rebounding is very important and I think Wallace will really help the Bulls (taking him from the Pistons is huge, too).

    Gordon scores, yes, but so would you if you took the number of jump shots he did. His scoring efficiency is a joke. He’s a scorer by virtue of shooting a lot, not by virtue of being an effective scorer. Yes, he’s the most athletic backcourt player and he can create shots better than anyone else on that team, and perhaps if he stuck to late-game situations in which he created his own shot then he’d be more efficient. But there is no sign this is the case. For every 10 points he scores in the 4th quarter he’s missing 12 shots in the first three quarters.

    Thomas is a beast around the glass and I think he’ll turn into a good go-to in the post. He’s 6’11 and can jump through the roof. That’s gotta count for something. But you are right–generally speaking, the Bulls have a scoring weakness in the front court, but I’m not sure this will be a huge problem. I could very well be wrong.

    The Bulls won’t threaten the Cavs too much this season unless they make a trade (the Bulls, that is). They are scary because they have cap room and young, talented players. They are kind of like the Indians in that regard…sort of.

  3. Erik said

    If the Bulls want to improve from where they are now, they will have to take on more salary, either through trades or through signing their own players to extensions. That’s the only way they will be able to keep this current cast of characters together.

    The only way out of that is to pick and choose who you want to keep, let the rest go by either trading them away or not tendering them a contract extension, and backfilling through the draft.

    That requires the GM to hit for a very high average in the draft. It can be done, reference the job that R.C. Buford has done with the Spurs, and Joe Dumars with the Pistons. Certainly, John Paxson appears to be a capable drafter, but he’ll have his work cut out for him to make headway and stay near the top of what has become a beast of a division.

    The rule in the NBA is that if you want long-term success, you are either going to pay for it by bloating your team’s payroll and maxing out your cap room, or you are going to have to do one heluva job amassing and using draft picks, and not be afraid to move some players when they are eligible for big bucks.

  4. Josh said

    I think the Bulls will have a great year — my hunch is they will make it to the ECF.

    Skiles knows Ben Gordon is a joke. I expect his role to either be reduced to a 25 minute a game gunner off the bench or to be moved for a vet with an expiring salary. I think in the beginning the front office put a lot of pressure on Skiles to play Gordon with Hinirch. But now that it has been determined Gordon is a flawed player, he isn’t being forced down Skils throat.

    Don’t underestimate what PJ Brown can bring to this team. He plays excellent defense, sets screens well, etc. I’ve lost track of him the past few years but when he was with Miami he was a great player.

    I love Noconi and Deng’s games. I expect both to improve this year. In the Bulls-Heat series Noconi played the best of any Chicago player.

    My only question is who is the go to guy down the stretch. Is Hinrich ready for that responsibility?

  5. Chicago is in a great position to make moves to improve the team. Tons of cap space and a number of young players will do that. Is this team–as is–an elite team? No. But of all the teams that aren’t yet elite, the Bulls are probably in the best position to make meaningful moves over the next couple of seasons, at least of the teams in the EC.

    Nocioni made huge leaps last season and he was an absolute stud in the postseason. Deng is a solid player. He’s still very young, too. I think this is the season he steps up his game and turns into a borderline all-star.

    Hinrich probably isn’t the go-to scorer down the stretch, but I would definitely want him on the court and for the ball to pass through his hands. Chicago would benefit from having a really strong outside shooter, particularly now that they have Wallace down low.

    I don’t think they’ll make the ECF, though…then again, there is no team I’m confident will make it. I’d say Cleveland, Miami, Detroit, and Chicago are the front runners, with no team that distanced from the pack. Miami was fortunate to win the title last season.

  6. Josh said

    Miami is heads and shoulders above the rest of the East. Shaq need not play more then 50 games in the regular season. I think how they played in June will be more reflective of how they play again in the crunch time this year. By the end of the year they got Riley’s defense and Posey and Walker sorted out their roles on the team. I agree they will be fortunate to win in the Finals but no one is close in the East.

    I’ve already told you why i don’t think much of Cleveland. I question how Rasheed will deal with needing to play big more and not camp out on the three point line. He’ll be a tempermental nutcase all year not having Wallace nearby as an enforcer. I also wonder how Prince can play at the 4, which he inevitably will have to do some. I also don’t think they’ll stick with Flip when the shit hits the fan.

    I have a funny feeling that NJ will also surpass Detroit and Cleveland but I am not sold on that yet.

  7. Miami is not heads and shoulders above the rest of the East. Shaq is aging quickly. I agree that he’ll play only as much as needed during the regular season, but he’ll only be going probably 30 minutes a night in the playoffs (he went 33 per night last season). He’ll also be one year older and in winning the championship he’s already proven to the world that he’s The Guy and Kobe isn’t. What else does he have to prove? Bringing a champsionship to Miami was his stated purpose. I think there will be serious decline in his motivation.

    I’m not huge on Miami’s roster. Wade is great. Shaq is very good. Haslem is above average. Williams is servicable. Same with Posey. Peyton is old. Wallace is below average. A 39-year-old PG and a 35-year-old center don’t set my toes a tapping. Miami is an elite team, yes, but not heads and shoulders above the rest.

    The team from the East that gets home court in the playoffs will be the team that wins the East. Without a full-go Shaq I’m not sure Miami will necessarily earn home court advantage. I think the race will be close enough that Miami will have to use Shaq more than they’d like in the regular season, and even then I’m not sure Miami wins home court. And once the playoffs start the Cavs will just have Varejao break Shaq’s jaw. He’s good like that.

    I really like NJ picking up Jay Williams. If VC ever stops being an airhead NJ could be very good. I like Kristic and Jefferson, and I hear they have a good PG…someone name Kidd. NJ could surpass Detroit, but not Cleveland.

    Detroit is on a slow fall to average. Having two Flips is going to kill them.

  8. Josh said

    I liked Kristic until the Miami series where he didn’t show up. Literally he was airballing six footers. He had Peja-itis. By the end of the year Kidd was exhausted. They need to build some depth and keep him at 32-35 minutes a game.

    I think the Posey and Williams that showed up late in the year are better then servicable. Posey can guard the SF Walker can’t and hit 3s. He doesn’t need to do more with Wade and Shaq on the court. Williams is great in transition and helps Wade get easy looks.

    Payton returning is absurd but I expect Miami will get another backup PG — most likely Doleac being moved for Kenyon Dooling, who played well udner Riley a few years ago.

    Shaq will be motivated. Riley will make sure of it. He’s what puts them over the top. I really think he can work off what they accomplished at the end of last year. Everyone likes to shit on them but they beat dallas 4 in a rown, easily beat the pistons and went 10-1 at home in the playoffs. The Heat of June wasn’t as bad as people like to make it out to be.

    Not sure homecourt matters. Detroit had it last year and it didnt matter. oad.

    Also, keep your eye out for Dorell Wright. I think he’ll be a decent backup for 15 minutes a night.

  9. Erik said

    With a healthy Larry Hughes playing alongside LeBron for 70-plus games, Cleveland is a threat to win a division title and is probably the second-best team in the East behind Miami.

    With an injured Hughes, Cleveland is still a playoff team, but will probably get bogged down in the pack behind Miami and Detroit.

    You might not think much about Cleveland’s roster, but they have the best player in the East, possibly the league, and he showed last spring what he’s capable of with minimal help. He dragged the Cavs through 13 playoff games with only Anderson Varejao really helping him. You can try to shoot holes in that with the “LeBron should have been called for travelling in Game 5 against Washington” argument, but the point is, he put the Cavs in a place where it took one shot to win, and the Cavs cashed in all three times.

    And. for the record, while everybody is fawning over Ben Wallace and Chicago, nobody is mentioning Washington, a team which at least stood pat this summer, and might have gotten better. They might have lost Jared Jeffries, but they signed Darius Songaila, which was huge for them.

    Side note: nobody is mentioning the fact that the Bulls lost Songaila, who was a major contributor off the bench the past two seasons and one of the few offensive low-post threats they’ve had.

    Nobody is saying the Bulls aren’t good, but I’d pick Washington to win a playoff series before I’d go pre-emptively crowning the new Chicago dynasty because they added an aging, undersized center and some more rim-clanging muscle down low.

  10. No one is crowning the Bulls as a dynasty. There is a huge difference between a dynasty and a team in great position to make significant moves over the next few seasons. And Chicago is in a great position not just because they added Wallace–one of the best players in the conference of any position and who has not slowed down in the last few seasons–but because they have a lot of young talent and no horrible contracts.

    Washington is a nice team right now, but they owe $66 million to Thomas and Daniels and Jamison is in the last year of his contract. This preview is supposed to be for the long term–and I haven’t done the Wizards yet–but right now the Bulls, while not as polished as Washington, will be a better team over the next five seasons if the front office doesn’t screw up.

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