Last night's game brought both theories into focus. The Bulls beat the Portland Trailblazers 100-89. Gordon had only 17 points, and shot just 1 of 7 from 3-point range, but the Bulls won anyway because Luol Deng had 38. It was a pretty ordinary game for Gordon. But the Bulls won anyway because Deng was dominant. Deng shot 18 of 25 from the floor for 38 points. So, how much has Gordon grown as a player? And, are the Bulls too dependent on him to really contend?
The argument that Gordon hasn't grown as a player is premised on the theory that his numbers only look better this year because he's getting more minutes. So, to compare, we need to look at rate based stats -- stats that don't depend on playing time. Across the board, Gordon has improved as a player. In his first two seasons, Gordon shot 41 and 42%. This year he's shooting 45%. His true shooting percent (TS%), which accounts for free throws and the extra value of three pointers, has risen from around 53% his first two years, to 57.0% this season. As a result, his points per 40 minutes is a career high 26.1. That has nothing to do with extra playing time. Gordon is more productive per minute than ever before. He's also setting a career high in assists per 40 minutes at 4.4. It's still not great for a guy who sometimes plays the point, but it's a full half assist better than his previous best. Overall, Gordon's player efficiency rating has jumped from 14.59 last year (league average is 15.00) to 18.37 this year. Gordon didn't grow much from his first to his second year in the league, but he has unquestionably developed significantly this year.
More importantly for the Bulls' chances, they're still not especially dependent on Gordon, his jump shooting, or jump shooting in general. First, Gordon is not the Bulls' best player. Deng is. Deng's PER is 19.09, among the top 50 in the entire NBA. He's shooting 52.3% from the floor. His TS% is 56.5% and he is scoring 20.1 points per 40 minutes. He also grabs 7.4 rebounds per 40 minutes. Deng takes 40% of his shots from near the rim. As a team, one-third of the Bulls' shots come near the basket. Neither the Bulls, nor their best player, are especially dependent on jump shooting. Sixty-seven percent of the Bulls' shots are jumpers. Sixty-five percent of their opponents shots are jumpers. And the Bulls' effective field goal percentage on those jumpers is 46.1% to just 42.8% for opponents. The Bulls take about the same number of jumpers as their opponents and are considerably more efficient than their opponents in that aspect of the game. All of this goes to show that it's no fluke that the Bulls are more than 10 games over .500.
We've established that Gordon is a legitimately better player this year than last. And, we've established that the Bulls are no more dependent on jump shooting than their opponents in general. I'm pretty comfortable in saying that we've debunked both myths, and that the Bulls are absolutely legitimate contenders in the East. The only remaining hurdle is whether the other contenders are especially not dependent on jump shots. A quick tour through the six of the top teams in the conference -- Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, Chicago, Washington, and Toronto -- reveals that each takes between 61-68% of its attempts as jump shots. Cleveland is the least jump shot dependent, while Washington and Toronto are the most dependent on jumpers. But it's all pretty close. It seems that this is just one more example of conventional wisdom that is bigger on convention than wisdom.