Thursday, April 05, 2007

Ben Who?

Apparently at some point during the Bulls' 106-88 win over the Detroit Pistons last night, a fan behind the Chicago bench observed to Scott Skiles that the Bulls play better "without the $60 million bum." Pistons fans were undoubtedly frustrated with the absence of Ben Wallace -- the alleged $60 million bum -- who had the flu. Detroit fans, who ordinarily require the efforts of sports' most annoying public address announcer to get fire up about anything, have mustered the energy to heckle and boo a man who played a key role in bringing the town an NBA championship. Odd.

Anyway, after last night's thrashing of the Pistons, it is tempting to believe that the Bulls do, in fact, play better without their $60 million center. Even in games he's played, I've often thought that the team seemed to function better with PJ Brown and Tyrus Thomas on the floor, than with Wallace out there. And, I confess to wondering whether the Bulls might end up closing out playoff games with Thomas, Andres Nocioni, Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich. But before I conclude that the Bulls are better without Wallace on the floor I want to take a closer look at the actual numbers.

Wallace's numbers look pretty good on the surface. No, he's not scoring, but he never has. Expectations of 10 points per game were always foolishness. He is seventh in the league in rebounding at 10.8 a game. He's also ninth in the league in blocks at 2.1 a game. Finally, he's 15th in the league in steals at 1.5 a game. Not bad. But also not all that telling because traditional per game stats don't tell much of a story.

Based on John Hollinger's player efficiency rating (PER), Wallace is only the 37th most productive center in the league. PER does seem to undersell a player with Wallace's particular skill set somewhat (or perhaps we overrate such players), but Wallace's performance level in Detroit put him in the top-20 for his position. Even allowing for the expected regression of a 32 year-old big man, Wallace is not performing up to expectations. And, while he's never been particularly adept at the offensive end, he's been especially bad this year. Not only is his shooting percentage down, but his turnovers are up. Wallace has always been under-appreciated for his ball handling. Unlike, for example, Tyson Chandler, who doesn't score and often turns the ball over when teammates try to involve him, Wallace functions as a conduit for ball movement. He's a good passer, and until this year rarely turned the ball over. Wallace is still not Chandlerian in his butterfingery ways, but he's turning it over far more often than in the past, further diminishing his value on the offensive end.

Then there is this odd stat: the Bulls not only score one more point per 48 minutes when Wallace is not on the court, they give up two fewer points per 48 minutes when the big man sits. Huh? This guy is supposed to be the intimidator who takes the Bulls' defense to the next level, but they're actually a better defensive team with him on the bench. Part of that may be that Wallace and Thomas rarely play together because neither one boasts diverse offensive skills (Thomas is on the floor for about 10% of Wallace's minutes). The Bulls are much better on defense when Thomas is on the floor -- four points per 48 minutes better. But if Skiles won't play Wallace and Thomas together, and the Bulls are better on defense with Thomas in there, then maybe they are better off without Wallace.

For this year, I'm willing to give Wallace the benefit of the doubt until the playoffs. Wallace has been through this marathon. He's 32 years old. Maybe he is coasting a little so that he can bring his "A" game in the postseason. He was criticized last year for fading in the playoffs after putting together another stellar defensive regular season. We've seen glimpses of what that might mean, such as in late February when Wallace collected 14 points, 19 rebounds, seven blocks, five assists, two steals, and only one turnover against Cleveland. If he's taking it easy now so that he can bring that consistently in the playoffs, then the Bulls will go far and Wallace will be well worth his price. But if Wallace's post-season performance mirrors his regular-season effort, then the Bulls will have to hope someone is willing to relieve them of the burden of a $60 million "bum."


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