Monday, April 09, 2007

Too Much of a Good Thing

Ordinarily one wouldn't consider the return to health of one of the top sixth men in basketball and an all-NBA quality defensive center to be a "problem." But the Bulls responded to the return of Adres Nocioni and Ben Wallace with their worst outing in quite some time: a 103-89 loss to the Toronto Raptors.

If the season ended today, the Bulls would have their dream scenario: home court advantage through two rounds, and Detroit, Cleveland and Miami safely on the other side of the bracket. But Sunday's loss to the Raptors shows just how tough it may be for the Bulls to maintain or discover some cohesion and momentum working key players back in at this late date. As Coach Scott Skiles admits, it's tough to establish a rotation with this many guys used to playing minutes.

There are all kinds of questions to be answered. What role will rookies Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha play now that the vets are back? The two emerged during their absences, and the team played its best basketball of the year. What kind of player will Andres Nocioni be? Healthy, he's one of the team's three best players, but if he's not healthy, what can he bring to the table? And what's to be made of the team's continued excellence when Ben Wallace is not on the floor? He was brought over for this time of year, but up until now, the team's been at its best without him. The same can be asked on a smaller scale of veteran role-players like Adrian Griffin and Malik Allen. They were brought in for the play offs, but surely Skiles can't give Thomas's and Sefolosha's minutes to them now, can he?

The Toronto game didn't really answer any questions because several players -- Nocioni, Wallace, and Thomas -- were limited by sickness, bumps and bruises. The Bulls will have four more games to work this out. That's not a lot of time, and not only do they risk entering the play offs our of sync, they could lose the number two seed.

So, who should play? There is a case to be made that Skiles should stick with the young, athletic lineup that has had recent success. But it would be foolish not to take advantage of Nocioni's return and Wallace's health. Let's start in the back court because it's a little easier. Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich are each having career years, and deserve to play the bulk of the back court minutes in the playoffs. And, while I'm less fond of Chris Duhon than some, he's done enough to maintain his job as the number three guard. The only real dilemma is who should play the role of "big" guard when the Bulls need one. Thabo Sefolosha has played well of late, but Adrian Griffin actually had a better year. He shot and passed much better than the Swiss rookie over the course of the season. In the playoffs, Skiles should probably defer to the consistent veteran. But overall we're talking about few minutes here. The truth is that come playoff time the Bulls would be well-served by a whole lot of Hinrich and Gordon, with Duhon getting most of the leftover minutes.

Up front, minutes start with the Bulls best overall player, Luol Deng. After that though, there are a lot of ways to go. When healthy, Nocioni is the team's second best front court player. He and Deng can play together because each is a good rebounder despite being undersized. Assuming Nocioni is healthy, the Bulls should play the bulk of the time, and certainly finish games with he and Deng together at the forward spots. As for the "center" spot, that depends somewhat on match ups. I put "center" in quote marks because so few teams play with a true center now. Against Shaq and Miami, or Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the Cavs, the Bulls will probably need Wallace's bulk for most of the game and down the stretch. Against smaller teams that focus on skill and athleticism, the Bulls can play Thomas in the middle. Thomas actually had a better year than Wallace, doubling him in points per 40 minutes and nearly matching him in rebounds per 40. When the Bulls can afford to, they should probably spend as much time as possible with the athletic, quick front line of Deng, Nocioni and Thomas. One man whose minutes should be greatly reduced with Nocioni's return is PJ Brown. Brown contributed nicely during Nocioni's absence, but he brings less to the table than the other four.

Establishing a rotation will be hard on this short notice. But to wrap this rambling into a concise answer, I'd like to see Skiles establish a seven man rotation with occasional minutes for two more guys. Hinrich, Duhon, Gordon, Deng, Nocioni, Thomas and Wallace are the core group who will win or lose for the Bulls in the playoffs, and Griffin and Brown can give the team reliable minutes when necessary. I just hope they figure it out in time for the postseason.


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