Friday, April 27, 2007

The Bulls, Too, Are Who We Thought They Were

As the Bulls and Heat gear up for game three tonight in Miami, I've been hearing a lot of people talk about why the Bulls can't sustain what they've been doing. Some of these arguments are wishcasting. The last time the Heat were down 2-0 they came back to beat the Mavs for the NBA title. Who cares? Among many other variables, Dwayne Wade was healthy then. The last time the Bulls were up 2-0 they blew the series to the Washington Wizards. And, all of four players from that team will suit up tonight. These arguments tell us nothing more than that, yes, teams do sometimes overcome 2-0 deficits.

Some of the other arguments have more of a ring of truth. Except they're wrong. The most common argument is that the Bulls are too perimeter oriented to remain consistent on offense. Over the course of the year, the Bulls took 68% of their attempts as jump shots. In comparison, their opponents took a minuscule 66% of their attempts as jump shots. Wait a second. That's almost exactly the same. Yeah, but the heat only took 63% of their attempts as jump shots. Oh, that's almost the same too. I hate when facts interfere with a perfectly good rationalization. Based on the rate the two teams play at, and their turnover percentages, we can expect each team to take about 77 shot attempts a game. For the Heat, 48 of those 77 can expected to be jump shots. For the Bulls, 52 of those 77 attempts can be expected to be jump shots. In other words, the perimeter oriented team takes on average one more jump shot per quarter than its opponent. The Bulls have been a little more perimeter oriented so far in this series, but don't let two games fool you Heat fans, they're taking jumpers because its working, not because they have to.

Well, say Heat apologists, perimeter oriented or not, there's no way the Bulls stay as hot as they have been. Well, this is interesting. The Bulls have been "hot" in the playoffs. In reality, the Bulls won one game in which they shot poorly, and torched Miami in one game when they got hot. But to give the argument the benefit of the doubt, we'll instead pretend that the Bulls have been consistently hot. So far in the playoffs, the Bulls have .531 effective field goal percentage (e%) from the floor, including .513 e% on jump shots. That is a step up from the team's .493 e% in the regular season (.462 e% on jumpers). But this is not blind luck. The Bulls have been getting more open shots in the postseason than they did in the regular season because their ball movement has improved. 60% of the team's regular season baskets were assisted, 65% of its made jumpers. In the postseason, a shocking 71% of its made baskets have been assisted, 74% of its outside jumpers. Yes, the Bulls are making a lot of baskets, but they're doing so because they're moving the ball around and getting wide open looks. If the Heat continue to look a step slow getting to jump shooters, and the Bulls continue getting the ball to guys when they're open, there's no reason the Bulls can't continue to light Miami up.

I'm not saying the Bulls will beat Miami in game three the way they did in game two. I wouldn't be surprised if Miami wins tonight. I wouldn't be surprised if the series comes back to Chicago. Given the chance involved in a short series, I wouldn't even be shocked if the Heat come all the way back to win it. But the Bulls aren't up 2-0 because they've been lucky. The Bulls have merely done what they've done all year: move the ball, get good looks, knock them down. They made a lot of jumpers all year, most of which were assisted. They're doing the same thing in the playoffs. The Bulls are who we thought they were, and that's a better team than this year's Miami Heat.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The View From Section 122

Actually, the view from Row 14, Section 122 at the United Center last night was largely of the top of Jesse Jackson's head. The high profile politician, activist, etc., was seated in the seat right in front of me. He good naturedly kibitzed with neighbors, shared a tub of popcorn, and cheered on the Bulls. Overall, he seemed to enjoy the game. But then again, how could he not? The game was highly enjoyable for just about everyone in the UC. Maybe not so much for the Heat, or for the Heat fan in my row who, even as the Heat trailed by double digits, kept prattling on about how Dwayne Wade was going to beat the Bulls single handedly even though he was playing with only one arm and one leg.

Let's talk about Wade for a second. The man is a warrior. The official brother of the Ron Karkovice Fan Club last night questioned why the Heat would even allow Wade to play this post-season. I think the situation is this: Shaq doesn't have much time left, and when he retires, the Heat become the 2006-07 Lakers. In other words, the Heat's window is now, and when Shaq leaves, the team may be locked into a half-decade of mediocrity. Wade has to suck it up now, no matter how banged up he is, because he's looking at a dry spell in terms of championship calibre teammates starting very soon. And Wade is banged up. Everything he does, he does tentatively. He can't fight through picks, so he can't guard Kirk Hinrich or Ben Gordon. Relegated to guarding Luol Deng, he's a defensive liability because of his size. He can't attack the rim. Watch his break away dunk last night. There was no explosion, and he finished with one wing pulled tightly to his body. Even passing the ball, he's out of synch because a crisp, two-handed chest pass (you know, fundamentals) is not an option. It's sad, and national experts understated the importance of Wade's injuries when they universally picked the Heat in this series.

That's especially true because Shaq, as good as he is, is no longer the absolutely unstoppable, put his team on his shoulders and carry them, force that he once was. He is still the strongest man in basketball. If he gets good position, he is nearly impossible to contain. But his lateral mobility, an underrated strength in his prime, is fading fast. Defensively, penetrating guards don't need to worry about him unless they take the ball right into his chest. Offensively, if he kicks it out to re-post, a wily defender like Ben Wallace can often beat him to his spot and take away the angle on the entry pass. He gets everywhere he's going a step slower than he used to, and that's why he's getting in foul trouble more often.

As for the Bulls, their two best players were the two best players on the floor last night. Ben Gordon had nine first-quarter points as the Bulls built a 10 point lead after one period. He finished with 27 points, and the Bulls outscored Miami by 18 while he was on the floor. But the player of the game was Luol Deng. Deng had a slow first half, but he scored 20 points in the second half, most of them during a 15-2 fourth quarter run that put the game away. Deng was an astonishing +21 on the night.

One other player deserves special mention for the Bulls. The not-so-secret x-factor in this series so far has been Bulls' rookie Thabo Sefolosha. He played only 12 minutes last night, but had a disproportionate effect on the game. At one point I mentioned to my brother that Sefolosha had seemed very involved in the game for a man who, at the time, had 2 points, no assists and no rebounds. The raw numbers got better -- nine points on four of five shooting -- but still don't capture his full impact. Somehow, despite the Bulls winning the game by 18 points, every Bulls' reserve had a negative +/- except for Sefolosha. Thabo was +12 in only 12 minutes. And, it's no coincidence. His harassing defense, and surprisingly steadying hand on offense made the Bulls a better team when he was on the floor.

My brother insisted at dinner last night that he expected the Heat to win the series, and wouldn't be surprised if they won last night. Only one quarter into last night's game he turned to me and said, "You're right, the Bulls are just the better team." There's no question about it. Now, anything can happen in a short series. The Bulls blew a 2-0 lead two years ago to the Wizards. But this much I know for sure: the Bulls are just the better team.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Just Shut Up

I was delighted to hear this morning that Shaquille O'Neal has been nominated for Mike & Mike's Just Shut Up Award. Shaq's sin was b*tching and moaning about the officiating during the Bulls game one win over the Heat. I actually agree that officials remain, all these years later, somewhat baffled by how to call a game in which Shaq participates. He's too big and too strong to really tell what's happening when he makes contact with a mere mortal. He is both the unstoppable force and the immovable object.

But come on! You're on a team with Dwayne Wade, the single most overprotected player in the league. You cannot complain about officiating. Furthermore, in this particular game, Shaq was in foul trouble because he was consistently a step late getting where he wanted to go. And his sixth and final foul was a no-brainer. Set or not, Shaq had a foot in the circle when he and Nocioni collided. Shaq was dismissive of the call as if this hard and fast rule should not have been applied to him in this particular circumstance. Deputy O'Neal should know though, nobody is above the law, not even him.

Anyway, after hearing Shaq's whining, I surfed around a little on-line to see how people in general were responding to the game. The consensus seemed to be that the Bulls were clicking on all cylinders, and that as soon as the Bulls cooled off, lost some intensity, or stopped seeing favoritism from the officials, then the Heat would stomp them. What game were these people watching?

Look, anything can happen in a short series (the NBA's two best teams each stumbled in game ones at home over the weekend), but game one between the Heat and the Bulls confirmed what I've always believed: this is one of the biggest mismatches of the first round. First off, Shaq and Wade's foul trouble was irrelevant to the outcome. The Bulls won by five. They outscored the Heat by seven while Wade was on the floor. The Heat were plus-2 when Wade sat. The Heat were minus-2 when Shaq sat, but obviously that means the Heat were minus-3 with him on the floor. A few extra minutes of playing time for Shaq and Wade and the Bulls might have won by double digits.

And the refs didn't favor the Bulls overall either. Each team shot 27 free throw attempts. Kirk Hinrich was in every bit as much foul trouble as Wade or Shaq. He played fewer than 20 minutes because of fouls. Then there is the case of Luol Deng. Deng took 22 shot attempts. They were his usual assortment of inside and medium range shots. About 40% of Deng's attempts this year were going to the hoop. But Deng shot only five free throw attempts to go with 22 shots from the floor. Compare this to Wade, who takes a slightly lower percentage of his shots going to the basket (38%), but who attempted 7 free throws despite attempting only 16 shots from the floor. Of course, this disparity just reflects the way things always are. Wade draws fouls on more than 19% of his shot attempts. Deng draws fouls on 11% of his shot attempts. This despite the fact that Deng is, in fact, more aggressive about going to the basket than Wade. Believe me, by the time the series is over, it won't be the Heat who have a legitimate complaint about the officiating.

As for the contention that the Bulls did everything right while the Heat struggled, and yet the Bulls only won by five: well, that simply has no connection to reality. For example, the Heat shot 7 for 20 from three point range, or 35%. That's not especially good, but it's actually better than the 34% the Heat shot in the regular season. Meanwhile the Bulls shot 17% (3 of 17) from beyond the arc. That's dreadful, which is especially surprising because the Bulls were second in the NBA in three point shooting this year at 39%. None of the Bulls' advantages should surprise anyone either. The Bulls won the battle on the boards with ease, but the Bulls were one of the better rebounding teams in the NBA this year, while the Heat were out-rebounded on the season. Turnovers were even, which was not surprising because each team had a similar turnover rate in the regular season. The Bulls had more assists, again not surprising because the Bulls had a much better assist rate during the regular season. See, everything about this game went as one would have expected, except the Bulls were ice cold from beyond the arc.

And despite the Bulls' uncharacteristically terrible shooting, they won the game and looked to be in control most of the way. Could the Bulls lose this series? Of course. But its hard not to feel pretty good about things right now. So, Shaq, I take the "Just Shut Up" thing back. Complain all you want about the officiating. But remember this if the Bulls send you home earlier than expected for summer break, the refs didn't beat you, a better team did.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wha' Happened?

Forgive me, I'm a little overwhelmed. I left my house last night at half time of the Bulls game, and with the Sox in the 4th inning, leading 1-0. I had a rec league basketball game (in which we fell to 0-3 on the season, but I swear we're making major progress), and by the time I came home 90 minutes later, all kinds of heck had broken loose on the Chicago sports landscape.

The seeds of each event had already been planted, of course. First, the Bulls never win in New Jersey, so I had sort of been anticipating that collapse before the game even began. By the time half time arrived, the five seed almost seemed to be an inevitability. Still, during my temporary media blackout, I held out hope that either the Bulls had saved themselves, or Milwaukee had saved our bacon for us. I had also watched Joe Crede making a diving stop to preserve Mark Buehrle's nascent no-no, and at that time thought, that's the kind of play that people look back on at the end of a no hitter. But who actually expects a no-no after 12 outs?

Anyway, I'm out of town tomorrow, so I need to say my piece about both issues today (and I'm having an annoyingly busy day today -- I've written this over about a four hour period). Let's start with the Bulls, whom most experts expect to be one and done again in the playoffs. Understandably, experts are giving the benefit of the doubt to the defending NBA champs, the Miami Heat. The Bulls have no one as glamorous as Shaq or D-Wade.

I, however, expect the Bulls to beat the Heat fairly easily. This isn't about flipping a switch. Shaq is one year older, D-Wade's not healthy, the Bulls nearly beat the Heat without Ben Wallace or home court advantage last year, and the Bulls have the third best record in the league since the all-star break. Only Dallas and San Antonio have been better since the break. That's right, the Bulls have a better record than the Suns in the second half. The Bulls are one of only four teams in the league with a scoring margin of more than 5 points a game. The others are the Spurs, Mavs and Suns. That's elite company. Over the last quarter of the season, that margin has increased to 6.3 points per game. Only the Cavs are better over that span. Only the Spurs and Warriors have been better out west. The Bulls should still be heavy first round favorites. Reputation trumps performance in the mainstream media.

As for Buehrle, what is there to say? He not only threw a no hitter, he only walked one guy. And he promptly picked him off (that's just Mark being Mark), so he faced the minimum of 27. He also struck out eight guys, which is a lot for him. It's too bad he doesn't work slower, or I could have made it home for the last inning or two. But instead, I turn off the TV for 90 minutes, and it's chaos.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What Do Ya Know?

After two weeks of the baseball season, not much. Or at least nothing more than you did before the season started. Heck, you don't really know much more than you did way back before spring training started. If you think you do, then you've fallen victim to that dreaded disease: Small Sample-Sizephyllia.

The fact that you--and I, and everyone else--know no more today than three months ago is not some side effect of a factor unique to this season, be it frequent game cancellations or anything else. No, all this amounts to is a statement that a couple weeks of baseball, even a month plus of spring training, doesn't amount to a hill of beans (and what does, really? I mean, I've never seen an actual hill of beans) when compared to hundreds of at-bats, or batters faced, over the course of a career.

Which is why I find Lou Pinella's roster shuffling so amusing, as well as Cubs fans' embracing of his wild panic approach. I'm not saying the changes are bad. I don't care enough about the Cubs to analyze in too much detail, but some of them make sense on their face. For example, if yesterday's outfield flip flop indicates that Matt Murton will play everyday while Jacques Jones and Cliff Floyd form up (AND I'LL FORM THE HEAD!) into a relatively useful Jaff Joyd, then that's great. But if that is the right alignment for the Cubbies outfield corners, then why in the hell was it not the right alignment two months ago?!? We knew every bit as much about what these gentlemen could do in February as we do now. I keep hearing Cub fans lauding the fact that Pinella will "tinker" with his line-up. What they should be doing is lamenting the fact that he was suffering from dumb up until now.

Of more concern, the moves reflect that Pinella is more than ready to panic, or otherwise make decisions, on the basis of a very small sample size. Ryan Theriot is hot, and if he continues to put up numbers like those amassed in his first 21 at-bats, then he'd be a decent option at the top of the line-up, be it in the one or two hole. But we're talking about 21 at-bats. This decision was based on 21 at-bats in which a guy out paced his 90th percentile PECOTA projection by 120 points in the on-base department. Yes, he even had a really good 160 at-bats with the Cubs last year. But even that is a tiny sample size in the face of more than 1000 minor league at-bats that say this guy won't crack .330 in on-base percentage. Theriot makes a great utility infielder, who might even deserve an everyday gig for a year or two somewhere on an infield. He's Esteban German. He's not the lead off hitter in a high powered major league line up.

Or maybe I'm wrong. But at least I'm not basing my judgment on a whopping 21 at-bats. Which is more than can be said for the guy the Cubs are paying millions to finally guide them to the promised land. And Cub fans are happy about this!!! Of course, the new line-up produced 12 runs and a victory last night. So, undoubtedly, the Cubs will now cruise to a World Series championship behind the most high powered line-up in baseball history.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

We Come to Bury The Knicks

I was going to take the day off from writing. But this is too fun to pass up. The Bulls thrashed the Knicks 98-69 last night and afterwards the Knicks were really, really angry. As most of you know, Bulls' fans get a free Big Mac if the Bulls win the game and score 100 points. So, whenever the Bulls close in on 100 points the crowd gets really into the chase for a free burger. I'm a season ticket holder, and honestly I, like a lot of people, give the voucher for a free burger to one of the homeless people who try to scrape together some change outside the stadium on game nights. Almost anyone who can afford to be at a Bulls game doesn't need a free Big Mac. The 100 point challenge is just a fun way to cap off a Bulls' win.

So, a big thumbs down to Rosenbloom, who on AM 1000 this morning was bashing the Bulls for going after 100, and the fans for caring. First, who is he to bash Chicago sports fans for anything. He has a career because people in this town love sports. Get down from your soap box and kiss my feet for caring enough about Chicago sports that I'll even listen to your craptastic show. Second, neither the team nor the fans are making a serious commitment to the idea of a free burger. The cheering, and last night's booing when Michael Sweetney missed a tip in as time wound down, are just in fun. The booing did not, as Rosenbloom suggested in a serious tone, indicate that a 98-69 thrashing of the Knicks "wasn't enough for you people."

More amusingly, however, the Knicks had their knickers all in a twist over this. Steve Francis and Nate Robinson confronted Thabo Sefolosha and Tyrus Thomas on the floor after the buzzer, and Jerome James tried to go after Thomas in the hallway outside the locker rooms. For the record, Francis played 30 minutes, shot 2 of 8 for six points, collected 1 assist to go with a turnover, and the Knicks were outscored by 18 while he was on the floor. Robinson actually made some contribution, shooting 8 of 17 in his 40 minutes of action. He finished with 24 points. Of course, his four turnovers and no assists (what position do these guys play again?), as well as his inability to guard a chair, contributed to an impressive -21 +/-. James, in contrast, actually broke even in +/-, but of course, that's because he DIDN'T EVEN PLAY!

The Knicks were embarrassed? The Knicks feel disrespected? I have an idea: show the f**k up! The Knicks shot 37% percent, turned the ball over 24 times (to 8 for the Bulls), and had 27 points at half time. It was the worst performance I've seen by an NBA team in a long time, maybe ever. And I remember not only the Brent Barry era, but the original Reggie Theus era here in Chicago, so I know bad basketball. The Bulls have become a model organization again, and appropriately, their players were more concerned about having fun with their extremely loyal fans than hurting the feelings of the most selfish, least competent group of players in the league. Yeah Stevie, there's a reason you've only played five playoff games in your eight year career. And no, it's not everyone else's fault.

Things are so bad in New York that I actually feel a little bad for Stephon Marbury. But as little respect as I have for this team, I hope this organization maintains its current structure for the foreseeable future. First, they provide endless amusement, as demonstrated last night. Second, they're useful to have around as a trading partner. Now, if we can just figure out what to do with the Knicks first round pick this summer.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Will The Real Jose Contreras Please Standup?

It couldn't possibly be as bad as last Monday. Heck, I faced guys in high school who if given a handful of starts would have put together a couple better than Jose Contreras's opening day outing. Last night Contreras retired the first five Oakland A's whom he faced, and it was already his longest outing of the season.

Of course, for those who watched last night's game, you also know that it was not nearly as good as the stats suggest. Contreras got a win, going six innings, giving up only one run on four hits and four walks, while also striking out four. Even the stats tell you the outing wasn't as good as it seems. He walked four guys, and allowed a lot of fly balls, which is a potential problem in homer happy US Comiscular.

But the biggest warning signs last night are the ones that don't show up in the box score. Jack McDowell, subbing for Ken Harrelson who was off being celebrated in Boston, pointed out two major red flags. As an aside, it was a delight listening to a game called by Blackjack instead of Hawk. Anyway, McDowell's first red flag was about Contreras's mindset. A lot of Contreras's trouble was self-induced when he walked guys with overly cautious 3-2 breaking balls. Contreras clearly doesn't trust his stuff right now. That was his downfall with the Yankees, and early in his Sox tenure, before Don Cooper straightened him out. It can be overcome, but the second red flag might impede that process, and is more concerning. Contreras's fast ball lacks the late tailing action right now that usually makes him effective. That late movement causes balls to miss the sweet spot of bats, and instead find the end or the handle. Doubles and home runs become pop ups and weak fly outs. Only Contreras and Coop know whether the loss of that tailing action can be fixed with a mechanical adjustment, or whether Contreras is just losing something on his stuff.

Whether Contreras can consistently get that movement will go a long way to determining what kind of season he has. Who knows how old he is -- he could be anywhere from 18 to 72 -- but on his word, Contreras turns 35 this year. A decline would not be unusual at that age. On the other hand, Contreras is not far removed from winning 17 straight decisions and he's had three straight seasons with better than league average PERAs (expected ERA based off of peripheral stats like hits, walks and strikeouts per nine innings) for the Sox.

My guess is that the Sox have a guy who will put up league average numbers this year, but do it in maddeningly inconsistent fashion. So maybe there is no "real" Jose Contreras.

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.

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."

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


It's one of the hardest things to do as a sports fan: don't read too much into the opening day of the baseball season. Your instincts pull in two divergent, but equally irrational directions. Let's take the example of an opening season loss because, well, that's what the White Sox did on Monday. They lost. Actually, they lost ugly. One half of me wants to scream in terror, and fears we may never win a game this season. The other half of me, oddly, is far more optimistic today than I was before the loss. Remember the year Mike Sirotka gave up like 14 runs on opening day? We won the division that year. We're totally going 161-1.

Or not. The truth is no different today than it was Sunday. The Sox strike me as a mediocre team. The hitting will be good, but it would be hard pressed to match last year's explosive offense. The pitching will be below-average, at least the starters, but probably not as bad as last year. Add it up, and I think the Sox are a .500 team.

Many, of course, are prognosticating far worse than .500 for this year's White Sox. One Baseball Prospectus analysis predicted 72-90. And that has Cub fans gloating. I heard a number of talk radio callers yesterday arguing that the Sox slide to mediocrity is proof that the Sox owners are every bit as terrible as the now departing Tribune Company, who has owned the Cubs for a couple decades. (It's worth mentioning, by the way, that our owner bought their owner -- Sam Zell is a minority owner of the Sox, which is one of the reasons the Trib now needs to sell the Cubs). They blew off the 2005 World Series, "You won one in 85 years, great." Of course, that's infinitely more than the Cubs have won in the last century.

More importantly, the Sox have been consistently competitive under Jerry Reinsdorf and his buddies. The Sox have had winning records in 17 out of the last 25 years. That's legitimately 17 chances to win a World Series. A couple of lucky breaks and an 85 win year is a 90 win, playoff season. And, as last year's Cardinals proved, any trip to the post-season is a chance to win it all. In contrast, over the past 25 years, the Cubs have had only 8 winning seasons. That's half as many.

If you're not sure what my point is, that's fair because I'm a little hazy on it. I guess I have two points. One, the Tribune Company was a disaster as an ownership group, leading the team to losing records two-thirds of the time for the last quarter century. Two, whether this turns out to be a long summer or not, it's worth remembering that Reinsdorf has been a pretty good owner who deserves the benefit of the doubt over the long haul. The Sox may take a step back this year, but if history is a guide, they'll be competitive again by next season. So, if we're not going to go 161-1 this year, we can at least take solace in that.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Gators Bite

Take the title how you will, but they do, you know. Otherwise, how would they eat? Anyway, the Florida Gators are obviously a very good basketball team. They deserve to be the favorite in tonight's match-up with Ohio State. Two thoughts though: (1) I hate the idea of one team winning back-to-back-to-back major college championships; and (2) this isn't the clear cut situation that the mainstream media is making it out to be. (Also, yes, I know baseball season starts today and that this site is named after White Sox' GREAT Ron Karkovice -- as an aside to this aside, the Red Head had a cab driver in Austin, Texas this weekend who claimed to have attended high school with Kark -- but the NCAA Championship game trumps the baseball season opener).

Florida is one of the two best offensive teams in the nation. Their offensive scheme reduces the game to two things: three point jumpers and dunks/layups. Rarely do they attempt a jumper worth only two points. As a result, they lead the country in effective field goal percentage. They also lead the country in shooting percentage on 2-point attempts. Lee Humphrey and Al Horford symbolize this approach. Humphrey shoots threes, 231 of his 288 attempts this year were from long range, and Horford dunks the ball. The two approaches are equally effective. Each is in the top-50 in ORtg, and each is in the top-40 in effective field goal percentage. Throw in the underrated Taurean Green and you have a bit of a juggernaut. Interestingly, Joakim Noah, the face of the team, and possibly its best pro prospect, is only the fourth, or even fifth, best college player on the Gators.

But Ohio State is no bunch of scrubs. Today on Mike and Mike, Golic picked the Buckeyes, and then he and Greeny laughed as if it was the most ridiculous reach in the history of prognostication. And that mirrors the general attitude of the mainstream media. The Gators are huge favorites against Ohio State. But that shouldn't be the case at all. Ohio State needs to do three things to beat Florida: win the turnover battle, control the defensive glass, and attack the basket at the offensive end. Staying out of foul trouble wouldn't be a bad idea either.

All of this is easier said than done, but Ohio State has the manpower to do it. They were also among the nation's top-5 offenses this year. A big part of that was not turning the ball over. And, Ohio State was good, if not great, about keeping opponents off of the offensive glass. Also, despite Saturday's evidence to the contrary, they usually did an excellent job of staying out of foul trouble this year. The one thing they didn't do as much of this season as they'll need to tonight, is attack the basket and get to the line. Which brings us back to the key man for Ohio State, Mike Conley. I've said before that he was the one guy on all of the Final Four teams most likely to put his team on his back and win a championship. Tonight has to be the night. He's the guy who can get easy shots, and free throw attempts, for both himself and his teammates.

Will Florida win tonight? Maybe. I'd say the chances are slightly better than 50/50. But to treat this game like a match-up of a Goliath against an over matched underdog is silly. And since I've already professed my confidence in Conley, I'll stick with him, and say he get the job done.