Category Archives: Chicago Bulls

A Closer Look: Coaching Matters

VDN UPSET!

This is a guest post by my buddy Julian, who writes the blog Comedy Landfill. Like me, he’s a huge NBA fan, so sometimes we have arguments that end up in one of us wanting to write a blog post defending our case. So, here ya go. Also, tell him to start tweeting again.

I recently had a discussion with the creator of this blog, about the effects of coaching on a team. VDZ wasn’t convinced that coaching had all that much to do with a team’s fortunes in the NBA. I agreed that the NBA, unlike many different sports in the world, was player-driven, where the teams with the best players, in virtually all cases, were the best teams in the league. Kobe, Pau Gasol and Odom on the Lakers? Championship. Phil Jackson (one of the greatest, if not the greatest coach of all time) tried and failed to make Kobe plus a bunch of scrubs successful in the mid-2000s. Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen? Championship, and that was with oft-disrespected Doc Rivers at the helm. The year before that, they were one of the worst teams in the league.

My argument, however, was that coaches DID play an important part in the success and failure of a team. I pointed to Stan Van Gundy as a guy who made a significant, real impact on the Orlando Magic, turning them from an also-ran eastern conference team into a legit contender through a great rotation, a great gameplan, and some expert play-calling. This debate intrigued me enough to do a rundown on coaching changes that happened last season, in order to get a better idea of how coaching can change a team, for better or for worse.

Mike D’Antoni (NYK):
Offensive Rating Before: 104.7 (23rd)
Defensive Rating Before: 111.9 (29th)
Pace Factor Before: 91.6 (15th)
W-L Before: 23-59
Offensive Rating After: 108.1 (17th)
Defensive Rating After: 110.8 (23rd)
Pace Factor After: 96.7 (2nd)
W-L After: 32-50

After several outrageously poor seasons under the helm of Isiah Thomas, New York Knicks GM Donny Walsh decided to bring the Zeke era to a close, by demoting him and hiring recently fired Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni’s system is a pretty intriguing one, and judging by his statistics, it’s not hard to see why. Take a look in the difference between the pace of the Knicks before he got there, and after he got there. Going from middle of the pack to the second-fastest team in the league (only behind warp-speed Golden State) in one season is incredible. The offensive rating, while making a jump, obviously did not increase by as much as the pace. The problem here, in my opinion, is that while the offensive structure was re-vamped for the better, the team still didn’t have players that were efficient enough on the offensive end to complete Mike’s vision of a Pheonix Suns east. Defensively, they improved as well, but I think that I’m going to chalk that up to Isiah Thomas being terrible, and Mike D’Antoni steadfastly refusing to play notorious non-defender Eddy Curry, as well as adding a defensive scheme that made at least SOME sense. The win differential was +9. That’s pretty darn good, but with the caveat that they won only 23 games the prior season, and the improvement landed them 9 games under .500, which isn’t something you can brag about to your friends if you’re a Knicks fan.

Larry Brown (CHA):
Offensive Rating Before: 104.6 (24th)
Defensive Rating Before: 109.4 (20th)
Pace Factor Before: 91.8 (14th)
W-L Before: 32-50
Offensive Rating After: 104.7 (27th)
Defensive Rating After: 106.1 (7th)
Pace Factor After: 88.3 (27th)
W-L After: 35-47

Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown took the reigns of a struggling Charlotte Bobcats team, and incorporated the players into his well-worn system. His system, of course, being a no-nonsense, defense-first, play-call-on-every-possession, slow, deliberate game. He also got a big overhaul midway through the season, landing the dynamic Boris Diaw and tough as nails defender Raja Bell for the chronic underachiever Jason Richardson. As a result of both coaching and personnel changes, the team’s defensive efficiency skyrocketed from 20th to 7th in the league, and it’s offense languished from and already miserable 24th in the league, to a near-bottom 27th. To no-one’s surprise, their pace factor also went from middle of the pack to slower than molasses. Even with that massive defensive improvement, the Bobcats went 35-47, improving by a meager 2 games (unimpressive considering how inept the guy Larry replaced was) and missed the playoffs yet again.

Rick Carlisle (DAL):
Offensive Rating Before: 111.1 (8th)
Defensive Rating Before: 106.1 (9th)
Pace Factor Before: 90.2 (22nd)
W-L Before: 51-31
Offensive Rating After: 110.5 (5th)
Defensive Rating After: 108.4 (17th)
Pace Factor After: 91.5 (16th)
W-L After: 50-32

Mark Cuban, the fiery owner of the Dallas Mavericks, hates, and I mean loathes losing. If you’ve ever seen him on the sidelines playing your favourite team, you’ll instantly realize that he both takes the game waaaay too seriously, and also that he would do anything to make his Mavericks a better team. That’s the main reason why he sacked the former Coach of the Year, elf-voiced Avery Johnson after getting (Marv Albert impression) REJECTED by Golden State in the first round two seasons ago. Enter Rick Carlisle, another former coach of the year, and regarded by most as an all-around good coach, albeit with a reputation of alienating his players after a few seasons. In any case, as you can see, the team got a bit better on offense, and a lot worse on defense. One of the reasons for both of those things might be the acquisition of Jason Kidd during the offseason. Jason Kidd used to be one of the best defenders at the PG position in the league, but Father Time has waved his magic time staff and slowed Jason Kidd down considerably. Especially laterally. Father Time hates side-to-side movement. Anyway, they sped up marginally and won 1 less game. Pretty much treading water. What does that say about Rick Carlisle? I guess it says that he’s a mediocre coach? That may be a bit harsh, but I’m sure that Mark Cuban expects a better result than treading water. The huge drop in defensive efficiency from 2 years ago to last can’t be considered good, and it can’t all be blamed on personnel changes.

Vinny Del Negro (CHI):
Offensive Rating Before: 103.9 (26th)
Defensive Rating Before: 107.2 (14th)
Pace Factor Before: 93.0 (11th)
W-L Before: 33-49
Offensive Rating After: 108.4 (14th)
Defensive Rating After: 108.7 (18th)
Pace Factor After: 93.1 (9th)
W-L After: 41-41

After reading these stats to my friend, who hates Vinny Del Negro, he instantly said “THEY GOT DERRICK ROSE STUPID” (Ed.: That was me). Well, I suppose that’s true, but the Bulls still jumped up a very impressive 12 spots from 26th to 14th in the league, while only dropping about 4 spots on defense (which also might be “Derrick Rose stupid!” considering how poorly he defended last season). Another reason for the uptick in offense was the brilliant trade made halfway through the season, where the Bulls shipped out an underperforming and overpaid Andres Nocioni for the versatile and efficient John Salmons. The difference in speed between the two seasons was almost negligable, but the massive jump in offensive efficiency was enough to catapult them out of the basement of the Eastern Conference into the middle of the pack, and coupled with their relatively middle of the pack defense, gave them the ultimate middle of the pack record of 41-41. The reviews coming out of Chicago were mixed. Some were forgiving of Vinny’s rookie-coach mistakes, while others were not. They said that his rotations left a lot to be desired, and that the plays he drew up out of time outs rarely worked. However, the offense looked a lot better, and he put the ball in the hands of Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon, which seemed to work pretty well. He also wrung a pretty great season out of Joakim Noah, allowing him to play through his mistakes, while keeping a lid on the dressing room drama. While he may have his detractors in Chicago, he certainly had quite an impressive season for a rookie coach (making it to the playoffs, giving a shorthanded Boston a run for it’s money).

Scott Skiles (MIL):
Offensive Rating Before: 105.3 (21st)
Defensive Rating Before: 112.8 (30th)
Pace Factor Before: 91.3 (17th)
W-L Before: 26-56
Offensive Rating After: 106.7 (23rd)
Defensive Rating After: 107.9 (15th)
Pace Factor After: 92.6 (11th)
W-L After: 34-48

It’s interesting that we get to examine how an outgoing coach does on another team after analyzing his replacement, and we get to see that with Scott Skiles on the Bucks. Now, to be fair, Skiles is getting a bit of a raw deal here, because the ratings on offensive and defensive efficiency during his last season with the Bulls are tainted by a dreadful interim coaching job done by a man by the name of Jim Boylan, who coached the team for 56 games in 2007-2008. Milwaukee has been one of the worst run franchises in the league for a while now, and looking at the stats, it’s not hard to see why. Dead-last in defense, bottom ten in offensive efficiency, one of the worst W-L records in the league; Scott Skiles had his work cut out for him when he arrived. What happened was a pretty impressive turnaround, not unlike Larry Brown’s, where the Defensive efficiency went through the roof, and the offensive efficiency increased as well, but actually slipped in the rankings (I suppose the league in general was less efficient in 2007/08). Unlike Larry, they didn’t play at a super-slow pace; in fact, the pace went up under Skiles! In fact, in his time coaching the Bulls, the pace factor never dipped below 11th in the league. This may be surprising, because most people equate excellent offenses with speed, and speed with a porous defense, when in fact, it’s the opposite under Skiles. The formula worked, at least partially, because like Mike D’Antoni, his team improved by 8 games, from 26 to 34 wins. It’s amazing what a functioning system and identity can do for a team, isn’t it? With D’Antoni, the Knicks became a run and gun squad, and with Skiles’ Bucks, they became a gritty, hard-nosed defensive team, when before, they were simply floating around, amorphous and directionless.

Conclusions

From this list, I think you can make a couple of intriguing observations: one is how much a coach can change how a team operates. Mike D’Antoni’s system had a real, observable effect on how his team played. The pace went through the roof, as did the offense. Skiles increased the pace, and made the defense much stingier. Larry Brown slowed the game down to a crawl and instituted a defense that was one of the best in the league. These aren’t just small swings, some of them are 15-ranking swings, which can’t just be attributed to personnel changes. The style of ball changed when the new coaches arrived. In terms of actually winning games, the evidence is not as strong. Skiles and D’Antoni boasted large improvements in this category, but from god-awful to merely “poor”. A more impressive jump was Mike D’Antoni’s second season in Pheonix, where he took the team from under 30 wins to over 60. That is obviously a result of the system matching the players perfectly, as well as the addition of a pointguard that could actually carry the gameplan out.

I think that by looking at these new coaches, we can actually see that coaching does have an observable effect on the fortunes of a team. Sometimes dramatic ones. I think that it’s at least evidence towards teams performing better when they have an identity, rather than directionless. It’s certainly very strong evidence that coaches are very good at implementing their system. Most importantly, I think that this illustrates why the NBA isn’t just a “player’s league” like so many people seem to believe, and that coaching has a strong influence on how the game is played.

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Filed under A Closer Look, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls, Coaching, Dallas Mavericks, Guest Posts, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Stats

Five X-Factors For 2009-2010

When I look at the upcoming NBA season, I see five legitimate title contenders: The Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs, and Boston Celtics. Beyond them, I see a few teams fighting to join that group, including the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Utah Jazz. It’s pointless to start making finals predictions now, as numerous things will change for these teams before we even reach the trade deadline. What we can do, however, is look at what factors could have a big impact on how everything plays out for these teams. There are some obvious ones: the health of Andrew Bynum, Kevin Garnett, and Manu Ginobili; how Vince Carter, Ron Artest, and Shaquille O’Neal fit on their new teams; and the play of Rajon Rondo following the vote of non-confidence from the Celtics’ boss, Danny Ainge. What I’m going to do now, though, is look at five people who may surprisingly turn out to be very important between now and the end of next season.

1) John Kuester: The new coach of the Detroit Pistons will have an impact in more than one city this upcoming season. The man who will usher in a new era of Deeee-troit basketball from the sidelines has left behind a vacancy in Cleveland, where he played a huge role in revamping their once-stagnant offense. It is hard to overstate the overhaul that Cleveland’s offense went through last season – the club jumped from 19th in offensive efficiency to 4th. Yes, the addition of Mo Williams gave the team some much-needed scoring punch, but they would not have become an elite offensive team if they had not advanced past the boring, uninspired isolation plays favoured by coach Mike Brown in previous years. If Cleveland is going to stay at the top of the Eastern Conference standings next season, they are going to have to remain an elite team on the offensive end, even with the loss of their offensive-minded assistant coach. I’m not sure how worried the people of Cleveland are about this, but I’m a neutral observer of the team and I’m scared of the Cavs returning to Brown’s pre-Kuester playbook, simply as an admirer of aesthetically pleasing basketball.

2) Marquis Daniels: Daniels could have an impact on the Celtics’ title chances in two ways – his play and his contract. Let’s first examine his play. In short, the Celtics really need Daniels to come through. I believe James Posey was grossly overpaid by the New Orleans Hornets last summer, but the Celtics still missed him last season. The team did not have a reliable swingman off the bench, as any fan frustrated with Tony Allen can attest. It should be noted that Daniels will not be able to hit three-pointers or play spot minutes at the 4 like Posey did, but he could turn out to be a valuable piece for the Celtics regardless. It is certain that Daniels will make significantly less money than the $6.3 million he made with Indiana last season and he will play less than the 31.5 minutes he averaged there, too. Boston badly needs him to accept this gracefully, buy into the system, and perform consistently off the bench, on both ends of the floor. He is capable of hitting shots and playing tough one-on-one defense and that’s all that they’re asking him to do. Now, onto the financial part of things – the Celtics are capped out and have used their mid-level exception on Rasheed Wallace. Thus, the only resource they currently have available to sign a player like Daniels is the bi-annual exception. If they use this on Daniels, they will be unable to sign any additional players for more than the minimum salary before the season starts. Hence, Boston is trying to work out a Colangelo-esque sign-and-trade deal with Indiana involving some of their spare parts, which would allow them to keep their bi-annual exception. The problem is that Indiana wants no part of Tony Allen and it’s proving difficult for Boston to find a third team that will take him on. This is only a big issue because of Boston’s somewhat shallow team and injury history. This is a team that had Brian Scalabrine, Stephon Marbury, and Eddie House playing significant minutes in last year’s playoffs. They’ve already passed on retaining Leon Powe and they might do the same with Glen Davis, so it’s fair to say they have depth issues. Guys like Joe Smith, C.J. Watson, and Von Wafer might take their bi-annual exception and those guys would be able to step into the rotation and contribute, even if the team luckily avoids serious injuries this time around.

3) Richard Jefferson: The new starting small forward in San Antonio must be all smiles right now, despite his messy divorce. He’s gone from irrelevance in Milwaukee to being a key cog in a championship-worthy machine. I think he could fit quite well with the Spurs, but there is reason to question how it will all work. On offense, he will have to adjust to a new role. Jefferson has been a featured player on the offensive end ever since his second year in the league. On this team, though, he should be the fourth option on offense when he is out there with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan at the start and end of games. How will he cope with this? We know that he should be able to hit the corner three-ball, which is a start. It is questionable, though, how he’ll react to playing mostly off the ball for the first time in years. He will have to change his habits, only going one-on-one when it represents a more efficient chance to score than giving it up to one of the big three (i.e. rarely). NBA players generally aren’t great at changing their habits as they age, but if Jefferson has adjusted come playoff time then the Spurs should be in very good shape at the offensive end, as he still has a lot to give this team if used correctly. On the defensive end, there are more question marks. The Spurs have long been the model of team defense in the NBA, but their perimeter defense was spotty last season, with Roger Mason, Michael Finley, Ime Udoka, and a declining Bruce Bowen unable to contain the best of the best at the wing positions. I’m sure the Spurs are aware of the fact that Jefferson showed some slippage in his defensive game last season with Milwaukee. If they end up facing the likes of Brandon Roy, Kobe Bryant, or Carmelo Anthony in the playoffs, they are going to be banking on him playing defense more reminiscent of his days in New Jersey than what he showed last season. I must stress that I am as impressed with the Spurs’ off-season as the next guy, but it is not a given that Jefferson will vault them into a contention next year. It’s very possible that he could, but, as they say, that’s why the play the games.

4) Greg Oden: Portland’s prized big man has taken more than his fair share of criticism over the past couple of seasons. Sure, he might never be Kevin Durant, but the man has proven himself to be a productive player when not hobbled by injuries. Although he was touted as a defensive beast, he impressed me more last season on the offensive end with his toughness and scoring ability on the inside. He is a beast on the offensive and defensive boards and still has all the potential we all saw in him before entering the league. The key, for Oden, is staying on the court. If he has a relatively injury- and foul-free season, Portland could become a very, very dangerous team in 2009-2010. By far, Oden’s biggest flaw is his propensity to foul. He averaged 6.5 fouls per 36 minutes last season, which is awful. We want to see the guy get more minutes next season, but this will only happen if he learns not to foul. Sure, his rebounding totals might dip a bit if he’s being more careful about sticking to the rule book, but he must make the effort to play smarter, especially on the defensive end. If he can make a leap towards becoming the defensive intimidator we all expected him to be when he came out of college, this will be a huge help to the Blazers’ team defense. The Blazers had the best offense in the league last season, so their only hope of improving this season comes at the defensive end. If Oden puts it together mentally and stays clear of physical ailments, they could make a leap and scare one of the consensus title contenders in the West.

5) Vinny Del Negro: This second-year coach has one of the most talented young teams in the league in Chicago. He has been given a brilliant young point guard in Derrick Rose, proven wing scorers in John Salmons and Luol Deng, and athletic young guys who have shown defensive prowess in Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah. Del Negro took a ton of criticism last season, much of which was probably deserved. In 2009-2010, he must free Rose to become the star we know he can be and he must utilize Deng’s wide array of offensive tools much better than he did before the injury a season ago. If he gets this group to perform as more than the sum of its parts, then they could occupy that coveted 4th seed in the East by season’s end. Once there, with some luck they might be able to scare one of the big three. I’m not saying this is the likeliest of scenarios, with Del Negro at the helm, but you never know. There’s a lot of potential here, and perhaps the best thing Del Negro could do for the group is struggle during their rough early-season schedule so a superior coach can come in and lead this team the right way.

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Filed under Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs

Looking Forward: Chicago Bulls

Last season, the Bulls fielded an interesting team. #1 overall pick Derrick Rose had a fantastic rookie season, earning himself the Rookie Of The Year Award despite his defensive struggles. Ben Gordon was an offensive beast, a guy who gave his all despite the fact he had dealt with 2 years of botched contract negotiations and knew that in all likelihood he would not be returning to Chicago. Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah were key contributors, at least when coach Vinny Del Negro wasn’t being erratic with his rotations. John Salmons and Brad Miller, acquired from the Kings at the trade deadline, provided an infusion of talent when the Bulls needed one, shoring up their depth for the post-season.

In the post-season, we were treated to an outstanding series between the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls. There were seven overtimes in the first six games. There were several absolutely amazing plays that will be seen again on ESPN Classic. The Bulls lost in the somewhat anticlimactic 7th game, but we all knew that wasn’t so important, as this is a young team with nowhere to go but up… right?

Well, let’s fast forward to the summer. As you surely know, the Bulls have let Ben Gordon leave without getting anything back in return. The former #3 pick – the best player ever to take the qualifying offer – is now the best player a team has let walk after his rookie contract expired. His new 5-year contract with Detroit starts at $10 million a year. It’s enough for some to say that Detroit overpaid. They might be right, but this exit is symptomatic of a larger problem in Chicago: ownership’s refusal to spend the cash to field a legitimate title contender. It’s not just that Chicago let Detroit sign their hardest working, highest-scoring player – it’s that they didn’t even extend him an offer this summer. This, after two summers of contentious negotiations, after years of messing around with his playing time and making him come off the bench behind Chris Duhon. None of this would have even been an issue, if the Bulls hadn’t taken their offer off the table last summer.

If you want, you can believe Jerry Reinsdorf when he says that they didn’t have room for Gordon in their backcourt next season. You can believe that they’ll sign a top tier free agent in the summer of 2010. To me, the first point is laughable and the second is highly questionable, given this organization’s fear of the luxury tax. After all, a year ago one expert predicted everything that’s transpired to this point.

All that the Bulls have done this off-season is re-sign Lindsey Hunter, draft James Johnson and Taj Gibson, and sign ex-Bull Jannero Pargo. Hunter, who will be 39 in December, can still play quality defense but cannot contribute anything on the offensive end. Johnson and Gibson are 22 and 24 years old, respectively, and neither of them will likely be stars. Pargo has been sold to Bulls fans as a mini-Ben Gordon, but any fan with a memory knows that Pargo is anything but. Gordon is an extremely efficient offensive player, while Pargo is a streaky one whose percentages leave much to be desired. They’re both undersized guards who like to shoot, but the comparison ends there.

This brings me to the Bulls’ outlook for 2009-2010. I have to say, despite my criticisms of their off-season moves, the Bulls could improve next season. If Luol Deng comes back and starts contributing like he did a couple of years ago, they’ll win a few more games. If Vinny Del Negro improves his coaching (or gets replaced), they’ll win a few more games. (These two are related – the Bulls must use Deng as more than just a spot-up shooter and take advantage of the matchup problems Deng presents.) If Rose takes it to another level and improves his defense, they’ll win a few more games. If everything goes right, this team could even be the 4th best team in the East. They have that kind of talent, even without Gordon.

There is a significant gulf, though, between the top three teams in the East and the rest of the pack. As presently constructed, there are only three legitimate title contenders in the East. One must wonder if Chicago will become one in the next few years. They have the young talent to do it, and, with all the money the organization makes, they have the money to do it. It’d be great for the NBA if they did, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Not with this organization’s post-Jordan track record.

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Filed under Chicago Bulls, Free Agent Signings, Looking Forward