After two close losses at home that saw their offense fizzle down the stretch and vaunted defense surrender points at a near league-high rate, the Chicago Bulls trail the Washington Wizards 2-0 heading into Friday’s Game 3 at the Verizon Center in Washington. Through two games, the Wizards have appeared by far the more talented team, and arguably possess the three most talented players in the series in Nene, John Wall and Bradley Beal. Nevertheless, the outcome of the series is not yet fait accompli. Given the competitive nature of the series, the Bulls could improve their chances by making a few adjustments. Although in-series adjustments are not a panacea for the Bulls’ overall offensive issues, a number of tweaks could enable them to at least extend the series and return it to Chicago.
Deal With Andre Miller
Watching Andre Miller inexplicably slicing up their team is one of the most vexing sights a basketball fan can witness. At a doughy 38 years of age and with no range outside of 15 feet, it seems impossible that he could still be an effective player at this point, much less one killing a great defense in the playoffs. Nevertheless, Miller has been key for Washington’s bench units in the first two games, compiling usage percentages of 28.3 and 41.7 the first two games. The Professor has 18 points in 24 minutes while keeping Wizards bench units afloat at the start of the second and fourth quarters–a time usually dominated by the Bulls when Tom Thibodeau deploys most of Chicago’s closing group including D.J. Augustin, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah.
The problem is that Miller has the size, strength and smarts advantage on Bulls backup point guard Augustin. Thibodeau normally abhors double-teaming the post, but in the fourth quarter of Game 1 he immediately ordered hard double teams from a big man on Miller right when he caught the ball in the post against Augustin. If the Bulls are going to double, this is probably the correct strategy because it keeps Miller out on the floor and obscures his passing angles with the long arms of a player like Gibson (who was the most frequent double-teamer). In Game 2, the Bulls overloaded Miller’s side with a soft double which allowed him to see over the defense and hit cutters. And if the Bulls wait to send help until Miller has already backed down, he will usually gotten to the middle of the floor where he can make passes to shooters much more easily.
Fortunately for Chicago, there are two tactics that could limit Miller’s impact. The simpler adjustment would be hiding Augustin on Trevor Ariza or Martell Webster while Jimmy Butler or another wing takes Miller. While these Washington wings have an even greater size advantage on Augustin than Miller, neither is a particularly intimidating post-up threat. Ariza scored only 14 points on 26 possessions all year on postups. Webster was better at 25 points on 24 possessions, but it is clear from the possession count that such postups are not normally a featured part of Washington’s offense. Neither is known as a particularly adept passer, so any necessary double-teaming would likely be more effective. The Bulls could also just double off Miller, who is not an effective spotup shooter. If Washington breaks its offense to get postups for either player, that is likely a win for Chicago. Ariza and Webster postups certainly seem very unlikely to match Miller’s performance from the first two games. Finally, taking Augustin off Miller will also help save his legs for offense, where he has been brutal down the stretch.
That is the easy solution, and frankly one I am very surprised the Bulls have not already deployed. But a better solution is available if Thibodeau were willing to make more drastic changes.
Rejigger the Rotation
Coaches are often reluctant to manipulate the rotation in the playoffs, for fear of upsetting team chemistry and overreacting to only a few games.* And Thibodeau is perhaps more set in his ways than most. But the Bulls could very clearly gain some advantages from simply changing the times (not even the amount) that their players are on the court. The Bulls are relatively rare in that they start two players, Kirk Hinrich and Carlos Boozer, who are clearly inferior to their backups. This is reflected by the fact that Boozer almost never plays in fourth quarters. The odd scheduling of minutes has not particularly hurt the Bulls in the second half of this season, but Washington’s personnel provides particular incentive to change to a more traditional rotation.
*Avery Johnson is famously blamed for downsizing the 67-win Mavericks’ starting lineup before their 2007 upset by Golden State, although it is debatable how much that one-game decision affected the outcome of the series. Plus, those very same Mavericks provide the great counterexample of J.J. Barea’s successful elevation to the starting lineup in the 2011 Finals against the HEAT.
Boozer has largely struggled in this series, as he has throughout the season. However, he has almost no chance of creating efficient offense against Wizards starters Marcin Gortat or Nene. Both of these players are longer, stronger, and quicker than Boozer. While he has been able to somehow squeeze off his midrangers at times,* those are barely efficient shots even when wide open. Boozer would have a much easier matchup against Trevor Booker on the second unit, or at the very least allow Noah or Gibson the matchup against Booker if Boozer is still guarded by Gortat or Nene. Against Booker, Boozer might be able to get into the post for his soft hook–a useless endeavor against the length of the Wizards’ starting big men. Moreover, Boozer is a poor matchup for Washington point guard John Wall’s pick and rolls, so having him play when Miller is on the floor is a much better option defensively.
*I am always shocked that he is able to do this, given Boozer’s overall lack of quickness and length and his complete inability to drive right. When he turns and faces, the opposition should get right in his grille and just stay there, forcing him to drive to his right hand. Nevertheless, he will often lull his defender to sleep without even taking a dribble, and somehow get enough space for his behind-the-head release.
Starting Augustin would also allow Hinrich to play with the bench unit against Miller, against whom he is an ideal matchup due to his size and willingness to scrap on postups. This would enable the Bulls to stop Miller without having to cross-match Augustin against wings like Ariza or Webster as suggested above. While Thibodeau probably considers Hinrich a better matchup against John Wall than Augustin, the latter has successfully guarded him throughout the series as well. Certainly, the dropoff between Hinrich and Augustin guarding Wall is less than the improvement if Hinrich guarded Miller.
Meanwhile, starting Gibson and Augustin would enable them to rest in the middle of the half and avoid getting worn down by playing almost the entire second half in one long stint, as Augustin did yesterday. That kind of usage does not mesh with the latest research on how humans recover.
The proof is in the pudding with Hinrich and Boozer so far. The Bulls have been outscored by 9.4 points per 100 possessions when Boozer plays, and 16.6 points 100 when Hinrich takes the floor. Spotting these players’ minutes in situations where they are more likely to be successful could help to reverse that trend, while also allowing the Bulls to better their miserable starts in the series.
More Mike Dunleavy
A big reason the Bulls struggled to score down the stretch in Game 2 was Randy Wittman’s decision to match Ariza on D.J. Augustin, who until the last few minutes had killed the Wizards. Ariza was able to use his length to go over picks and bother Augustin’s shot from behind, eliminating the open threes he was able to get on pick and rolls. The Wizards were able to put Wall on Hinrich with little chance of getting hurt. The Hinrich/Augustin pairing has been fantastic late in the season, but the Bulls have two awful fourth quarters to show it has not been effective against Washington. At least trying Mike Dunleavy in Hinrich’s place is the logical step.
Dunleavy and Augustin are the only Bulls players who are must-guard threats from long range. Hinrich has shot a decent percentage on threes this year, but has often passed up open shots in this series even when they are likely the best shot the Bulls are going to get. And Butler is pretty much unwilling to shoot out there unless he is absolutely wide open. Dunleavy has the height at 6’9 to get his shot off from the perimeter with even a sliver of daylight. What’s more, playing a true small forward might encourage Wittman to avoid putting Ariza on Augustin (although I would not abandon that effective matchup so easily in Wittman’s place). Moreover, Hinrich is not a threat to finish at the rim off the dribble either. The Bulls have scored only 90 points/100 when Hinrich has played in this series. While such numbers are to be used with caution given the small sample size, they match up with Hinrich’s poor individual offensive statistics and his performance on film.
On defense, Dunleavy is a worse individual defender than Hinrich, but is perfectly capable of guarding Ariza while providing a bit more help defense and rebounding than the Kansas product. It is a slight downgrade on defense, but the Bulls have struggled there anyway with Hinrich on the floor.
Taj Gibson Could Be a Weapon Inside
Gibson has made great strides as a post player this year. While posting up is generally inefficient and Gibson is no superstar at it, it seems likely he could at least outperform the Bulls’ stagnant late-game offense, especially when Wittman goes with Booker in his closing lineup rather than Marcin Gortat. This is not something that should be even close to a first option for a good offense, but when the Bulls have been struggling so badly it at least lets them go to a matchup where they have a half-decent advantage.
What Was That About Deck Chairs on the Titanic?
These logical adjustments could make a difference at the margins, but they are not going to give Chicago a reliable shot creator on offense down the stretch of games. However, the first two games have not proved that Washington is definitively a better team than Chicago. One would expect Chicago’s defense, which has allowed 108 points/100 so far, to improve quite a bit. And everyone seems to think that Thibodeau will eventually start outcoaching Randy Wittman, although the latter has done well so far. His approach of using Nene to pressure up on Joakim Noah’s catches out on the floor has been very effective, especially when Noah turns his back to the basket. Noah has been catching the ball at the arc rather than the elbow, disrupting his passing angles to backdoor cutters and making it difficult for the Bulls’ guards to shoot on handoffs because they are too far out. Noah had a remarkable 109 touches in Game 2*, but threw 80 passes with only three assists and zero hockey assists. Wittman’s squad has almost entirely erased Noah’s playmaking. Of particular note is that the Bulls’ easy “system buckets” (in which they get players open through play design rather than more individually focused plays like pick and rolls) have been almost nonexistent in the series.
*A game-high, two more even than Wizards point guard Wall.
The Bulls have not been quite as awful as their demoralizing fourth quarters might indicate, but the two banked Washington wins will almost certainly be too much to overcome. Nevertheless, the Bulls can maximize their chances with a few simple adjustments going forward.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com
NBA Daily: Darius Adams, Around The World In Seven Years
CBA superstar Darius Adams talks to Basketball Insiders about dominating in China, playing with Andray Blatche and trying to prove himself.
Darius Adams is just like every other professional basketball player.
Every year, he works hard, tries to improve and be the best teammate possible. One day, Adams would like to earn his first-ever NBA contract, but after seven long years, he’s always fallen just short. Adams is just like you and me too — forever chasing his dreams even when the outlook is at its bleakest. But Adams’ worldwide journey has taken him from Indianapolis to China and nearly everywhere in between.
Now with a chunk of money saved up, Adams is ready to bet on himself and finally make this at-home ambition come true. Ahead lies a summer of grueling workouts and undetermined futures, but eventually, you learn to stop betting against Adams. From Los Prados to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, Adams has made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. As if dropping 38 points per game in China wasn’t difficult enough — Adams still must undergo his toughest challenge yet: Changing the mind of an NBA front office.
But before you can know where Adams is going, it’s just as important to understand where he’s been.
Darius Adams got a late start to basketball. He never played AAU, the so-called holy grail for teenage prospects, and told me that he learned the game by watching streetball in Decatur, Illinois. So by the time he fell in love with basketball, Adams was forced to take alternate routes to the top. He spent two years in the NJCAA with Lincoln College, a small, private liberal arts school approximately 33 miles away from home. During that second season, Adams averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor — but it wasn’t enough to make the jump to a Division-I school.
After transferring to the University of Indianapolis, Adams continued to improve in each successive campaign. As a senior, he topped out with a 41-point effort against Illinois at Springfield and tallied 23.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Nevertheless, Adams still went undrafted in 2011, officially setting off a globe-spanning adventure that would make Phileas Fogg blush.
From China to Ukraine, Adams has played in seven different countries in as many years, also adding stops in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain along the way. Adams may have turned 29 years-old this week, but he’s never considered giving up his dreams of playing in the NBA.
“That’s the goal, that’s always been my motivation,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “I just played my hardest and kept progressing, that was my thing — I didn’t want to be content with: ‘OK, you’re playing pro.’ I want to play at the highest level, I feel like I have the talent to play at the highest level.
“At the end of the day, I just need that opportunity.”
Opportunity is a word that has come to define Adams in many ways.
Beyond that, it’s something that has constantly eluded him, even as he began winning in bigger and better leagues. Despite all his international successes, including a EuroLeague Final Four appearance and a CBA championship, Adams has been unable to turn that into an NBA contract. As far as he can tell, it’s a matter of both perception and timing.
The perception of overseas athletes, particularly those that compete in China, has always been a hot-button issue. For as long as Americans have played in the CBA, there’s an unspoken expectation that they should dominate. Generalizations abound, if you’re from the United States and not dominating in China, there’s a low chance of earning an NBA deal. But sometimes, even topping the CBA charts still isn’t enough. This season, Adams averaged a league-leading 38.7 points and added 8.4 assists (2nd-best), 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals (3rd-best) per contest for good measure. On one hand, there’s the stat-padding, empty type of scoring and then there’s this: Absolute annihilation.
But those misconceptions about Chinese basketball often remain an unforgiving roadblock for many. Heck, even Adams had them before he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers two years ago.
“It’s different, my perception was that there would be a lot of short guys that couldn’t play,” Adams said. “Actually, I was probably one of the shortest guys out there, as far as basketball players, and they got skills. They don’t get tired and they’re going to guard you tough, maybe they’re not as skilled as [Americans] are — but they got heart.
“I thought it was going to be easy, but they impressed me.”
And although Adams experienced his fallacies in real-time, he’s still waiting for the rest of the NBA to catch up.
Of course, Adams wasn’t the only American to tear up the CBA this season. Three other Americans, Brandon Jennings, Jonathan Gibson and MarShon Brooks, earned NBA deals this month. That trio of players all put up gaudy statistical lines as well, but none nearly as high as Adams’. Then there’s the case of Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star that moved to China back in 2010, transforming his fringe-status career into a rejuvenated international icon. Marbury’s off-the-court philanthropy and three CBA championships speak for themselves, but Adams is often left wondering why it can’t work the other way around.
“You start questioning yourself, like: ‘What’s the reason why you’re not getting this opportunity?’” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Some of the teams [I’ve worked out for] come back and say, ‘Well, he hasn’t had NBA experience.’ But when am I going to get my NBA experience if I never get my chance?”
The other frustrating factor for players like Adams to navigate is timing — and as he put it, timing is everything.
To his credit, Adams has never shied away from a challenge or attempted to outmaneuver anybody on this long-winding journey. When he goes to workouts, Adams tells franchises that he’d be more than happy to go against their top guys — however, whenever, or whatever it takes. He’s impressed during private workouts before, but his most recent chance came just as Adams was getting ready to fly back to China for another season. Timing, again, had failed him.
Between workouts too late in the offseason or contracts that needed to be honored, the timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Adams. And it’s not for a lack of trying either — Adams has played two years of summer league (one with the Nets, one with the Mavericks), initially tried his hand at the D-League in 2011 and spends every offseason carefully deciding where to go next.
But when he made the all-important choice to jump from Spain to China in 2016, it wasn’t without a plan.
“Honestly, when I left Spain, I was nervous to go to China because the fans were like, ‘You’re gonna hurt your career, basketball is not as good [there] as it is in Europe,’” Adams said. “So I had that in the back in my mind. Me and my agent had a plan that I’d go to China — the CBA season is way shorter than the European leagues — and then I’d come back in six, seven months and hopefully get on a roster before the end of the season.”
It’s difficult to measure the merits of a big-time scorer overseas, particularly so in China, but Adams has now undoubtedly smashed through his ceiling. For a kid that once started out at a tiny college in Illinois, Adams followed up his Finals MVP-winning campaign in 2016-17 by nearly averaging a 40-point double-double this year. And although he challenged himself to diversify his game between those back-to-back Chinese seasons, he never once thought he would do… well, that.
“I didn’t go into the season wanting to be the leading scorer, I just wanted to win games and another championship,” Adams said. “We had a lot of adversity this season because my teammate, Andray Blatche, got injured early and the offensive role changed to me. Going against double-teams, triple-teams, that was the challenging part, because I knew my team needed me. Dealing with the adversity, it was challenging — but if you put me up to the test, I’m always going to prove myself.”
Although Andray Blatche isn’t a name heard often these days, he’s certainly well-remembered for his time in the NBA. Over his nine-year career, Blatche played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before heading overseas to China in 2014. While he, too, was part of the winning squad that brought the Flying Tigers their first-ever championship in 2017, Adams has also used the 6-foot-11 power forward like a soundboard. Frequently peppering him with questions about life in the NBA, Adams has nothing but adoration for Blatche, whom he now considers a close friend.
“I asked him what it was like to play with DWill, KG, how were the locker rooms, what were the practices like — but he also helped me see different things on the court,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Or, like, OK, I might be frustrated and in a bad place, he’d be like, ‘OK, D, you gotta let it go, you’re the leader of the team’ and things like that. Whenever I was down, he was there — he helped me out with being in China, adjusting to the food, where to go, he treated me like a little brother, actually.”
In order to make that second season in China count, Adams decided to focus on his untapped playmaking side, increasing his assist tally from 5.9 to that aforementioned 8.4 per game. For a while, he even thought that might’ve been why he hadn’t earned a 10-day contract yet, so into the grinder it went. Additionally, Adams dared himself to become a locker room leader, the kind of vocal, lead-by-example veteran that any franchise would value.
If the jaw-dropping statistics weren’t going to pave his path to the NBA, Adams was convinced he could find another way to grab front office attention.
“Right now, I’m already developed and can help [teams] win,” Adams said. “I haven’t reached my peak, I can still learn new things and keep progressing the same way. I’m already starting higher in the learning curve [than most young players] — but I’m also a good leader. I can be a scorer, I can be a defensive guy, I got all those qualities — I’m not just a one-dimensional player, I can help.”
But as his season drew to a close in March (the sixth-seeded Flying Tigers were knocked out in the quarterfinals) Adams was, once again, without an NBA contract. In what Adams is now deeming one of the most important summers of his life, he’s going all-in on himself. Previously, Adams couldn’t ignore those lucrative million-dollar-plus deals, he had a family to look out for, after all. To him, it was a risk that he couldn’t take until this very moment. Sure, he could hit the G-League again — although he tried out for two teams, the Iowa Energy and Canton Charge, after going undrafted and was not selected — but there’s little money in that method.
Granted, Adams has always been motivated and hungry, but he’s got an extra push this time around.
“I’m going to all these different countries, I’m playing in their country — so why can’t play in my country?” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “If I’m one of the top players, how come I can’t get an opportunity in my country? Staying home, so my family can see me. My family has never seen me play overseas, only videos. You see all these other stories, like the guy that just played for the Lakers [Andre Ingram] — it took him ten years! It shows you to just never give up — all you need is an opportunity.
“I always tell my mom, my family, my kids that this year is gonna be the year. I’m gonna get my opportunity and I’mma be playing at home — daddy’s gonna be playing at home.”
Adams has always been a late bloomer — he’s forever the product of a once-raw teenager with no AAU experience. He’ll always be the barely 6-foot point guard that jumped into the NCJAA, quickly validated himself and then excelled in Division-II as well. But if you’re looking for a reason to disparage Adams’ hopes and dreams, you need not look further than this. How could somebody with those glaring blemishes ever play at the NBA level and against the best the sport has to offer?
Lest you forget, however, Adams is also the guy that will never stop fighting or believing in himself. Adams is the one that averaged 18 points in Ukraine and Germany and didn’t settle. The higher he climbed, the better he got. When he aced the test in France, he went to Spain and then got all of this. When Adams needed to adapt and change his game depending on the surrounding roster or culture — he did that too. But most importantly, Adams is tired of playing from behind and tired of missing his young family’s most key moments.
And now, with a whole offseason ahead of him, Adams is ready to do something about it once and for all.
“I’m staying prepared for whenever they have an opportunity, I’m betting on myself this whole summer and really taking a chance,” Adams said. “This year, I have enough saved up to really bet on myself. So, the goal is to just go to these workouts, get in front of these guys and show ‘em what I can do.
“That’s all I’ve ever needed, I don’t want anybody to just hand over a contract — I want to prove myself. I feel like I can make an impact — if you don’t think so, put me up against your guys and I’ll prove it.”
NBA Daily: This Might Be the Spurs’ Final Stand
The bizarre Kawhi Leonard situation won’t resolve itself cleanly, which means the Spurs may have to pull the plug, writes Matt John.
“All good things must come to an end.” – Chaucer in 1374
If there is one team that has been the closest to replicating the Boston Celtics’ dynasty from the Bill Russell days, it has been the San Antonio Spurs. Over the past two decades, the Spurs have established a consistent model of winning thanks to Hall of Fame talent, legendary coaching and other-worldly scouting.
The only other team in the entire world of sports that has rivaled the Spurs’ prolonged success in the 21st century has been the New England Patriots. However, much like the Patriots, there have been more and more reports recently of dysfunction behind the scenes, with superstar Kawhi Leonard front and center to all of it. If things really are as bad as they appear to be, then Kawhi’s days as a Spur are numbered, and by the same token, so are the Spurs’ days of contention.
No one knows what exactly is going on with Leonard at the moment. There have been reports that, physically, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is fully capable of returning to the floor, but he chooses not to. Now, his rehab is expected to sideline him for the entirety of the playoffs. Leonard technically isn’t doing anything against the rules, but his actions have made both his team and the league take notice.
Leonard and the Spurs could hypothetically reconcile and put this all behind them, but given all that’s happened throughout the course of the season, that ship seems to have sailed a long time ago. Through the duration of the season, Kawhi’s teammates have called him out, his coach has been steadfastly candid when asked about what’s going on, and now, players around the league are already predicting who his next team will be.
This all spells out a potentially ugly divorce between the Spurs and their franchise player.
So, the Spurs’ obvious next move would be to trade Kawhi for as much value as they can get this off-season. Unfortunately, given the circumstances, the Spurs won’t be able to acquire nearly as much value for Kawhi now as they could have in years’ past. It is true that when Leonard is 100 percent healthy, he is one of the league’s best players. But this bizarre situation, along with his player option after next season, has demolished his trade value.
These days, teams don’t give up valuable assets for star players if there’s a risk that said star player could leave the team after only one year. Teams saw what happened to the Lakers after the Dwight Howard trade blew up in their face, and they saw how crippled the Nets became after they gave away the farm for Paul Pierce among other Celtics that they acquired. If a superstar whose contract is potentially expiring goes on the market, teams will lowball in trade discussions for him.
Case in point: last summer, pretty much everyone agreed that the Thunder acquired Paul George for peanuts when they traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That may have worked out for the best for Indiana, but that was sheer luck because Oladipo’s and Sabonis’ value was much lower than it is now. Kawhi could fetch a half decent player and maybe a late-lottery pick given his reputation, but that would probably not fill the large void that he would leave behind.
It’s for that reason that the Spurs’ reign may be coming to an end. If they trade Kawhi this summer, they’re not going to get equal value for him, which means they won’t be able to remain among the best in the Western Conference. It’s quite a shame, because Leonard’s apparent fall-out with the Spurs has overshadowed one of the better under-the-radar stories in the league: The Spurs’ perseverance.
The fact that the Spurs still made the playoffs in the Western Conference, which required 47 wins this season, is remarkable. Thanks in large part to LaMarcus Aldridge’s rejuvenation, who has averaged his best numbers as a Spur this season by far, and Coach Pop’s brilliance among other reasons, the Spurs have kept the ball rolling without Kawhi. Alas, without him, the team is firmly not in the title discussion, and the Spurs can’t do much about it.
The Spurs could ride it out by keeping the rest of the core together along with what they would bring back for Leonard, but there wouldn’t be much point. Guys as impactful Leonard are not easily replaceable in this league, and the Spurs’ competition in the West will be as strong as ever next season. As unappealing as it might sound, the Spurs may have to just start over.
That wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing in the world. Aldridge’s phenomenal season has probably skyrocketed his trade value, so the Spurs would get a good haul for him. The Spurs aren’t in a bad salary cap situation either. Besides Pau Gasol, the team doesn’t have any bad contracts. Tony Parker’s deal is up after this season while Rudy Gay and Danny Green have player options, but both are likely to opt-in given the lack of money on the open market this summer. The team even has some intriguing young talent, such as Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes. Re-building wouldn’t be the worst option for San Antonio.
With all of that considered, it would still be very disappointing to see such a glorious era end so anticlimactically. Kawhi Leonard was supposed to lead the new era of Spurs basketball, but now it looks like he may be the Spurs’ undoing, which they may have no choice now but to accept.
Many were looking forward to San Antonio’s demise, but for a team that has remained in the title discussion since the days of President Clinton, the Spurs didn’t deserve an ending like this.
Thibodeau Takes Big Gamble by Putting Ball in Derrick Rose’s Hands
Basketball Insiders takes a look at Tom Thibodeau’s decision to heavily feature Derrick Rose in Game 1 against Houston.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the playoffs after an exciting victory over Denver Nuggets in their regular season finale. Despite barely slipping into the postseason, the Timberwolves are no pushovers. In Game 1, they put pressure on the Houston Rockets in a game that was close down the stretch.
“This isn’t your normal eighth seed, they got a couple of All-Stars that are pretty good down there. Well coached, we know how tough it was going to be,” Rockets superstar James Harden said after the game, speaking of the Timberwolves.
The Timberwolves have been buoyed all season by the strong play of Karl-Anthony Towns and the leadership of Jimmy Butler, both All-Stars and the first for the franchise since Kevin Love in 2013-14. In addition, the team continues to be encouraged by the continued growth of forward Andrew Wiggins.
So, why exactly are the Timberwolves relying on backup guard and former Chicago Bulls player Derrick Rose so much? It was no surprise when rumors began to circulate late in the season that Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau had interest in acquiring Rose after an unsuccessful brief stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In nine games with the Timberwolves this season, Rose put up a career lows of 5.8 points, 1.2 assists and .7 rebounds (12.4 minutes per game). Per 36, this translated to 16.7 points, 3.5 assists and 1.9 rebounds, all at or around career lows. In addition, his PER, true shooting and assist percentages were at or around career lows adding up to an unimpressive showing.
Thibodeau, formerly the Bulls head coach, is well known to place trust in former Bulls players. He engineered a trade for Butler and the signing of Taj Gibson in the offseason. In the Timberwolves first playoff game, Rose played 24 minutes (nearly double his regular season average) and scored 16 points on 50 percent shooting to go along with four assists and two rebounds, far above his season averages.
Rose didn’t just cover backup type minutes either as he was inserted into key stretches in the third and fourth quarters as the game went down the stretch. He scored on a catch and shoot three-pointer, on the break, out of the pick and roll, off the dribble, while cutting to the basket and moved the ball around in key spots for other players.
Thibodeau mentioned Rose briefly and spoke positively of his contributions.
“I thought Derrick gave us a good lift off of the bench,” Thibodeau said.
Speaking to the media. Rose related this key stretch to his previous playoff experiences with the Bulls.
“I remember the playoff games when we played against Miami and the only thing you want to do is stay close until the fourth quarter. Or if you get the lead before then, sustain it and try to make it larger for the bench and for your team,” Rose said.
Unfortunately, not everything was so sunny for Rose who has a penchant for taking difficult shots. He sported a -6.1 net rating for the game, indicating his play may have been detrimental to the team. To end the second quater, he missed a 21-foot step back jump shot in isolation. He also turned the ball over to end the third quarter with his team down one leading to a three-point play for Harden. This resulted in the Timberwolves going down four to start the fourth. Rose’s play contributed to the end of quarter difficulties, which Thibodeau touched on after the game.
“We didn’t finish quarters the way we would have liked,” Thibodeau said.
For the game, Rose’s usage percentage was a whopping 30.8 percent, showing that at this stage of his career, he still insists on controlling the ball. For reference, this is in line with his career playoff numbers. Besides Rose’s rookie year, his lowest playoff usage percentage was 29.1 percent, putting this in line with his postseason career. Of course, Rose isn’t close to the player he used to be after numerous injuries. This high usage can also come at the expense of key Timberwolves players. For comparison, Butler had a 15.6 percent usage and Towns a 14.2 percent usage.
In addition, Rose talked about the role he sees for himself as a key defender matching up with MVP favorite Harden.
“I’m doing the best I can. He’s MVP right now. My job is just to irritate him, try to get under his skin, pick him up full court but at the same time just compete. That’s all I’m doing out there,” Rose said.
Rose is not a noted defensive stopper and having him also attempt to slow James down is a risky proposition when combined with his high usage on offense. Rose’s play also comes at the expense of those who might play in his place. Third-year backup point guard Tyus Jones played all 82 games this season with a drastically lower usage percentage. Unlike Rose and starting point guard Jeff Teague, Jones can be successful playing off the ball. While Rose showed poise in this first playoff game, Jones might have served as a better complement to a team with two stand-out wings and a big man who ideally should be leading the team in usage instead. Basketball Insiders spoke to Jones before the Rose acquisition where he explained why he thought he could contribute more this year.
“This being my third year, I think I’m starting to settle more into the NBA game a little bit more. Things are starting to slow down for me,” Jones stated and while explaining how he saw his role on the team. “Just trying to do whatever is needed out of me, whatever coach needs I’m willing to fulfill that role.”
Jones did play seven minutes this game and actually found Rose on the break who converted a contested lay-up. In this game, both Teague and Rose had difficulty finding Towns in the post. The Rockets focused on Towns, sending both double teams and aggressive switching. The switches, at times, presented mismatches down low that the Timberwolves’ guards weren’t always able to capitalize on.
Going forward, Thibodeau put the onus on Towns, stating that he would have to be able to adjust. All signs point to Thibodeau continuing to trust Rose and putting him in this key position. Rose can put up numbers, as he did on Sunday, but it’s not clear that he’s actually helping Minnesota in a series where they need all the help they can get.