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: Clippers Looking Forward to Teodosic Return
Clippers hanging on and looking forward to Teodosic return, writes James Blancarte.
The Los Angeles Clippers have had a season of twists and turns. While the season is still young, they’ve dealt with setbacks, mostly in the form of a multitude of injures. In fact, the team’s misfortunes began almost immediately. On Oct 21 (the NBA season started earlier this year), Clippers guard Milos Teodosic went down with a plantar fascia injury. This stands as the first bump in the road for the Clippers, who have seen a number of key players go down.
Following the loss of Chris Paul this past offseason, the Clippers appeared to have salvaged their immediate future through a number of offseason transactions. Under the direction of the front office, which includes Lawrence Frank, VP of Basketball Operations, and Jerry West, a Clippers consultant, the Clippers traded Paul, which helped to remake the roster. West spoke of his approval of the Paul trade before the season started.
“The Clippers feel comfortable that we made out really well. We could have lost him for nothing,” West stated of the Paul trade. “I think it was kind of a win myself.”
The Paul trade brought in Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and helped to eventually bring in Danilo Gallinari. A big part of the offseason makeover was the acquisition of European star Teodosic. Losing Paul meant that the Clippers were going to be without a highly talented, pass-first point guard for the first time since Paul’s acquisition during the 2011-2012 season.
Part of the strategy called for replacing Paul with both Beverley, who could match Paul’s defensive tenacity, and Teodosic, who could match Paul’s vision and passing. While neither player could match Paul’s overall brilliance (and Paul has been brilliant this season for the Rockets), the team hoped to create a winning environment around these two players.
Unfortunately, Teodosic went down quickly. Then Beverley experienced issues with his knee, culminating with season-ending microfracture surgery on his knee in late November. Combine this with Gallinari missing nearly a month with injuries and Blake Griffin going down for the next few months with an MCL sprain of his left knee recently, and the Clippers have struggled to stay competitive with lineups that have often included only one of the team’s opening day starters (center DeAndre Jordan). The franchise shouldn’t be completely surprised by the rash of injuries, as their offseason plan banked on players with questionable injury histories such as Griffin and Gallinari.
To fill in, the Clippers have also made use of a number of young, inexperienced players (not at all common in the Doc Rivers era), including playing 2017 second round pick, guard Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell has benefited from the opportunity as is averaging 16.2 minutes a game and has even started in seven games (of 24 played). Thornwell confirmed the obvious regarding injuries.
“We’ve been playing without a lot of our core guys,” Thornwell stated.
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers also made it clear that injuries have affected the team.
“It’s not just Blake [Griffin]. If it was just Blake, we’d be OK,” Rivers stated recently. “But you miss [Danillo] `Gallo,’ Milos [Teodosic], Patrick Beverley.”
Currently, the team is well below .500 with a 9-15 record, good enough for 11th in the Western Conference. And while the team is ahead of a number of teams destined for the NBA lottery such as the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, they aren’t too far removed from the eighth seed, currently held by the Utah Jazz, who are below .500 (13-14 record). It’s not reasonable for a team that has already suffered a nine-game losing streak and is only 4-6 in the last 10 games to expect another playoff berth, and the team has not yet signaled they have given up on the season.
The Clippers have stayed afloat by being extremely reliant on the individual offensive output of guards Austin Rivers and Lou Williams. Give Williams credit, as he has been brilliant recently including a game winning shot against the Washington Wizards on Saturday. Over the last 10 games, he is averaging 23.2 points on 62.7 true shooting percentage and 6.2 assists in 34.5 minutes per game, per nba.com. For reference, Williams has a career true shooting percentage average of 53.3 percent, per basketball-reference.com. However, this doesn’t scream long-term winning formula, nor should it — the team hasn’t recently had reliable offensive output outside of these guards who were originally expected to come off the bench for the Clippers.
Gallinari has since returned and played well in his second game back, an overtime win against the Wizards. Now the team has upgraded Teodosic’s condition to questionable and are hopeful that Teodosic makes his return Monday night against the Raptors.
“He’s ready. He’s close,” Rivers stated, speaking of Teodosic at a recent Clippers practice. “And that will help. In a big way.”
In addition to possibly helping their increasingly remote chances at making the playoffs, the Clippers have other goals. Teodosic is signed to a two-year deal, but the second-year is a player option allowing the European guard to leave after the season. Should Teodosic find that the Clippers are somehow not a good fit or a place where he can find success, he may opt out of the second year. If the team wants to ensure that the 30-year-old guard sees a bright future with the Clippers, they should hope that his return leads to the Clippers playing winning basketball.
Q&A With Cavaliers Rookie Cedi Osman
Basketball Insiders caught up with Cavaliers rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics.
Monday afternoon, Basketball Insiders caught up with rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics.
Basketball Insiders: Your first experience in the NBA, making the transition from international play and Euroleague—has it been what you’ve expected?
Cedi Osman: I mean of course it’s different rules and stuff and a different type of basketball. In international, it’s like more slow, but here it’s like always up and down, a lot of fast breaks.
Actually that’s the kind of basketball that I like. When I was playing overseas, I was also running a lot, up and down. I was that guy who was bringing the energy, so it was not hard for me to adjust to this basketball.
BI: With Euros in this league, it’s a growing amount. What does that tell you about the talent pool over there?
Osman: There’s a lot of talented players overseas—like really, a lot. Like you said, when you look around the NBA there’s a lot of European players. Starting with Dirk Nowitzki, he’s a big legend. He was the one who chose to do Europe [to show] what he can do. I can give you the example of two Turkish basketball players—Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, he won one championship. I mean, there’s a lot of European players.
BI: Definitely. So how well do you know Hedo and Mehmet?
Osman: With Mehmet Okur, I was talking a couple times. I saw him one time in summer league this year. I talk to Hedo also because he’s president of Turkish Basketball Federation, so I was talking to him also.
BI: You’ve gotten some crucial minutes with the bench in the last couple of games. The same thing can be said when you played in New York and against the Hawks, too. What’s allowed you and that group to click together?
Osman: I always try to think positive. When I’m getting there on the court with the second unit, I’m trying to bring the energy because I’m the youngest one with Big Z [Ante Zizic] together.
Whenever I get on the court I’m trying to bring the energy on both sides of the court—on defense and offense—and I’m trying to run the floor the fastest that I can. Trying to guard players that are really good. And that also just improves my basketball [skills] a lot. I’m really happy that I am a part of this team and it’s also really important for me that I’m getting these crucial minutes.
BI: In a recent interview, you said that you don’t have a reason to be scared. You’re “cold-blooded.” Why do you feel that way?
Osman: I was playing overseas professionally since I was 16 years old…actually, I started getting paid when I was 12. [I’ve been] playing professionally for a long time. I played with a lot of good players. I’ve played also [with] former NBA players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic who was on the same team.
I know, yeah this is the best league in the world, but I don’t have a reason why to be scared because I was working for this—to come here, to give my best and to be stable to stay for long, long years. That’s why I said I don’t have a reason to be scared, because I know that I can play here.
BI: When you’re on the floor, what do you expect out of yourself? You said you want to get up and down the floor and give it to both ends, but is there anything outside of that, maybe mentality wise?
Osman: Of course. Not just as a rookie, but every time I get on the court like I said, I want to be always that guy who brings the energy. Also like, when we’re going bad or when we have a bad game, I want to change the momentum of the game. That’s what I’m working for a lot. We have great players and I have a lot of things to learn from them.
That’s why I said I’m really happy to be a part of this team, because we’re one of the best teams in the world. I hope that we’re going to win a championship in my first year. That would be a big thing for me.
BI: What kind of things have the coaching staff tried to help you improve in practice?
Osman: There’s a couple defensive plays that’ll be different. There’s also defensive three seconds. That was a bit of adjusting for me because in Europe you can always stay in the paint no matter what. There’s no defensive three seconds. Here it’s different, so it was a little bit hard for me to adjust in the beginning, but now I don’t have any problems and coaches are really helping me a lot.
BI: This team isn’t fully healthy yet, obviously with Isaiah Thomas coming back, Tristan Thompson coming back and Iman Shumpert down the road. That might affect playing time for some. You’ve gone to the G-League and played with the Canton Charge once before. You had a lot of minutes in that one game and did a really good job there. Is that something that you’re prepared for? Would you mind playing there again if that’s the case for you?
Osman: I was the one who asked for Canton, to go there, because before Shump got injured I didn’t have a lot of playing time. I said that I want to play whenever we have an off day, whenever I can go to play there, to run a lot, to try to do my thing. See that I’m working here before practices. That’s why I asked to go there. I talked to [Cavaliers general manager] Koby [Altman] and he said he supported me about that and that would be good for me.
BI: You have your own hashtag—#TheFirstCedi—can you explain the inspiration behind that and what it means?
Osman: So I’m working with one agency in Turkey and they’re doing a really good job about myself, my profile, my brand (laughs). They’re doing a really good job. “The First Cedi” is because my first name is Cedi and a lot of people are calling me Jedi, so that’s from Star Wars. The First Cedi—because in Turkey, ‘C’ reads as a ‘J’ so Jedi. First Jedi, that’s why.
BI: That’s pretty funny. Are you a Star Wars fan?
Osman: Yeah. I watch. But because it’s like old movies and that kind of stuff, but now new movies are better.
BI: It’s a locker room full of veterans here in Cleveland. Do you feel comfortable with everyone?
Osman: Definitely. I feel really comfortable. We have—I don’t want to say veteran players—but they are so good and they are big, big professionals. I have a lot of fun with them—locker room, when we go on the road, team dinners and that kind of stuff. It’s pretty cool.
The thing is, like it’s my first appearance. Overseas I’m coming to America and I was thinking the adjustment would be a little bit hard for me, but it was actually the opposite. From the first day that I met those guys, they helped me a lot.
BI: Is there anyone that you’ve gotten especially close to? You mentioned Big Z earlier.
Osman: Me and Z are pretty close. We’re speaking the same language. We played in the same league in Turkey. But like, I’m close with everybody. With Channing [Frye], we are always talking about the games and that stuff.
BI: Playing with LeBron—can you put that into words?
Osman: Look, it’s…(pauses), it’s something crazy. Because I was playing a game—obviously 2K—before when I was younger, I was playing with him and that stuff. Of course, it was my dream to be an NBA player, to play in the NBA. But when you’re playing on the same team with [Derrick] Rose, LeBron James, [Dwyane] Wade, Kevin Love, [Isaiah Thomas], it’s crazy.
I didn’t imagine that I would play with those players. And then, I just realize when I’m playing with them, the only thing that I can do is just work a lot and learn from them.
BI: When you hear these guys talk about you in a good light and coach Lue gives you praise, how does that make you feel?
Osman: That’s something really incredible. I mean… from the first day, from the media day when LeBron was in a press conference, he talked about everybody. But he talked also about me and he knew about Euroleague and that kind of stuff, so I was really happy. I was really proud and I was really happy about it. From the first day, he was so close to me. Not just him, but everybody.
BI: What do you think people need to know about your personality? Is there anything that hasn’t been said?
Osman: Actually, nothing special (laughs). I’m the guy who always smiles and with a lot of energy, always being positive talking to everybody, making a lot of jokes, trying to be friendly with everyone and the most important—I’m trying to be a good character.
BI: Last one—based off of this conversation alone, you’ve picked up the English language so easily. Who’s helped you on that side of things?
Osman: I actually had a lot of American players overseas on my previous team—it was Jordan Farmar, Jamon Gordon, Derrick Brown, he also played here, there was Bryant Dunston, Jayson Granger. I played a lot with Dario Saric, too, Furkan Korkmaz. Those were guys that were always talking English.
Just talking to them all the time. When they talked, I would just listen to them. I wasn’t listening to what they talked [about], but just for what kind of words they were using and what kind of sentences, the way they were talking. That’s how I learned English.
James Johnson: The Latest Product of Miami’s Culture
James Johnson speaks to Michael Scotto about his success within Miami’s culture.
James Johnson went from an NBA nomad to financially set for life.
“It really meant everything to me,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “To be in a situation in my life to overcome so much, and to finally get something like that where it’s long-term, where it’s somewhere I really want to be too, it was just all-in-all the best scenario.”
Johnson was drafted No. 16 overall in 2009 and spent time with four different teams, including two stints in Toronto, before his career year in Miami last season. During that span, Johnson also spent time in the G-League for the Iowa Energy (2011) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013).
Despite being nomadic through the first eight years of his career, Johnson never doubted his talent nor the hope that he’d find the right organizational fit.
“No, I never doubted myself,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I never doubted the Lord neither. I’m a big firm believer of that. Every team I was on I always enjoyed my teammate’s success. I always was a real part of practice players and being a scout guy. My whole journey is just to figure out and experience all the other aspects of this game that we play. It says a lot where I can start helping other guys out like the rookies now and guys that are not getting any minutes right now, things like that. I’m a big testament to just staying ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”
After playing for the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, what set Miami’s culture apart?
“Just their want-to, they’re no excuses, act like a champion on and off the court, and just that mental stability of always teaching you, not just drills, not just coaching just because they’re called coaches,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “They really inspire, they really help out, and it makes you want to be in that work environment.”
Johnson credits his relationship with President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for helping him fulfill his potential.
“It’s great, its nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a little new still, but the freedom to be able to go into their office and just talk about normal things, you know, is one of the big reasons why I never want to leave this place.”
While playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 27.4 minutes per game. Johnson also shot a career-high 34 percent from beyond the arc.
Looking ahead, can Johnson continue to improve at age 30 and beyond coming off his best year as a pro?
“I got paid, so there’s no pressure of playing for the money,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s really playing for the wins, playing for your teammates, and playing with a pure heart, not going out there with any agendas, not going out there looking to live up to something that everybody else wants you to live up to. For me, it’s just gelling with our team and making sure our locker room is great like I was mentioning. Go out there and compete and trust each other.”
Johnson has put up nearly identical numbers through the first quarter of this season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 27.6 minutes per game. Johnson is also shooting a career-high 36 percent from beyond the arc.
“It’s my ninth year, and I’m just happy to be able to be part of the NBA for that long,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders.
Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to maximize years 10-12 in Miami during the rest of his contract and the remaining prime of his career.