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: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On
At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.
At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.
Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.
“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”
Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.
But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.
“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”
Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.
Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.
Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.
“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”
But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.
“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.
But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.
“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”
Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.
Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.
Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.
“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.
“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”
For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.
“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.
From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.
* * * * * *
*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.
Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?
Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.
While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.
March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.
So who could still become available?
Joakim Noah, New York Knicks
This seems almost too obvious.
The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.
After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.
Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.
Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic
Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.
Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.
Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings
Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.
But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.
Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.
Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings
Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.
Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.
As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.
Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks
Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.
So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.
If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.
Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers
Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.
He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.
Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.
But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?
With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.
Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos
There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.
NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor
James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor
The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.
But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.
All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.
The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.
While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.
Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.
“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.
When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”
Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.
“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”
Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.
In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.
The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.