Tuesday, December 27, 2011

All Chicago got for Christmas

The Bulls had the best record in the NBA last year.  They won 62 games and were the only team in the league to beat all other 29 teams in the regular season.  In his first season as a head coach, defensive guru Tom Thibideau (we now know that the h is not silent) took home Coach of the Year honors while transforming this team into an elite defense.  Derrick Rose now seems prophetic when, before the season began, he asked a group of reporters, "Why can't I be MVP?"  In keeping with the spirit of the holidays, let us pose the question,

"What does Gar Forman get the team that has everything?"

Getting further than the Eastern Conference Finals has to be all this Chicago Bulls team wants for Christmas.  What went wrong last May?  The overly simplistic explanation is that Derrick Rose did not get enough help from his supporting cast in that fateful series with the Miami Heat.  Miami double-teamed the league's Most Valuable Player the second he pulled off the Eisenhower Expressway.  Somebody else was going to have to beat them.  A less than healthy Carlos Boozer could not get it going in the low post.  After a promising regular season, Loul Deng could not consistently make plays going 1-on-1 against the Miami Heat forwards.  Three-point specialist Kyle Korver saw too many of his wide open jumpers uncharacteristically clang off the front rim.  Keith Bogans gave roughly the same production that he gave in the regular season, which was nothing to write home about.  When you play defense as well as the Chicago Bulls, Playoff games are often close, low-scoring affairs.  Against a similarly defensive-minded Heat team, the Bulls simply could not score enough points down the stretch to win.

What's the solution?  The NBA is a copycat league and this season Rose should expect to be double-teamed, full-court pressed, matchup zone'd, and harassed to the fullest extent of league regulations.  The overly simplistic answer to their anemic scoring would be to get another star to play alongside Rose and share the scoring load.  Disappointed fans and talking heads echoed this sentiment ad nauseum and the sports talk radio airwaves were littered with statements such as,  

"Where is Rose's Scottie Pippen?"
"You need two Superstars to win a championship in today's NBA."
"They should have never let Ben Gordon go."
In the end, the Bulls did not sign another superstar to play alongside Rose.  Instead, they got veteran shooting guard Richard Hamilton without having to give up anything.  Some fans and experts feel that this is not a great move for Chicago.  

Here's why they're wrong.

The Bulls can win now and be a contender for years to come.  This starting 5 dealt with numerous injuries throughout the season, yet they still had the best record in the league.  When healthy, they played very well together.  The list of available free agent swing men was not very impressive.  Getting a serious upgrade would mean trading, which would entail giving up starters.  Let us not forget that this was their first year under Tom Thibodeau and his first year as a head coach.  Expect improvement from Thibodeau as a coach and from the Bulls' overall execution on both ends of the floor.  

Derrick Rose is still developing.  The improvement of his outside shot has been remarkable.  Rose is the consummate gym rat and we can expect his jumper to be even better this year.  When asked what he had been focusing on this offseason, Rose replied that he was working on getting better at drawing fouls on defenders.  After watching film, he felt that he needed to get to the line more times per game.  The videos that have been posted of his workouts in LA show a more muscular Derrick Rose practicing making shots while getting hacked and pushed by trainers.  That is the kind of maturity and hunger to improve that you want to see from a 23 year old who just got his big payday.  Expect Rose to pick up right where he left off last season.

While Richard Hamilton is not a star player or a particularly great 1-on-1 scorer, he should help improve their offense.  Hamilton's game is all about moving without the ball and using screens to get open.  Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah both set screens well.  Hamilton is a willing distributor who could get both Boozer and Noah easy baskets when opposing big men rotate off of screens to help.  Even though he is a bit older, Hamilton is still in great shape and his jump shot is as good as ever.  Shooting guards will be forced to chase him around the baseline every possession, which should give Rose more room to operate at the top of the key and in the lane.  Last year the Bulls ranked 20th in points per game.  Expect that to improve this year.

Thibodeau would love for his Bulls to become a tough defensive unit like the one he helped build in Boston.  Richard Hamilton played with and won a championship with (in my humble opinion) the greatest defensive team in the history of the NBA.  Those Pistons teams made the Playoffs and competed for a championship every year.  Rip knows what it takes for a team to play at that level.  His experience and veteran leadership will be invaluable both on the court and in the locker room.  In addition to being a tall shooting guard, Hamilton is still a pesky on-the-ball defender who should fit right in with Thibodeau's system.  Expect the Bulls to be even better defensively this year. 

Sometimes the overly simplistic answer is not the right one.  The Bulls have a transcendent Superstar.  They have a good head coach.  They defend well and play unselfishly.  Chemistry is important and chemistry can be easily disturbed.  Just ask Richard Hamilton.  After a poor postseason shooting performance, the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups and tried to add Allen Iverson to their starting lineup to increase scoring.  That worked about as well as adding Jar Jar Binks to the Star Wars movies to increase laughs.  I applaud the Bulls for not gutting their roster and/or mortgaging their future to add another scorer.  This Chicago Bulls squad can compete for a championship.  Will they get further than the Eastern Conference Finals this season?  As the optimistic blind men once said, "We shall see."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Grading Grunfeld

The Washington Bullets lost 56 games last year. At 3-38, they were one of the worst road teams in the history of the NBA. Ernie Grunfeld is doing a bang up job.  I am not being sarcastic.

With every sports franchise that is not a championship contender, difficult decisions have to be made.  The Bullets invested a great deal of money in Gilbert Arenas and built a team around him.  They surrounded him with talented complementary players like Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, Deshawn Stevenson, Nick Young, and Andray Blatche.  Injuries and an idiotic response to a gambling debt ruined three of those seasons.

Grunfeld was faced with a situation that no General Manager would like to have.  An inflated payroll for an underperforming team.  Big contracts as far as the eye can see and a chronically injured superstar whose best years were behind him.  The roster was a sinking ship.  Rather than attempting to rearrange deck chairs on this Titanic, Grunfeld opted to do the responsible thing and blow the team up.  Blow it up he did.  The Bullets' roster looked like a trailer for a Michael Bay movie.  Butler's contract, gone!  Jamison' contract, gone!  Haywood's contract, gone!  Stevenson's contract, gone!  No one thought that moving Arenas' $80 million contract after the gun incident would be possible.  P.T. Barnum did say that an Otis Smith is born every minute.  Has Gilbert Arenas convinced Dwight Howard to stay in Orlando yet?

By a miracle, they landed the number one overall pick, and wisely chose John Wall.  That same year Chicago literally gave them Kirk Hinrich and their first round pick to clear up cap space for Lebron James, err, I mean Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver.  Perhaps more important than Hinrich's mentoring of John Wall (or the development of Kevin Seraphin) was what the Bullets were able to do with his contract.  Grunfeld flipped Hinrich for Mike Bibby and that kid who banged on Lebron James at the Nike Skills Academy.  This move ultimately saved them about $7 million when Mike Bibby opted out of his final year to chase a ring with Miami.

John Wall is the real deal, folks.  But for the fact that Blake Griffin (who really wasn't a rookie, but that's another discussion) had such an amazing season, the Great Wall of Chinatown would have run away with Rookie of the Year honors.  He's the youngest NBA player to post a triple double and the only other guys to average 16 and 8 their rookie season were Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, and Oscar Robertson.  Not bad company to keep.

Grunfeld now has to build a team around him.  Sometimes the moves that one doesn't make are as important as the ones that they do make.  In the last two years, the Bullets have shed 100's of millions of dollars in payroll and have gotten much younger in the process.  They have drafted well and resisted the temptation to sign an overpriced veteran.  Javale McGee could be a solid center for years to come.  First round draft pick Jan Vesely has a lot of potential.  Jordan Crawford could develop into a dangerous scorer.  Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack were great in college and could become solid contributors in the NBA.  The move to keep Rashard Lewis for one more year is a wise one.  Without his contract, the Wizards would be forced to sign another player to meet the new minimum salary cap requirements.  By all accounts, Lewis is a great mentor to his numerous young teammates.  If they use the amnesty clause on him next year, they will have boatloads of money to spend in free agency and a draft class that is loaded with blue chip players.

In all likelihood, the Bullets will not make the Playoffs this year and will trip up like all young teams do.  Expect plenty of stupid fouls, bad shots, turnovers, and blown leads.  These things are to be expected when you rebuild and have a team full of 21 year old kids learning how to play at the professional level. I hope that Grunfeld stays the course this year and makes some moves next year.  Keep it up, Ernie. You're doing a bang up job.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ricky Rubio

The teenage phenom from Spain has finally arrived on American shores after being drafted in '09.  I, for one, am excited.  That tired old stigma of international players not being able to adjust to the NBA game has gone the way of Blockbuster and dial-up internet.  Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, and Dirk Nowitzki all have rings (Dirk may not get an actual ring if Mark Cuban has his way, but that's a whole other story) and all were crucial to their respective teams' championship runs.  The NBA has truly become an international sport and Rubio may be the next in a growing number of top flight European imports.

After a somewhat subpar season in Barcelona, some wonder if Rubio will take the NBA by storm as previously predicted.  I remain firmly on his bandwagon.  With all of the new rules regarding hand checking and blocking, this has become a point guard's league and the kid appears to have all of the tools to succeed at the NBA level.  First of all, let us ignore the comparisons between Ricky Rubio and Pete Maravich.  These absurd comparisons have more to do with the two athletes' hair styles rather than their styles of play.  Pistol Pete was a pure scorer who dropped 40 or more points in a game 35 different times. It was not unusual for Pistol Pete to shoot the ball 30+ times a game.  Pistol Pete had a flair for showmanship and entertained crowds with his flashy dribbling and Globetrotter-like moves.

Ricky, on the other hand, is a point guard's point guard.  A pass-first type of player with unreal court vision.  Watching him run the fast break reminds me of Steve Nash or Magic Johnson.  At 6'3" with long arms and deceptive quickness, Rubio plays the passing lanes well.  He amasses lots of steals and loves to get out in transition.  The one glaring weakness in his game has to be his jump shot, but that has apparently been the focus of his practice for the last year.  While Rubio is a flashy player, most of his flash comes in the form of great dribbling and slick no-look passes to teammates.  Rubio takes over games the way John Stockton used to.

Rubio will be playing his rookie year with the Minnesota Timberwolves.  The downside is that he won't be surrounded by a surplus of talent or veteran leadership.  That and the fact that he wil be leaving Barcelona to move to Minneapolis.  The upside is that he will most likely see quite a bit of playing time on a rebuilding team during a shortened season.  Let us not forget that there are some intriguing pieces on this Timberwolves squad.  He'll have a great shooter in Michael Beasley on the perimeter.  He'll have Kevin Love setting screens, knocking down 3 pointers, and grabbing tons of rebounds.  He'll also have young, athletic, and talented players like Derrick Williams, Anthony Randolph, and Wes Johnson running the floor at every opportunity.

While taking home Rookie of the Year honors may be a bit of a stretch, (Kemba Walker or Kyrie Irving winning it is more likely) I predict that Rubio will have a very solid rookie season.  Him leading all rookies in assists and/or steals is quite possible.  Look to see him plenty of times on Sportscenter this year and plenty of times in All Star games down the road.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Bucks

Remember when the Bucks were an exciting and competitive team?  A carefree, simple time when you could tell your friend that you were TiVo-ing the Bucks game without sounding sarcastic?  No, I'm not referring to the teams of the late 90's and early 2000's that had Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glen Robinson.  I am referring to the Bucks of 2009.

Remember them?

That tough, gritty, defensive-minded team lead by Scott Skiles.  Those regular season giant killers who just kept on winning.  Do you remember Brandon Jennings scoring 55 points against Golden State and emerging as one of the most exciting point guards in the league?  How about Andrew Bogut finally showing us signs that he may have been worthy of that number 1 pick?  Do you remember John Salmons proving that he is still one of the most dangerous scorers in the league?  Eryan Illyasova coming out of nowhere?  The "Fear the Deer" signs?  So much has happened in the league last year that the Bucks falling off the face of the NBA universe was casually swept under the rug, which is a shame.

As a lover of underdogs and an unabashed basketball purist, this is doubly disappointing for me.  The Bucks played hard night in and night out.  Skiles preached defense and team basketball.  The young and talented corps bought in and played well.  Brandon Jennings looked like a complete guard, an increasingly rare occurrence with NBA bound freshmen.  This is a testament to his work ethic and also to the emphasis that European leagues put on basketball fundamentals.  Andrew Bogut showed flashes of greatness that year.  The young Aussie is a rare mix of strength, finesse, and pure talent who lamentably appears to be a part of a growing list of NBA centers that could possibly become the next Shaq or Olajuwon if they could only stay healthy.

Landing Jimmer Fredette with the 10th overall pick may be a blessing or curse for the Bucks.  Sacramento was determined to land the BYU scoring machine and Milwaukee made the trade.  Getting Stephen Jackson, Beno Udrih, and Shaun Livingston may help them.  Giving up Corey Maggette and John Salmons will undoubtedly leave a void in scoring on a less than prolific offense.  Can they get back to being that young, hungry team with a chip on it shoulder that we saw two long years ago?  It seems like Skiles got the younger players on the team to buy into his system back then.  2010 Draft pick Larry Sanders from VCU may develop into a solid player.  19 year old Tobias Harris from Tennessee (last year's 19th overall pick) is talented but extremely raw.  If a real estate agent were attempting to lease this roster, they may use phrases like "fixer upper" or a "handy man's dream".  Is this just the blank slate that Skiles could work with?  The only constants on this team are Jennings and Bogut, and rumors are already swirling that Andrew Bogut may be used in some sort of three team trade to get Dwight Howard to Los Angeles or New Jersey.

I would love nothing more than to see Scott Skiles get this team into the Playoffs this year.  Some would argue that the brutal schedule with many back to back games actually benefits the young teams with young legs.  Milwaukee will have plenty of young legs needing to get acclimated to the NBA as soon as possible.  Here's to seeing those "Fear the Deer" posters waving come mid-April.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Knicks' Big 3

The New York Knicks find themselves in a particularly interesting position this season.  Donnie Walsh gave up a great deal to land Carmelo Anthony last year rather than waiting for him to become a free agent in 2011.  The move was more than likely due to some shrewd gamesmanship from Melo's agent Leon Rose.  Rose is no fool and the writing was on the wall that NBA player contracts would be considerably less under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, particularly given the miserable economic climate in the country.  While it is impossible to know if Rose or Anthony could have been able to predict that the "sign and trade" would be eliminated or that max contracts would be greatly reduced for players signing with a team other than the one that drafted them, one can say without hesitation that Rose got his client the most money possible from the team that he wanted to play with.  Knicks fans crying in their beers over the lack of depth on this current roster should be reminded that that is his job.

Would Melo have re-signed with the Nuggets?  Gone elsewhere?  Who knows?  No one doubts that Melo sincerely wanted to come to New York, but it is naive to think that any athlete in the prime of their career in the midst of a recession would leave $50 million sitting on the table.  Consequently, the Knicks were forced to part way with Raymond Felton, Timofey Mosgov, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari.  They now have few Draft picks to replace them with young talent or trade for veteran help.  An injury-prone and undersized Rony Turiaf becomes the Knicks' primary big man, a difficult task playing alongside inconsistent rebounders and defenders in Anthony and Stoudemire.

The larger plan, to all of those who put a great deal of stock in the infamous wedding toast incident from last year, was to land CP3 in 2011.  The visions of a Big Apple Big 3 with Chris Paul running the fast break alongside Anthony and Stoudemire danced in Knicks fans' heads.  The strain that Melo and Amare put on the Knicks' cap space make this seem like a pipe dream, especially with the new salary cap and luxury tax rules.  Amare and Carmelo got their $100 million contracts.  Should we expect Chris Paul to come to New York for less than half of that?  New Orleans will gladly pay him $100+ million and any other team in the league would gladly sign him to a max contract.

How will the Knickerbockers fare without Chris Paul?  Right now the Big 3 in the Big Apple are Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and Mike D'Antoni.  Not quite the sexy Big 3 that many fans had anticipated. It seems as though $200+ million doesn't quite buy what it used to.  In the Knicks case, maybe it does.......

Let us examine this Big 3 for a moment.

After the Decision, much has been made about the 3 Superstar teams.  What some forget is that every team that has won a championship in the last decade has had a great coach who preached defense.  Rick Carlisle, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, and Greg Poppovich are cut from a similar mold.  All of them are Hall of Fame caliber coaches and all were integral parts of their respective teams' success.  How much faith should Knicks' fans have in their current head coach?   Those Phoenix Suns teams that D'Antoni had success with (if one considers making the Playoffs each year without ever getting to the Finals) were absolutely loaded with talent.  D'Antoni benefitted greatly from having Steve Nash in his MVP days.  Let us not forget about Marion, Diaw, Thomas, and Barbosa.  Those Suns teams got very close to the Finals but ultimately got beat by better defensive teams and better coaches.

Last year the Knicks put up lots of points.  Melo averaged 26ppg.  Billups played well and Landry Fields showed some flashes of brilliance.  Amare (I refuse to call him STAT) played like an MVP for much of the season but, in the end they were still a .500 team that got swept in the first round of the Playoffs.  Most of their losses could be directly attributed to poor defensive effort.  Should the blame be placed on D'Antoni's coaching or the lack of defensive pieces on the current roster?  Do bad defensive players get sent to D'Antoni or do players play defense poorly because of D'Antoni and his system?  Bad coaching or bad GM'ing?  The chicken or the egg?  Can a team running this system ever beat the Celtics, Bulls, or Heat of the East?

What can we expect from the Big Apple Big 3 this year?  If Melo and Amare get more comfortable in the system and improve their play by a reasonable margin, will they be much more than a .500 team that gets beat in the first round of the Playoffs?  How much better can Landry Fields and Chauncey Billups play?  Do we expect much more focus on team defense and toughness from D'Antoni when that has never been his M.O.?  Can we expect a giant leap forward from Melo and Amare's defense and rebounding when that has never been a part of their game?  Without a third star player, we may not be able to expect much more from the Knicks of 2011 than what we saw from the Knicks of 2010.