Up at BlogaBull: In Praise of Mike Dunleavy, Jr.

Let me get this out of the way at the start: I love Mike Dunleavy Jr. He’s really, really good. You should love Mike Dunleavy Jr., too. Here’s why:

More at: http://www.blogabull.com/2014/11/19/7246255/in-praise-of-mike-dunleavy-jr

Up at BlogaBull: The Bulls Strange Inability to Defensive Rebound

Through 4 games, Tom Thibodeau’s defense is outside of the league’s top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions and that is, obviously, very surprising. Granted, Chicago is 11th in defensive efficiency, so they are barely outside of the top 10, but given that under Thibodeau the Bulls have finished 1st, 1st, 5th, and 2nd in overall defense in the last 4 seasons, it is a bit surprising to see them anywhere but the very tip top of the league’s defensive rankings, even at this early juncture.

More at: http://www.blogabull.com/2014/11/6/7162997/the-bulls-strange-inability-to-defensive-rebound

Gulp. Stan Van Gundy to Detroit.

SVG
Pictured: A brilliant basketball man.

Stan Van Gundy was, to my mind, the best coach available on the market this offseason, and for the last few offseasons frankly. That stance, of course, comes with the caveat that there are many assistant coaches and coaches at different levels of basketball with whom I am unfamiliar and therefore, I exclude from any consideration in the “best coach available” discussion. There may be some diamonds in the rough who need a shot to show how good they can be. But I don’t know enough about the coaching development chain to say much about those guys. Still, SVG has proven himself as a great coach in the NBA.

Van Gundy ought never to have lost his job in the first place, but it’s a superstar league and the Magic wanted to appease Dwight Howard, before realizing how futile a game that really was. SVG has a winning percentage of 64.1% in the regular season over 579 games and he is 9 games over .500 in the post-season (48–39). Winning percentage alone, however, is not the only mark of a great coach. If you need any proof of that, check out Avery Johnson’s career after his Dallas turn, Vinny Del Negro’s run with the Clippers last season, or Scotty Brooks’ campaigns the last few seasons. Talent can overcome imperfect or even downright incompetent coaching, at times. Van Gundy isn’t that sort of coach. He’s exceedingly competent, curious, and supremely adaptable. So the following should hardly be surprising:

Stan Van took two separate and totally different style squads through deep playoff runs, ending in the Conference Finals and NBA Finals, respectively. In Miami, he paired Dwyane Wade’s pell-mell drives to the hoop with a still dominant Shaq’s low-post scoring to reach a top 5 offense and a 7 game conference finals loss to Detroit. It was a distinctly traditional offensive setup, and Van Gundy made it work incredibly well.

Then, from 2008–2011, he helped Dwight Howard reach his peak, which he has still not surpassed or even really approached, with a 4-out spread pick and roll attack which both incorporated the biggest lessons of the modern basketball analytics movement (the importance of spacing, along with the value of the three point shots and dunks) and best catered to the talents of his team. It’s also worth noting that no coach since SVG has been able to get Dwight to buy in to the pick and roll game as thoroughly as he did in Orlando. In 2009, the Magic overachieved in the playoffs, knocking off LeBron’s Cavaliers juggernaut — +8.68 SRS, well ahead of the second best team, the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers — in the Eastern Conference Finals, only to get beat by that Lakers team in 5 games. It would be easy to be disappointed by the Magic’s performance in that Finals, but really, they shouldn’t have even been in that series at all. Orlando had already overachieved by reaching the Finals. Of course, that’s not the attitude a coach or his team should have in that series, but for fans and media analyzing Van Gundy’s resume, it’s important to note that important context.

So, in short: Detroit has nabbed a great coach. Van Gundy, after being burned by both his former Florida employers and unjustly let go, also managed to negotiate control over Basketball Operations for the Pistons. I don’t know how SVG will do on the management side of things, as there’s no history to go on. Given his understanding of how teams fit together and how to maximize the talents he’s provided, though, I suspect he’ll also do a heck of a job there, as well. He would be hard pressed to do worse than Joe Dumars the last few years.

I see most things in the NBA through the lens of how they will effect my beloved Chicago Bulls. Stan Van Gundy entering the Central Division scares the hell out of me. I’d imagine most fans of other Central Division teams feel likewise, which is as good an indication as any that Detroit has done very well for themselves here. Now it’s time to fire up the trade machine, because there’s almost no way SVG is keeping this trainwreck together next season.

Derrick Rose Hurt Himself Again and Everything is Awful

Derrick Rose hurt his right knee (the other one, not the one he injured over 18 months ago) in a non-contact injury during the third quarter of tonight’s tilt with the Portland Trailblazers. Rose was just running along normally, making an off-ball cut into the paint on offense and his knee buckled beneath him.

https://vine.co/v/hFEubqqqlz9

I don’t know how bad the injury is at this point, but I do know Rose couldn’t put any pressure on his leg as he left the floor to go back to the locker room.

I also know that I can’t go through this again. I’m an NBA fan, but I’m first and foremost a Bulls fan, and this is just awful. There were so many years of just terrible, ugly basketball following the Jordan glory days abruptly coming to a halt, then there was improvement to mediocrity with dreams of something more. Derrick Rose was that promise of something more and for the too brief moments he’s been healthy since he entered the league, Rose has delivered on that promise. But he just missed over 18 months with a knee injury and now he appears to have hurt his *other* knee pretty badly. If Rose is done for the year again, the Bulls are, obviously, cooked. If his tests come back with bad news, the Bulls absolutely need to blow things up and fast. The franchise’s only hope for relevance will be to draft a new savior.

This is maybe (hopefully) overreaction, but the creeping doubts that had been lingering about Rose’s return had, for me, been on the verge of full blown panic about whether he will ever be the same player. Now, with this newest injury, the concern is about whether his body will stop betraying him long enough to let him continue to play professional basketball at all- never mind whether he will be able to do it at a high level again.

This is just the absolute worst. There is no positive spin on this. The Bulls blew a 20 point lead and Derrick Rose, for the second time in under 2 years, could not walk off the hardwood without assistance. Ugh. Why???

Friday Night Films: Kevin Love to Corey Brewer is a Beautiful Thing

When I was on the Bulls vs Blazers podcast a few days ago, I recommended the Mavericks-Timberwolves matchup as my game of the week to watch. Both teams are high powered offenses that offer little in the way of defensive personnel. I expected a high scoring game, with plenty of well-spaced offensive sets and the game certainly did not disappoint, as the Wolves bested the Mavs 116 to 108. What I did not predict, but greatly enjoyed watching, was Kevin Love finding Corey Brewer at seemingly every opportunity.

Love has always been a tremendous passer, especially when it comes to throwing outlet passes off the defensive rebounds he is so adept at grabbing. At the time Love was drafted, he drew glowing comparisons to Wes Unseld for his ability to toss chest passes the full length of the court off of his rebounds. With the return of Corey Brewer to Minnesota, the Wolves appear to have found Love a perfect target for those brilliant outlet passes. Against the Mavericks, in the first half of the game, Brewer received 4 outlet passes from Love resulting in 3 made baskets and a trip to the foul line.

When you watch the outlets, you can see in each one that as Love is going up for the rebound, Brewer is already leaking out to beat the Mavericks defense down the floor.

In the clip above, the first of Love’s four outlets to Brewer, Brewer contests Shawn Marion’s corner three attempt with a somewhat lackluster closeout, but then he immediately begins sprinting down the floor, anticipating the Love rebound and bullet pass, which comes and hits him right in stride, allowing him to get the easy, uncontested finish.

On the second outlet, above, we see a similar situation, though instead of being the man closing out, Brewer watches as the action moves away from him and towards the painted area. He sees a heavily contested shot go up in the paint and knows Love is there. Relying on Love’s tremendous defensive rebounding ability, Brewer makes the educated guess that Love will end up with the ball and hit him in stride again for another easy two points, which is exactly what happens.

In this clip, Love gets an uncontested defensive board, as all of Dallas’s personnel are at the foul line or further away from the basket. Dallas has three men back in transition defense, as Love throws the outlet ahead to Brewer. Despite this, Brewer is able to get the ball in full stride and get a head of steam going towards the Mavs. The Mavs are put on their heels and unable to react in time, leading to Jose Calderon fouling Brewer at the rim.

Similar to the previous clip, on this play Love gets the ball to Brewer leaking out in transition with the Mavs having guys back in transition defense (Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis), but it simply doesn’t matter. Brewer is moving too quickly and Love’s pass is too on the money for the defense to have time to properly react and stop Brewer from getting to the rim. The result is a dunk for Brewer at the 1st half buzzer.

Love was also able to find Brewer for an additional couple of baskets in the first half, one of which came off a great pass and smart cut out of the Horns set Rick Adelman is so fond of running.

Love catches the pass on the left elbow and then Rubio and Pekovic both set down screens on the right side of the court for Brewer. Jose Calderon, who gets switched onto Brewer, anticipates the cut and jumps the passing lane, only to see Brewer smartly bend his cut the other way towards the basket, allowing Love to fit in a nifty bounce pass to give Brewer the easy two points.

Finally, Brewer was even able to get a wide open jump shot from Love’s passing and the defensive attention the big man draws. Here the Wolves run a number of cross screens, none of which is set very solidly, but Love is nonetheless able to establish deep position in the paint on Shawn Marion. Love’s positioning near the rim draws Jae Crowder’s attention away from Brewer as Love receives the pass from J.J. Barea, and as a result, Love hits Brewer with a quick pass in the corner for a wide open look, which he knocks down.

If these early returns are any indication, Flip Saunders and the rest of the Timberwolves front office should be applauded for the decision to reunite Corey Brewer with Kevin Love.

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The Chicago Bulls’ New Offense: Reasons for Optimism Despite a Rough Start

This offseason it came out that the Chicago Bulls were installing a new offensive system, which was to be based off of “read and react” principles. The goal is, according to Coach Tom Thibodeau:

If [the opponent’s defense] get[s] set we want to move them side to side. But we want the ball in to the paint. When you have a player like Derrick [Rose] who can force the defense to collapse, now you’re going to get some high scoring or very efficient shooting out of that. Everyone has the responsibility to hit the open man, keep the ball moving.

Via: Nick Friedell, ESPNChicago.com

Getting the ball into the paint for shots close to the basket remains the most efficient way to score in the NBA, with the exception of getting to the foul line, so it’s no surprise that Thibodeau wants to emphasize getting those shots for his team.

The Bulls so far have done fantastically well at getting shots in the paint. They are second in the league, behind only the Houston Rockets, in percentage of shots taken within 5 feet of the basket, with 111 of their 250 field goal attempts coming in close. The Bulls are converting those shots at an above average rate, too, coming in 8th in the league in FG% on shots in that range, at 62.2%. As a result, the Bulls are third in the league in Points in the Paint per pace adjusted 36 minutes at 38.0, behind only the Sixers and the Pistons. All of this seems great, so why are the Bulls 24th in offensive efficiency at an abysmal 95.6 points per 100 possessions?

Turnovers

The Bulls are tied for 6th highest in the league in Team Turnover Percentage (TmTOV%) at 19.1%. A lot of that comes back to Derrick Rose playing out of control and forcing things, a topic which was well covered by Ricky O’Donnell over at BlogaBull. Rose has 17 turnovers in just 3 games for an average of nearly 6 a game. That’s obviously too many, but the Bulls have been averaging roughly 13 turnovers per game from non-Rose players, too. That’s a tremendously high number. So what’s driving all these turnovers? I went back and watched every turnover the Bulls committed over the first 3 games and what stood out was just how many of the Bulls turnovers were a product of lazy passes or miscommunications between a passing Bull and the teammate to whom his pass was directed. There were so many times when guys attempted to throw an entry pass just to initiate the Bulls base offensive set and instead just threw the ball away. It seemed like a total lack of focus, for three games running, on valuing possession of the ball. I mean just watch this montage I made of bad Bulls entry passes from the first three games:

Chicago is clearly making getting the ball into the paint a point of emphasis and trying to get it in to Carlos Boozer for paint catches. The problem has been that they seem to be struggling with the touch on those entry passes, as you can see from all of these needless turnovers. There have been a lot of other turnovers that derive from a lack of focus, like this turnover from Kirk Hinrich as he bounces a lazy pass to Mike Dunleavy Jr., which Carmelo Anthony easily sniffs out and steals:

Or this one against the Knicks, which was a team wide failure, starting with Derrick Rose’s not initiating the offense until 14 seconds remained on the shot clock, and then, the rest of the team seeming quite confused about what they were each supposed to do, resulting in a Jimmy Butler long 2 point jumper which was blocked by Tyson Chandler, forcing Jimmy to scramble to get the ball and then chuck up an air ball at the buzzer.

These kinds of mental errors and miscommunications are somewhat surprising from a Tom Thibodeau coached team, but when you consider: (1) they’ve installed a new offensive system, (2) their core guys all missed time during the preseason to deal with injuries, and (3) their starting unit had never played a minute together as a whole prior to opening night against the Heat, the miscues become much more understandable. I’d expect Tom Thibodeau will hammer out the kinks in short order, especially given that he’s had a lot of time between the Sixer game and tonight’s tilt with the Pacers to get in practice time.

Despite all the bad passes and dumb turnovers, though, the Bulls have still been getting the ball inside well and converting well on the shots they have gotten inside. So what else, besides the turnovers and resulting empty possessions, is causing the Bulls to be so bad on offense? Well, there’s this:

Jumpshots

The Bulls are shooting an absolutely abysmal 24.8% on all jumpshot attempts and an even worse 23.2% as a team from behind the three point arc. As a result of this terrible shooting from anywhere outside the immediate basket area (5 feet and in), the Bulls are 25th in the league in effective field goal percentage, which is just astonishing given how high a percentage of their overall shot attempts have been near the basket and the fact that they are converting those high percentage looks at a top 10 rate. This kind of jump shooting futility is certainly very unlikely to sustain. The Bulls might not have a lot of great shooters, but they do have guys who are better shooters than this awfulness. For reference, the Bulls, as a team, shot 31.5% on all jumpshots last year and 34.3% on three point shots, and all of that was without Derrick Rose creating open shots by drawing the defense’s attention. Going forward, we should expect the Bulls to shoot better on jump shots than their current terrible mark, which, if they continue their effectiveness at getting paint shots and converting them at a high level, should buoy their effective field goal percentage and their overall offensive efficiency to much more respectable levels. The turnovers and bad shooting still don’t tell the whole picture though. There’s one more piece of the puzzle that has held the Bulls back.

No Whistles

As I alluded to above, there is no more efficient way to score in the NBA than to get to the foul line. For a team that’s been getting a lot of shots in the paint, the Bulls have an absurdly low free throw attempt rate (free throws attempted per shot attempt), clocking in at 26th in the league. Derrick Rose, in particular, seems to have reverted back to his rookie days of getting loads of contact, but getting no calls. A team getting the ball inside at such a prolific rate and still getting so few FTAs per shot attempt seems like a circumstance that is simply very unlikely to continue. The Bulls were also unlucky in that they played their first three games against teams that were all pretty good at avoiding fouls last year. Miami ranked 22nd in fouls called against, New York was 15th, and Philadelphia was 25th. As a group, these three clubs seem to have done a great job at either not fouling or not being called for fouls, depending on your level of cynicism about NBA refereeing. Either way, the larger point is that the Bulls played a tough stretch in terms of getting calls on the offensive end, so like the other numbers, expect this one to improve going forward.

The Bulls have been below average to bad in these key areas of scoring efficiently as a team. They’ve still rebounded the ball well, which helped prevent them from being the worst offense in the league thus far. They’ve gotten good shots, for the most part. Looking at things from a process based perspective, rather than a results based one, there’s much to be excited about. The Bulls will shoot better. As they get more familiar with their new offense and their responsibilities within it, they will almost certainly clean up the unfocussed, lazy passes and miscommunication issues which have caused the turnovers which have been a big part of their early season struggles. Finally, they will probably (hopefully?) start getting more of the benefit of the doubt from the referees, especially if they continue living in the painted area.

Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com/Stats.

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3 Quick Observations from the Chicago-Indiana Preseason Game a/k/a “The Return”

  • Derrick Rose is BACK. He looks just as fast as ever and if he’s to be believed, his leaping ability has risen to new heights. His shooting touch hasn’t quite returned yet, as he went 0 for 7 outside of the area 5 feet from the basket, but he was 5 of 6 inside and he was just blowing by everyone on the floor. As a Bulls fan, I’m very, very excited about this. I figured he would be the same old Derrick after taking his time with his recovery, but it was nice to see that optimism rewarded in a big way.
  • Taj Gibson looks like an absolute monster. Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com reported that Gibson had gained 15 pounds of muscle to bulk up to 240 pounds and Gibson looked every bit of that. On top of that, Taj looked more confident in his post moves, as he made his decisions more quickly, without hesitation, to great effect. His jumper was also WET. He seemingly couldn’t miss on the midrange jumpers that he’s traditionally been merely average on. Now, it’s obviously one game in the preseason, so it’s both a small sample and a meaningless game, but if this Taj is the one the Bulls get over 82 games and the playoffs- watch out. Oh, Taj also did this (spoiler: it was awesome):
  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TGp2K_8veU
  • Luol Deng is officially on #contractyear watch. Deng took 16 shots in just 25 minutes of floor time to go with an additional 8 free throw attempts. Not only did he get a lot of shots up, but he also looked Derrick Rose off on a potential alley oop lob that would have blown the roof off the arena, despite it being a home game for Indiana. I really, really hope this isn’t a sign of selfish things to come for Lu. If it is, I’ll be the first one aboard the trade Deng train- especially since I think there’s just no way the Bulls re-sign him this offseason.

Addressing a problem with the xWARP projections

In calculating the xWARP projections I’ve been doing, I noticed a worrying problem. The total number of wins projected for each team appeared to be roughly 7% too high. There are only 1230 games, and thus, 1230 wins available for the 30 teams in the NBA to win. In doing my xWARP projections, I had just been posting the win totals as I did each team.

Last night, I finally got around to running the numbers on all of the remaining teams I’d yet to post and summed up team wins for the whole league. Unfortunately, total team wins summed to roughly 1318 wins, which is obviously way too many. There are a number of ways to deal with this problem. The lazy, easy way would be to simply multiply the win totals of each team by 1230/1318 or roughly .933. The top teams then have 55 projected wins and the bottom dwellers would be in the mid to high 20s in wins. This solves the problem, but it doesn’t seem that consistent with reality, so I’ve decided to go another way.

I’ve hinted at wanting to do this before, but my current plan is to go through each and every game on the schedule and utilizing the projected MOV for each team (in the spreadsheets it’s the total Contribution / Game) plus Evan Zamir’s ridge regression work on homecourt advantage, I plan to figure out the win probabilities of each of the 1230 regular season games and then use those probabilities to determine total team win totals. I will then post the updated results. I will be updating the posts that already exist to reflect changes in team win totals after this is all done, and I will also do a master post with the full league projections.

I’m bummed out that the math didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped, but I’m excited to go through the schedule in such detail. The other good thing is that doing things this way acts as a built in strength of schedule adjustment for teams with more or less difficult schedules. Thanks for reading and for your patience while I work out the kinks of all this.

Image from gammaman via Flickr.

It’s Not About Money, It’s About Sending a Message: Mikhail Prokhorov’s Money Torching Quest for an NBA Championship

Mikhail Prokhorov has clearly shown that he doesn’t care one iota about spending money as an NBA owner. In the time since he purchased the Nets franchise, he has traded for the albatross contracts of Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson, then earlier this summer he added Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry for basically a bunch of draft picks and useless players. Yesterday came word that the Nets have convinced stat-stuffing swingman and defensive savant Andrei Kirilenko to sign for merely $3.1 million a year, using the luxury taxpayer’s mini midlevel exception, after he earlier opted out of a $10 million final year with the Minnesota Timberwolves. As a result of the signing, the Nets’ owner will be paying over $186 million for the Nets roster for JUST THIS YEAR. (h/t: Devin @ TheBrooklynGame for the figures.)

As noted above, the Nets have been no stranger to spending since Prokhorov took over, but this is something else entirely. With this summer’s moves, the Proker is showing the rest of the league that money simply does not matter to him at all. He’s become the NBA’s rogue, chaotic force, hell bent on sending a message that he will build a winner, no matter the cost.

The Nets now have a starting five featuring 2 future Hall of Famers and rounded out with All Stars at every other position. Their bench now looks similarly stacked. There’s backcourt scoring and floor stretching in Jason Terry. Kirilenko’s great defense and all around solid play everywhere else. Reggie Evans’s ability to hit the glass. Andray Blatche’s post scoring and occasionally solid defense. Plus, capable point guard play holding it all together from Shaun Livingston. The whole bench has roles that fit together reasonably well with solid contributors.

The Nets have built a deep roster that should allow them to rest the old dudes from Boston and keep them fresh for what should be a deep playoff run. If Jason Kidd proves up to the task of managing the egos and crafting an offense that emphasizes ball movement, as he’s promised, the Nets could be incredibly dangerous. It’s all because Mikhail Prokhorov is determined to show the rest of the NBA that this league deserves a better class of owner and he’s gonna give it to them.