Tuesday, November 20, 2007

What's Wrong with the Bulls?

Where to begin? After being on hand to watch the Bulls get annihilated by Toronto a week and a half ago (the final score was 101-71, but I assure you, it wasn't that close), I was convinced I had never seen a poorer "showing" of professional basketball. Since then, the Bulls have lost in a competitive game at Phoenix, beaten the Clippers, and gotten blown out in the second half by the Lakers. At least they are looking better, but far from the team we saw make strides last season, and they are hardly performing like a team many pundits chose as the "hot pick" to make the Finals this season. Here are some of my observations on why the team is performing so poorly:

1. Kirk Hinrich. I'm a big fan of Captain Kirk, but he has been downright terrible on both ends of the court. On offense, he simply cannot hit a shot, shooting a hideous 32.7% from the field and averaging only 10.1 points per game, down from 16.6 last season. His decision-making has also been poor, and he is averaging over 3 turnovers for the first time in his career. On defense, he seems tired and sometimes disinterested. His need to play out of position and guard larger shooting guards is hurting him, and the team, more than it ever has in the past. Perhaps he was wishing the Bulls would make a move for Kobe so he could return to defending point guards.

2. Ben Wallace. He might be hurt, though as usual, he's not saying. But I think the bigger problems are 1) at age 33, his game and athleticism are declining, and 2) he's not trying that hard. For a guy who lacks any discernible "skills" and whose game has been built around effort and athleticism, this does not bode well. He simply has to get healthy and play with the heart that made him a perennial All-Star and won him a $60 million contract. He is currently averaging a paltry 4.4 points and 6.7 rebounds, well below his career numbers.

3. Ben Gordon. He has been chucking shots without a conscience this season. Part of this is because the Bulls' offense is often so stagnant that they have few other options, but Gordon also doesn't seem to be discerning between "good shots" and "bad shots" anymore. Perhaps he's angry about his inclusion in Kobe trade rumors or the Bulls' unwillingness to meet his contract demands, or perhaps he's trying to score more to justify a bigger contract in the offseason, but he needs to tone it down and play within the team's game. I would also like to see him take it to the hoop more, as he is the Bulls' only established penetrator. On D, his size forces Hinrich to play out of position and hurts the Bulls at both guard spots.

4. Luol Deng. If this is reading like a laundry list of the Bulls' supposed top players, it's because it has been a team effort to perform this poorly. Deng is currently out of action, but when he was playing, it seemed like he disappeared for long stretches, especially in crunch time. For a player who, last season and during the preseason, showed signs of becoming a superstar, and whom the Bulls refused to trade for the game's best player, Deng needs to assert himself in the offense and assume the role of "star" that his talent permits. With his work ethic, I expect him to pick it up as soon as he gets healthy.

5. Effort. This team just does not seem to be playing that hard (with the exceptions of Andres Nocioni, who is always a sparkplug and managed to anger yet another adversary, Ruben Patterson, the other night, and Tyrus Thomas, who looks like he just might develop to reach his potential).

6. The offense. This is the biggest problem. Without an effective low-post scorer and lacking a great penetrator, the Bulls' offense is built around jump shooting. Unfortunately, when a team has a very one-dimensional offense, defenses can focus on taking away this dimension, and it seems this is exactly what is happening. Defenders are pressuring the Bulls on the outside, preventing shooters such as Hinrich, Gordon, Deng and Nocioni from getting open looks (when was the last time you saw Deng get an open 15-footer this year? Last year, he got and hit those with regularity), and the Bulls, unable to toss the ball in down low or attack the basket, are unable to make defenders pay. This causes a stagnant offense, forcing turnovers and bad shots. Also, teams that live and die by the jumper are in serious trouble when shots are not falling, as is the case now. Indeed, all of the Bulls are shooting poorly, though this is largely caused by the tighter perimeter defense the shooters are seeing.

7. The players. Despite being a Bulls fan and the Bulls being the hot pick to make the Finals, I just couldn't see it, and I certainly don't now. Even in the East, they are still a player short. They lack a star or go-to player. Gordon and Deng are not those guys, though Deng could develop into him. At this point, the team just does not seem quite good enough. And in the playoffs, you cannot advance too far on jump shooting, because shots will go cold at some point. You need another way to score.

So what is the solution? Well, for one, the players the Bulls currently have need to play harder, and smarter. This is the same team that won 49 games last year, and with the improved play of Tyrus Thomas, should be capable of winning 50 this year. But if the Bulls really want to compete, they need to make a trade for a player that adds another dimension to the offense. Kobe, of course, would be great, but things seem to be alright in LA right now, and he doesn't seem to be going anywhere, especially with his no-trade clause preventing him from being moved to a bad team. However, Pau Gasol is struggling, and unhappy, in the new up-tempo Memphis offense. He is a consistent low-post scorer and a very good passer out of the block; he would command double-teams and free up shooters. Perhaps now would be a good chance for the Bulls to put together an offer and get him on the cheap, or wait until December 15, at which point the Bulls could include Nocioni (whom the Grizzlies coveted in free agency this offseason) in an offer. Either way, until the Bulls make a move, this team seems limited by its one-dimensional offense.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post. This blog has been pleading for a Bulls-Gasol pairing for forever, it seems like. Too bad you guys don't work in the front office in Chicago and Memphis.