Category Archives: Bulls

Dwyane Wade to the Bulls: Not as Flash-y as it Sounds

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The signing of Dwyane “Flash” Wade makes no sense for the Chicago Bulls.

Younger and more athletic, or older and more arthritic? Merely a week and a half ago, Gar Forman had us all believing that the Bulls were heading down the path of the former. But, as Forman (and John Paxson) has proven time and again throughout his preposterous seven-year reign as General Manager of this once proud franchise, what he says and what he does are two completely different things. The signing of Dwyane Wade last night just adds more fuel to the white-hot fire that Forman’s adversaries (and there are A LOT of them)  lit for him many years ago.

To be perfectly blunt, the signing of Wade (and Rondo, for that matter) is an absolute joke. It’s a classic example of two guys (Forman and Paxson) trying to save their jobs by making a splash for a former superstar in order to justify striking out with him six years ago and praying that the “talent” works itself out. It’s also a classic example of a geriatric owner, yet again, refusing to hit rock bottom and not allowing his organization to enter into a much needed rebuild. He’s done it with the White Sox for the past five years, and he’s doing it with the Bulls now. At 80 years old, Jerry Reinsdorf has zero interest in undertaking a franchise overhaul, holding on to any sliver of hope that he can take one more ring with him to his grave. It’s the sad reality of a franchise being owned by a stubborn old man who is blinded by his enormous bank account and keeping fans in his seats, and a franchise being run by two incompetents who are lagging 10+ years behind the brilliant analytical minds that have taken over the sports landscape. Recognizing and understanding the loads and loads of data that’s out there, much of which is open to the public, and demonstrating any sort of soft skills when it comes to actually conversing with players and agents, can go a long way towards building a legitimate, sensible roster and keeping it in tact for the foreseeable future.

From a pure basketball standpoint, we are now entering a period where we can already crown an undoubted champion 11 months before the NBA season even begins, and signing Dwyane Wade makes little to no sense whatsoever for a non-contender like the Bulls. Why? It’s easy.

In a world where premier three-point shooting is as valuable as having stock in Apple just four years ago, the Bulls have found a way to piece together a starting back court containing three of the weakest three point shooters in the game. While Wade, Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler combined for a mere 133 made threes last year, 30 other players in the NBA were busy making at least that many threes on their own. Not only that, but these are also three very ball-dominant guards, each of whom actually needs the ball in his hands to be effective offensively. Fred Hoiberg was hired to install his pace-and-space system, which relies heavily on versatility, athleticism and shooting. With three non-shooting, ball-dominant guards running the offense (one of which is a 34-year-old who has missed over 20% of games the past five seasons due to various knee ailments, the other of which is literally afraid to shoot or get fouled because he sucks so much), there will be no pace, and there will certainly be no space.

Last season, Wade’s advanced statistics were either career lows or his worst marks since his rookie season. He shot a career worst 46.8% on twos, and the lack of explosion he once had has strapped him from getting to the basket on a frequent basis. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, during Wade’s peak 2008-09 season, 17.8 percent of his shots came from within the 3 to 16 foot range. By last season, that figure had grown to 40.9 percent, and Wade sunk just 37.8 percent of those attempts. He still ranked fifth in the league in usage percentage last season but managed a measly .517 true shooting percentage, which ranked 11th among the 12 players with usage rates of 30 percent or greater, ahead of only Kobe Bryant (.469).

From a defensive standpoint, Wade is nowhere near the lockdown defender he once was. He posted the lowest steal rate of his career last season and, discounting his rookie season, he has posted his three lowest block rates over the past three seasons. What was once a staple of Wade’s game on the defensive end has rapidly gone from fully expected on a nightly basis to “where did that come from” due to age and mileage on his legs. ESPN’s real plus-minus* even rated Wade in the bottom-third of shooting guards defensively and a below average player overall – worse than guys like Kyle Korver and Monta Ellis.

If you want to take the half-glass full route, go for it – everyone is entitled to their own opinion. There’s no question that Dwyane Wade is one of the four or five greatest shooting guards of all time. He’s a three-time NBA champion, one-time NBA Finals MVP, ten-time All-NBA player, four-time NBA All Defense, 12-time NBA All-Star and three-time NBA scoring champion, and the leadership he’ll bring to the locker room could be invaluable – especially when an overwhelmingly negative presence like Rondo is roaming around. There will be some incredible moments, to be sure, that will excite fans in spurts. But for every incredible moment, there will be many head-scratching moments, too – ones where Wade has to miss time because his knees are aching, something us Bulls fans should not be naive in foreseeing. The Hall of Fame-caliber Dwyane Wade is now in the rear-view mirror, and there’s no sugarcoating what little value Pat Riley saw left in him by letting the greatest and most accomplished athlete in Miami sports history walk out without regret.

 

Trading Derrick Rose was ultimately a good decision for the Bulls, but signing Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade was not. It’s not that the Bulls can’t be better than last season’s 42-40 record – in fact, they probably will. They’ll make the playoffs in a crappy Eastern Conference, bow out early, and earn themselves another bad draft pick. But there’s nothing worse for any sports franchise than toiling in mediocrity, and that’s where the Bulls have found themselves, to no fault but their own. Sure, with the salary cap projected to go up another $8M or so next summer, the Bulls will get a chance to recruit one max free agent , but so will a lot of other teams. Given the track record our front office has when it comes to signing big time free agents, and the bad rap it has received throughout the NBA over the years, whose to say Chicago will be everyone’s top choice?

Gar Forman had a vision that “younger and more athletic” was a necessity for re-tooling the most disappointing team in the NBA last season. Turns out that vision was just another one of his blurry, pixelated pictures that he painted for the rest of the fan base in order to save face. Wade coming back home sounds cool in theory, but envisioning him meshing with the current pieces in place leaves me shaking my head over what lies ahead.

*ESPN’s real plus-minus is a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions. RPM takes into account teammates, opponents and additional factors.

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Impact of the Luol Deng Trade

Luol Deng will be sorely missed in Chicago, but the decision to trade him was the right one.

Crazy how fast time flies. Nine and a half years ago, Bulls nation was in the midst of embracing a new era of basketball. Elton Brand was traded three years earlier, Jason Williams had literally driven himself out of professional basketball for the rest of his life two years earlier, and the Bulls had to settle for Kirk Hinrich instead of Dwyane Wade (not that we all don’t love Kirk) the previous year. A core of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry looked somewhat promising, but there was one piece missing. That piece ended up being Luol Deng, whom the Phoenix Suns selected with the 7th overall pick in the 2004 draft and immediately traded to the Chicago Bulls for their 2005 first-round pick and Jackson Vroman’s left nut. Deng helped take that Bulls team from 23 wins in 2003-04 to 47 wins in 2004-05 and their first playoff appearance in seven years despite suffering a season-ending wrist injury late in the season.

Fast forward nearly 10 years to now. The Bulls front office had finally decided to swallow their pride and part ways with Deng and his massive expiring contract, but not before he earned himself nods to the NBA All-Rookie first team (2005), the NBA All-Defensive Second Team (2012), a NBA Sportsmanship Award (2007) and two trips to the NBA All-Star game (2012-13). Only once did the Bulls fail to make the playoffs in Deng’s nine seasons (2007-08). He poured his blood, sweat and tears into this organization and will forever go down as one of the most hard-working and charitable players of his generation; he has become one of the most beloved players to ever throw on a Bulls uniform, and it’s downright sad to see him go. However, the trade with Cleveland includes three future draft picks, along with Andrew Bynum’s corpse, and actually benefits the Bulls and their long-term future. How so, you ask? Let’s break it all down.

Standings Projections

First things first, it’s officially time for everyone to embrace the art of tanking. The worst thing you can possibly experience in the NBA is consistent mediocrity – there is no hope for short-term success, unless losing in the first round of the playoffs year in and year out is something that tickles your fancy, and there is very minimal hope for long-term success via the draft unless you get extremely lucky by having a future superstar fall into your lap (cut to the seven or eight Atlanta Hawks fans nodding viciously, as they’ve been in NBA limbo for years). Bulls fans should be thankful that a notoriously conservative front office decided do what absolutely had to be done in trading Deng as opposed to letting him walk for nothing next July. That being said, how exactly will trading Deng impact the Bulls in the NBA standings, and what kind of draft position can fans expect in June?

For those of you unfamiliar with the Pythagorean Theorem in sports, it is basically a simple measure to predict win-loss percentages based on the number of points a team scores and gives up in a given season (if you ever happen to find yourself on basketball-reference.com, baseball-reference.com or football-reference.com, you can find a team’s Expected W-L based on this equation near the top of a team’s page). Based on this measure, the Bulls, who score an average of 91.34 points per game (dead last in the league) and give up an average of 92.19 points per game (second-best in the league), were projected to win about 38 games this season WITH Luol Deng, which would have been good for a 5 seed. That’s how pathetic the Eastern conference is in a nutshell.

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With Deng now gone, the most logical way to project their record is to assess John Hollinger’s Estimated Wins Added metric which, as you could have guessed, estimates the number of wins a player adds to a team’s season total above what a ‘replacement player’  would produce. Deng ranks 8th amongst small forwards in this category with an EWA of 3.0. In other words, Deng has added three wins to the Bulls’ record by himself this season in only 23 games played. He has already missed 9 games this season, so for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume Deng were to miss another 10 games of the 50 remaining. That gives him a projected EWA of 5.2 for the rest of the season. With Tony Snell set to act as the ‘replacement player’ for Deng, his woeful -0.7 EWA must all be factored in. Assuming Snell appears in the next 5o games and continues to experience that rookie learning curve, his projected EWA sits at -1.30. Add the two together and round up to the nearest whole number (6.5 rounds to 7) and you see that trading Deng will likely make the Bulls seven games worse than their projected 38-44 record, plummeting to a 31-51 record.  With Cleveland adding Deng and replacing one or two of the horrendous Earl Clark/Alonzo Gee/Anthony Bennett threesome, they’re projections go from 25 wins to at least 32 or 33 wins.

This, effectively, will move the Bulls from a top five team in the East to a bottom five team (I’m giving Brooklyn the benefit of the doubt and expect them to improve after the All-Star break) and directly into the 2014 draft lottery. I’m projecting the Bulls to end up as one of the eight worst teams in the NBA (Milwaukee, Utah, Philadelphia, L.A. Lakers, Orlando, New York, Sacramento and Chicago) and, seeing as how this is going to be hands down the best and deepest NBA draft since 2003, every fan in Chicago should be thrilled. With that said, it shouldn’t surprise anyone by any means whatsoever if the Bulls somehow made the playoffs with this depleted roster because they simply have too much pride. For the sake of this franchise’s future, I truly hope that won’t be the case.

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Short-Term Effects

Tony Snell will be the biggest beneficiary of Luol Deng’s permanent absence in the short-term. The Bulls now have 50 games to see what exactly they have in Snell and whether or not they want him as a part of their future plans. Snell has the potential to become a very solid 3-and-D (3-point shooting/defensive specialist – think of Trevor Ariza) player in this league, but there’s no denying he’s struggled mightily in limited playing time this season. Gar Forman and John Paxson have been high on Snell ever since they drafted him, so my guess is that they’ll be more than tolerant of any poor performances going forward and allow him plenty of time to grow in Coach Thibodeau’s system. After all, he’s only a rookie. Patience is a virtue.

Another story line to follow closely is Mike Dunleavy’s trade stock. With the Bulls in full tank mode, I’d expect them to deal Dunleavy down the line given his cheap contract (2 years, $6 million) and the fact that he has another year left on his contract after this one. There are plenty of playoff-caliber teams currently in need of three point shooting, and bringing in a 12-year veteran who can do just that, as well as bring some positive leadership to a playoff locker room, will never hurt. Look for teams like Charlotte, Denver, Houston, Memphis and Minnesota to be in the market.

Long-Term Effects

A quick breakdown of the package the Bulls received from Cleveland:

  • Andrew Bynum, who will be waived by the Bulls by Tuesday’s 4 PM CT deadline to clear his $12.3 million salary off the books. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, “this will enable the Bulls to get below the luxury tax threshold, which, combined with the savings from not having to pay Deng the balance of his $14.3 million salary, will save the team more than $20 million.”
  • A future first-round draft pick owed to the Cavaliers by the Sacramento Kings. The pick is top-12 protected in 2014 and top-10 protected from 2015-17, meaning the Bulls will receive the pick if the Kings fall outside the top 12 in this year’s draft or outside the top 10 in one of the next three drafts. Otherwise, it becomes a second round pick in 2018.
  • Second-round draft picks in 2015 and 2016 owed to the Cavaliers by the Portland Trail Blazers.
  • The Bulls will be able to swap draft picks with the Cavs in 2015 IF the Cavs make the playoffs next season.

The fact that the Bulls got a potential first round pick in return for Deng’s expiring contract is a near miracle. This deal was about saving money and getting under the luxury tax which, in turn, will set us up for a chance to go after some highly sought after free agents to join the Rose/Butler/Gibson/Noah core. Throwing in a legitimate draft pick on top of it? That’s huge, people. Huge.

The only way that could be possible, though, is to amnesty Carlos Boozer, which the Bulls will almost certainly do this upcoming summer. In doing so, they will pay Boozer $17 million to leave Chicago in order to free up salary cap space for free agent spending. The key, at that point, will be to sign former Euroleague MVP, Nikola Mirotic, and bring him to Chicago as soon as possible. There’s no telling who the Bulls will go after in free agency after that, but at least they’ll have some more flexibility to work with.

As for the draft, let’s not forget that Charlotte also owes us their first round pick this year if it falls outside the top-10. As of now, they’re on pace to make the playoffs, which will likely give the Bulls the 15th or 16th pick on top of whatever pick they receive. If they don’t make the playoffs, there’s still a decent chance we’d get their pick – it would just have to fall between 11-14 – giving the Bulls potentially two lottery picks in an incredible draft class (we must assume, for now, that Sacramento will keep their pick this year considering they’re awful yet again). There are a plethora of fantastic scorers likely to enter the NBA draft this summer that can easily land outside the top-10, namely Gary Harris (Sophomore – Michigan State), James Young (Freshman – Kentucky), Rodney Hood (Sophomore – Duke), Jerami Grant (Sophomore – Syracuse), Doug McDermott (Senior – Creighton)… the list can go on and on, but these are just some of the names to follow closely and keep in mind come this June. The cream of the crop should (I would hope) all be household names at this point to even the most casual of basketball fans (Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Joel Embiid), but until the Bulls prove they’re as bad as they’re supposed to be and finally find themselves outside of the dreadful Eastern conference playoff picture looking in, it would be wise for all of us to keep our expectations tempered.

The 2013-14 season is a lost cause for the Chicago Bulls, but trading Luol Deng now was as good a move as they could have made and a monstrous step in the right direction. There are a couple more shrewd moves to be made, but for the first time in a while, Bulls fans should feel a sense of trust towards the front office. For a team like this, the quickest way to get to a championship is to bottom out and gather as many assets for the future as physically possible, not limp into the postseason as a 7- or 8-seed, get swept by the Heat or Pacers in the first round and then let Luol Deng go for absolutely nothing. Some people will disagree with the move, but it’ll be their emotions getting the best of them. Trust me – I nearly shed a tear when I heard that Luol was gone and, in all honesty, it may take me a little while to get over it. Seeing him in a gross Cleveland jersey will be weird, and it will be upsetting, but it was simply time to move on.

We, as fans, have two options. We can take the glass half-empty approach – mope about our favorite player being traded and reserve false hope that a) Rose would come back for the playoffs and lead us on a run (which he wouldn’t have done), and b) Deng would sign an extension (which he actually rejected before the trade) or re-sign in the offseason (which is highly unlikely since the Bulls would only offer him a shorter-term deal worth about 65-75% of what he’s actually going to demand). Or, we can take the glass half-full approach – cherish the great joy that watching Luol Deng brought us throughout his phenomenal Chicago career, appreciate his hard work and incredible heart, and wish him nothing but the best all while embracing the fact that the long-term future of our franchise looks a hell of a lot more promising now than it did 24 hours ago. I’ll choose the latter and look forward to the most important offseason in Chicago Bulls history. In my mind, it’s the only way to go.

Filling Out the Bulls’ Roster: Options at Backup Center

Should the Bulls try luring Elton Brand back to where it all began?

With the Mike Dunleavy Jr. (full mini mid-level exception) and Nazr Mohammed (veteran’s minimum) signings now official, the Bulls’ roster is nearing full capacity. Tony Snell and Erik Murphy agreed to contracts yesterday, meaning 12 players will make up what should be one of the two or three best rosters, from top to bottom, in the Eastern Conference (Rose, Butler, Deng, Boozer, Noah, Gibson, Dunleavy, Hinrich, Teague, Mohammed, Snell, Murphy), with room for one more. The back court, as expected, will be a bit crowded, so it’s fair to presume that the final roster spot will go to another big man. With all do respect to Mohammed, he’s 35-years-old, slow as molasses and simply can’t be relied upon to solely backup Noah and his lingering plantar fasciitis anymore. He gave some solid minutes here and there last season, but the only thing anyone truly remembers was his legendary shove of Lebron in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semis; the backup center market is horrific, but it’s painfully obvious that the Bulls need another big body in the front court to come off the bench. Who’s available? Who makes sense? Let’s take a look.

Elton Brand

The night the Bulls traded Elton Brand to the Clippers for Tyson Chandler was one of the worst moments in my sports life. Constant pouting and wall-punching for days, minimal sleep and happiness. Twelve years later, the 34-year-old Brand finds himself looking for work after a very successful NBA career. He’s nowhere near even a shell of his old self, but he was still able to give Dallas a solid 21.2 minutes per game last season.

  • Pros: Because of his ability to rebound and block shots, Brand fits into the Bulls system fairly well. He averaged nearly a career high in blocks per 36 minutes (2.1; career high is 2.3), steals per 36 minutes (1.2; career high is 1.3) and rebounds per 36 minutes (10.1; career high is 11.0). Although his ability to score has diminished over the years, Brand was able to convert 54.17% of his shots from the right elbow and 48.28% from the right baseline, highlighting his effectiveness in the pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor. Of course, the Bulls won’t be counting on Brand to score much from anywhere outside the restricted area, where he was able to make 58.6% of shots.
  • Cons: Brand is still a pretty terrible shooter (47.3% last year as a center – not good), and his rising foul rate is a major concern. He committed a career high 4.5 fouls per 36 minutes last season, almost a full foul more than his previous season (3.7). With Joakim Noah continuously battling through injuries and Taj Gibson missing 17 games last season, members of the Bulls front court can ill-afford to get into significant foul trouble.
  • Bottom line: Any team willing to give Brand anything more than the veteran’s minimum ($854,389) is dumb as rocks. Given the Bulls’ salary cap situation and Jerry Reinsdorf’s cheap tendencies, it’s almost impossible to see them signing anyone for more than that. Brand somehow posted a higher Player Efficiency Rating (PER) than Taj Gibson last year and would provide some value from a defensive standpoint. Those reasons, along with Brand’s veteran presence in the locker room, lead me to believe that the Bulls really can’t do much better than that.

Samuel Dalembert

The 32-year-old Dalembert is the best center available left amongst the weak free agent crop. He’s had a very productive career but is coming off a season in which he became the 78th player to make it to Scott Skiles’ unnecessarily large doghouse.

  • Pros: Dalembert is a fantastic defender, even at his age, and can alter shots in ways that many centers around the league cannot. He has career per-36 averages of 2.6 blocks and 11.5 rebounds and converted an incredible 54.2% of his shots last season in Milwaukee. Like the other players on this list, he won’t be counted on to score (although he did put up 35 points in a game against Denver back in February) in Chicago, but his defensive presence in the paint can be very impactful for any team. Additionally, Dalembert had a higher PER last season (18.60) than both Joakim Noah (18.16) AND Roy Hibbert (17.32). That should at least count for something.
  • Cons: Dalembert’s value is a little too high for Reinsdorf and his checkbook. The Bulls are already over the luxury tax line of $71.748 million, so it may not be sensible to go after a backup center who made nearly $7 million last year and is likely looking for a deal around half of that. He also played a majority of last season somewhat out of shape, which is probably the reason why Skiles benched him so often.
  • Bottom line: Most teams interested in Dalembert are presumably targeting him as a mini mid-level exception candidate, which the Bulls already used on Dunleavy. He will also be looking to play more minutes than the Bulls will be able to provide him, so this speculation is more wishful thinking than anything else. It’d be relatively shocking to see Dalembert sign with Chicago for the veteran’s minimum or see Chicago throw any more money at him than that.

Jason Collins

Jason Collins? The 34-year-old veteran who came out of the closet back in April and claims he still has some basketball left in him? Yes. Yes indeed.

  • Pros: I couldn’t give a crap less whether Collins is gay or straight. Anyone who does should go take a look in the mirror and reassess the life he/she is living. All I care about is whether or not he can still play basketball. For a team like the Bulls, who are looking for another guy to spell Noah and provide 5-10 minutes off the bench, some believe Collins can. He defends very well, plays as hard as anyone, has a ton of postseason experience, and he can be signed for the veteran’s minimum. Against a team like the Pacers, whom the Bulls play five times a year, Collins’ physicality and mental toughness would be a great asset.
  • Cons: As sad as it is, some teams are shying away from Collins because of the potentially negative attention his homosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that) will draw from a number of fans around the country. If the Bulls feel that Collins’ defense and leadership trumps all of that, they’ll probably take a look at him. However, he has absolutely no offensive skills anymore and is very one-dimensional. He’d be signed to strictly guard opposing teams’ centers and set hard screens for ball handlers and shooters – nothing more, nothing less.
  • Bottom line: It’s difficult to see the Bulls going after Collins, as he’ll likely draw interest from a number of Western Conference teams looking to beef up their front lines to better defend Dwight Howard. Nevertheless, he’s a solid fit for the defensive system Tom Thibodeau has in place and has proven to hold his own down low, so Bulls fans shouldn’t be totally opposed.

Ronny Turiaf

Another one-dimensional center. The 30-year-old Turiaf can’t score, but he can be relied upon to defend the post.

  • Pros: Defense. Turiaf only played about 11 minutes a game last season as Deandre Jordan’s backup in LA, but he was able to put up per-36 averages of 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He works hard, and he has played on six playoff teams in seven seasons. You know what you’re getting with Turiaf; whether or not that effort remains sufficient for most organizations remains to be seen.
  • Cons: Offense. A large majority of Turiaf’s points come from deep inside the paint – generally layups, tip-ins and dunks – as opposed to anywhere else on the floor. Like Collins, there’s really not much to him offensively. He’ll do some of the dirty work and set some screens, but he will not be counted on to score at all. Period.
  • Bottom line: Given the fact that Turiaf really isn’t any better than Mohammed, it’d be mildly surprising if the Bulls show any interest at all. They’d probably be better served signing another guard for cheap.

Chris Andersen

The Birdman. Why not?

  • Pros: He’s extremely irritating for opponents, every opposing fan despises him, and his hair is kind of awesome.
  • Cons: He’s a total douche, looks like a complete idiot, can’t do a damn thing offensively unless Lebron James is dropping him a dime, and I hate him. That’s why not.
  • Bottom line: I threw him in here just to emphasize how big of a jackass he is. The Heat will re-sign him anyways, which is fine. They can have him.

Other options: Brandan Wright (likely to re-sign with Dallas), Chris Wilcox (eh), Cole Aldrich (eh), Joel Przybilla (bum)

Bulls Land Mike Dunleavy Jr.

Mike Dunleavy Jr. is set to join the Bulls and replace Marco Belinelli as their next sharpshooting wing off the bench.

Just days after the Blackhawks hoisted their second Stanley Cup in four years, thousands of Chicago sports fans everywhere found themselves asking the very same question: “Well, what I do with myself now?” Both Baseball teams are absolutely abysmal, with the White Sox currently 17 games under .500 and trailing the AL Central-leading Tigers by 13 games, and the Cubs acting like, well, the Cubs at 10 games under .500 and 14.5 games behind the NL Central-leading Pittsburgh Pirates. Hockey is over. Bears training camp doesn’t start until July 25th. So what does that leave us with? No, sorry Sky fans, with all due respect to Elena Dell Donne, we are not about to post about Women’s Basketball. What we can do however, is once again follow the real basketball that gets us going: the one and only Chicago Bulls and their free agent carousel.

Yes, that’s right; July is here, so that means another summer of three-way trades and free agent pick-ups to keep up with. While the Bulls are not expected to land any big names this summer, they have still been actively on the market revamping their “Bench Mob,” and trying to land the missing pieces around Derrick Rose and Co. that will help them maintain their contender status in the even more competitive Eastern Conference. That activity has led the Bulls to their first, and likely last, off-season splash, landing 6-9 sharp shooter, Mike Dunleavy Jr.

Dunleavy will become the third Duke Alumni to join the Bulls locker room this upcoming fall. He brings in an impressive college pedigree, including a National Championship, three years under the winningest coach in College Basketball history, and the Number 3 Draft Pick in the 2002 NBA draft. Those that remember Dunleavy in college remember something special. He was your prototypical Coach K product. Smart, clean-cut, played the game the right way and, most importantly, a winner both on and off the court. In the 2001 National Championship game, Dunleavy went off for 21 points, helping Duke secure their 3rd National Championship, and cementing his place among the Duke greats. When he was drafted by the Golden State Warriors following his junior year, expectations were high. To say Dunleavy hasn’t lived up to those expectations would be fair, but to say that he has failed or hasn’t turned into a positive bench contributor could not be further from the truth.

In Dunleavy’s first five years in the league for Golden State, he flirted with a starting line-up role and being the sixth or seventh man. Known for his three-point shooting, Dunleavy proved reliable, shooting at least 35% from downtown in all but one year, 2005-2006. He was eventually traded to the Indiana Pacers, and it was there where Dunleavy finally thrived. It’s funny – athletes often come back a completely different specimen after an off-season, leading fans to wonder who helped them during the summer months, or what prompted this increased style of play. Now I might be a bit biased, but for Mike Dunleavy Jr., I’d like to say I have a strong idea of what led to his most successful season in an NBA uniform.

It was the summer of 2007, and like every year since the turn of the century, I was at my second home, Camp Menominee in Eagle River, WI. I had just turned 18 and there was a buzz in the air that Mike Dunleavy Jr. would be returning to his boyhood camp of 2 years for the weekend. Yes, that’s right, the same Mike Dunleavy Jr. that your Chicago Bulls just signed, attended the same camp as myself in the early 90’s.

Dunleavy Jr. revisiting his youth at Camp Menominee in Eagle River, WI during the summer of 2007.

Although his stint was shorter than most, his effect was permanent and that summer, he came up to be honored at the unveiling of the “The Mike Dunleavy, Jr. Courts.” It was one of the cooler moments I have ever been a part of. To see a professional athlete of his status so touched and humbled by a 200 person over-night camp in northern Wisconsin recognizing his achievements was truly special. I got to spend some time with Mike that weekend and he was everything as advertised. An ultimate class-act, high-caliber individual, and the type of person you would be proud to call your teammate.

There’s a chance it was that moment of recognition for Dunleavy that made him strive to work even harder, to be even better than he was before, and to prove to critics that he could indeed blossom into the pro that analysts thought he would after college. He did just that, and in style,  by starting every single game and setting career numbers in minutes per game, field goal percentage, assists per game, and points per game (19.1) throughout the 2007-2008 season for the Indiana Pacers. He would go on to have a nice four-year career in Indiana in which the pressure was finally off to him to be an All-Star, allowing him to settle in as the sweet-stroking, hard-working forward that he was destined to be.

So Bulls fans, what are we getting in Mike Dunleavy Jr.? Your answer lies within the text. We are not getting an All-Star or a guy that is going to drop 30 a night, but we are getting a fundamentally sound basketball player, who knows his strengths and weakness, and won’t ever try to be anything he’s not. He will come off the bench and provide a needed rest for the starters and hopefully build on his career year from behind the arc in 2012-2013 in which he shot 45% on spot-up 3s, 45% on threes off screens, 48% on transition threes, and 42.8% overall, per Synergy Sports. With Marco Belinelli gone, it is time to stop dwelling on the past and focus on his replacement, an experienced veteran who won’t lead us to the NBA Finals, but will sure as hell help us once we get there.

Analyzing the Chicago Bulls’ Draft Picks

Which rookie is ready to become a part of the greatest culture in professional basketball?

With the 2013 NBA Draft officially in the books, each lottery team can now get ready for, and attempt to win, the Andrew Wiggins Sweepstakes by praying for nothing but another season of shittiness and playoff spectating from the couch. Some teams and their fans, though, are fortunate enough to have a NBA season to look forward to, the Bulls being one of those teams. Four of the Bulls’ last eight draft picks (Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler) have given us all we could’ve asked for and more. One of their picks (James Johnson) ate himself out of Chicago, two were traded on draft night (Sonny Weems and Norris Cole; Nikola Mirotic was acquired on draft night), and one is set to enter his second season as a backup point guard who has yet to scratch the surface of his potential (Marquis Teague). Can the 2013 draft class go down as another one of Gar Forman’s milestones? Let’s assess.

Tony Snell, Small Forward, University of New Mexico; 6’7.25″, 198 lbs.

I don’t completely hate this pick, but I don’t love it either. Tony Snell comes to Chicago with a number of concerning question marks. His work ethic is mediocre at best, and he tends to disappear in games far too often. Many times throughout his college career, he would look disengaged on the court and seemed to lack an attacking mentality by settling for contested jumpers and forcing bad shots. That lack of an attacking mentality makes him a very poor rebounder for his position (averaged 3.4 rebounds per-forty minutes as a junior), so he’ll need to show that he has the ability to play with aggressiveness and focus if he wants to earn any playing time as a rookie.

In addition, Snell struggled mightily, for the most part, against some of the best defenses in the country each season. His inability to create off the dribble limits his upside, as he’s more of an off-the-ball shooter than anything else, having spent most of his time in college being run off screens or spotting up (which he is very effective at, actually). The good news, however, is that he obviously won’t be asked to do much on the offensive end (early on in his career, at least) besides come off the bench as a floor spacer and hit open three-pointers, which he can certainly do, having made 38% of his three point attempts in three seasons at New Mexico.

Despite all the intangible flaws, the Bulls didn’t draft Snell to be a leader or a playmaker. They drafted him to fill a gaping hole behind the arc and for his high potential as a wing defender. A 6’11.5″ wingspan for a man of his size is pretty unbelievable and has helped make him the solid on-the-ball defender that he is and should continue to be. He has very good defensive awareness, and his aforementioned length continuously disrupted opponents in college, allowing them score only 18.8% of the time against him when isolated. Here is DraftExpress’ scouting report on Snell’s defensive capabilities:

Defensively, Snell’s physical tools make him an intriguing piece, as he has the size, length, and lateral quickness to be a versatile defender capable of defending both wing positions. If he makes a commitment to focusing on the defensive end, it would go a long ways towards helping him solidify a role at the NBA level. He’ll need to continue to get stronger and play tougher, but he certainly has the potential to excel on this end of the floor.

While there may have been better options than Snell, this isn’t all that surprising of a pick. He was pegged as a dark horse candidate for the Bulls at 20, and picking him solidifies the fact that the Bulls are making a conscious effort to fill the three-point shooting hole that they so desperately need to fill. Snell’s defensive potential is a major plus for Thibodeau and his system, but if he doesn’t come in to camp ready to work his ass off and display a passion for playing this beautiful game of basketball, then he won’t even sniff the hardwood as a rookie. I trust Thibs and the veterans will get the most out of him, which should fare well for both Snell and the Bulls over time.

Erik Murphy, Power Forward, University of Florida; 6’10”, 240 lbs.

I’ve always been a fan of Murphy’s game. The dude can shoot the freakin’ lights out from three – he’s wetter than an adolescent’s bed sheets during puberty – by knocking down two trays per game and leading the entire SEC in three-point shooting as a senior at 45.3% (also shot 51.6% from the field overall). He’s the epitome of a stretch-four and has drawn numerous comparisons to San Antonio Spur Matt Bonner, another Florida alum. He has an extremely quick release and has proven to be very proficient shooting off the pick-and-pop. Murphy is a fun player to watch, and if you don’t close out on him in a hurry, he can single-handedly change the momentum of games with his hot hand.

As much as I like Murphy, I’m not totally sure how he fits into the Bulls’ system. I don’t anticipate he’ll play much at all, if he even makes the roster, during his rookie season, so the question remains how can he contribute to this team going forward? He’s a one-dimensional player with minimal athleticism, and he’s a liability as both a rebounder and a defender. Do the Bulls envision him playing the five in a small-ball lineup with Taj? Do they even see a future for Murphy in Chicago once Nikola Mirotic comes over from Spain in 2014? Am I completely over-thinking this like I always do? Yes. Yes I am.

Nevertheless, Murphy has a high basketball IQ and rarely ever takes bad shots, so if he does ever end up playing in a Bulls uniform, he’s plenty capable of giving them a couple valuable minutes here and there off the bench when the offense is reeling or the front court needs a spell.

As with most mid-to-late round draft picks, it will likely take a few years before we can truly determine whether this draft was a success or not. Both Snell and Murphy bring positive attributes to the table and can help quench the Bulls’ enormous hunger for three-point shooting, but it’s too difficult to say right now what kind of impact they’ll have as rookies. Don’t expect much early on, as Coach Thibs forces his first-year players to work countless hours and earn his respect before sending them onto the court. But over time, the answer to how Snell and Murphy can legitimately help this team will become more clear.

NBA Draft 2013: Chicago Bulls’ Prospects

David Stern will be on the podium for his final NBA Draft. Absolutely no one is complaining.

Let’s be honest – no one is overly excited for this year’s NBA draft. There just isn’t that one franchise-changing player that basketball talking heads and fans alike are slobbering over. Most people are pegging this draft class as “weak” for that very reason which, to me, is pretty unfair.  There may not be any Derrick Roses or John Walls amongst this crew, but its lack of potential superstars to date is made up for in significant depth and experienced college basketball players.

That depth will be key for a majority of teams possessing picks near the backend of the first round. One of those teams, as you may know, is the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, are currently in a terrible cap situation and are likely to enter next season with yet another new bench mob, making Thursday’s draft that much more important. They lack frontcourt depth and a sharpshooting wing (the Belinelli situation is still up in the air) to aid their three-point shooting and overall scoring woes. Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of players projected to be drafted 20 or after who fit either description AND scream “immediate impact,” especially given how Tom Thibodeau never seems to trust his rookies. But, with much of the bench mob set to enter free agency (Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Rip Hamilton once his contract gets bought out, Daequan Cook and Nazr Mohammed), maybe Gar Forman can strike gold and find another valuable player to join Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler on his list of hidden gems.

Gorgui Dieng – Center, University of Louisville

  • Draft projection: Mid-to-late first round
  • Probability of being available at 20: High
  • NBADraft.net comparison: Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje (not a joke – this is actually his name)

The comparison to Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje certainly won’t get anyone fired up. Why NBADraft.net chooses to waste everyone’s time by comparing a sure first-round pick to a guy who a) has two last names, both of which are the same, and b) averaged 6.3 minutes per game in three NBA seasons a decade ago is beyond me. But that’s besides the point.

Gorgui Dieng is an extremely unpolished offensive player who happens to have incredible defensive instincts and upside.  At 6’11” and 230 pounds, the Louisville product is coming off a season in which he averaged nearly a double-double (9.8 points, 9.4 rebounds) and 2.5 blocks per game, all while anchoring the paint for the best defense in college basketball and helping lead the Cardinals to their first National Championship in 27 years.

His 7’3.5” wing span gives him exceptional length and makes him arguably the best rim protector in this year’s draft, two characteristics that the Bulls prefer their  backup big men to possess and have a true knack for developing (Taj Gibson, Omer Asik). He’s a very capable weak-side shot blocker with great timing and an ability to not bite on shot fakes. Unlike many players in the NBA (Carlos Boozer, echem), the 23-year-old Dieng simply understands how to play defense and owns a very strong work ethic, having added 50 pounds of muscle since arriving in America from Senegal a few years back and willing his Louisville squad to the promise lands despite breaking his wrist early in the season. Outside of open looks around the basket or face up shots, Dieng needs some serious help to improve his game, but given his positive work ethic and high character, one can only help but think that he’s the exact kind of player the Bulls are looking for to back up Joakim Noah in Thibodeau’s defensive-minded system.

Mason Plumlee – Power Forward/Center, Duke University

  • Draft projection: Mid first round
  • Probability of being available at 20: Medium
  • NBADraft.net comparison: Yi Jianlian

I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t really like Mason Plumlee. A lot of that may have to do with the fact that I don’t really like Duke and everyone constantly compared him to my beloved Cody Zeller over the past couple years, so I will attempt to provide you as objective an assessment as possible.

The 6’11” Plumlee comes into the draft with quite a lot of college experience, having gone up against some of the best big men throughout his college career and having been an integral part of four NCAA tournament teams at Duke, including two Sweet 16 runs and a National Championship run (he didn’t play much on that team, as he was only a Freshman, but he was still a part of the rotation).  He’s a very tough nosed and energetic player who improved every single season during his time at Duke. Like Zeller, Plumlee contains rare athleticism for a man of his size, as well as the ability to get out and run in transition. He’s also an excellent rebounder, having ranked just outside the top ten in the nation (13th) in rebounds per game last season (10.2).

The knock against Plumlee, however, is his predictability in the post. His repertoire of post moves is very limited, and he struggles to adjust against elite defenders because of it. The good news, though, is that he understands how to effectively work the pick-and-roll, and in a pick-and-roll dominated league, he could eventually turn himself into a valuable asset from that standpoint if he can somehow develop a solid mid-range game. I don’t think Plumlee would be a great fit for the Bulls right now (he’s also not a very good defender), but the potential for a bright future is there.

Jeff Withey – Center, Kansas University

  • Draft projection: Late first round to early second round
  • Probability of being available at 20: Higher than my blood sugar after eating a slice of Portillo’s chocolate cake
  • Probability of being available at 49: Very low
  • NBADraft.net comparison: Travis Knight

Withey’s name has popped up a lot in the recent months in Bulls draft discussions, but for whatever reason, his draft stock has somewhat decreased. He doesn’t have much strength or toughness at all, and he’s very ineffective with his back to the basket, but the 7-foot Withey does know a thing or two about defense, which happens to be the key to Tom Thibodeau’s heart.  He earned himself Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors last season (along with Victor Oladipo), ranking third in the nation with 3.9 blocks per game in only 30.9 minutes (4.9 blocks per 40 minutes) and ending his career as one of the most defensively dominant big men over the past decade.  He has phenomenal instincts as both a man-to-man and help-side defender, as his ability to avoid committing fouls by going straight up and absorbing contact (he committed only two fouls per game as a senior) gives him the aptitude to alter nearly every shot his long arms can reach.

Withey is the type of player that actually loves playing defense, which should bode well for his playing time early on in his career for a team lacking any sort of defensive presence (basically half the league) in the paint. Once teams figure out how to take him out of the game (spoiler alert: force him to step outside the paint, which he rarely ever had to do at Kansas), though, that potential playing time could diminish quickly. Hopefully some of these aforementioned flaws will be improved upon come October.

Tim Hardaway Jr. – Shooting Guard, University of Michigan

  • Draft projection: Late first round
  • Probability of being available at 20: High
  • NBADraft.net comparison: Wesley Person/Arron Afflalo

The key word with Tim Hardaway Jr. is upside; everyone knows how good he can be, it’s just a matter of him continuing to improve and becoming a consistent shooter. He worked very hard to improve his three point shooting last offseason, which he did (jumped from 28.3% to 37.4%), but for whatever reason, he just could not seem to stay consistent, as his catch-and-shoot, pull-up jumper and runners around the rim percentages were all over the place throughout his three years at Michigan.

Nevertheless, Hardaway has great size for his position (6’7”) and can come in and effectively stretch the floor for a team like the Bulls, who lack any sort of outside scoring threat at the moment. He’s a hard worker who plays with passion, and being the son of a bigoted homophobe – er, potential NBA Hall of Famer – should only help him put in to perspective what it will take to be successful at the next level. Whether or not Hardaway Jr. will be a good pro remains to be seen, but he could be a solid option for a team looking to add some 2-guard depth.

Reggie Bullock – Shooting Guard/Small Forward, University of North Carolina

  • Draft projection: Mid first round to early second round
  • Probability of being available at 20: Migh (a medium/high hybrid)
  • NBADraft.net comparison: Casey Jacobson

If the Bulls are set on filling their perimeter shooting hole with the 20th pick, then 6’7″ Reggie Bullock should undoubtedly be their choice. The former Tar Heel comes in as arguably the best pure shooter in this year’s draft (shot 43.6% from three last season) with great size and length to play the 2. He has a textbook shooting stroke, quick release, moves well without the ball, and he has proven to be very efficient shooting off screens and spotting up for open looks. It’s hard not to like his game; not only is he effective without the rock in his hands, but he’s also smart when he has it, as evidenced by his miniscule average of 1.2 turnovers per game.

The one issue may be Bullock’s lack of creativity with the ball in his hands because he’s not the greatest ball handler and doesn’t possess that explosive first step that allows players to drive by opponents. Here’s how Draft Express views Bullock:

Considering his strong long-range shooting, low-mistake style of play, and lack of creativity on the offensive end, Bullock seems best suited to play a role similar to the one fellow North Carolina product Danny Green plays for the Spurs.

Danny Green? After his performance throughout the NBA Playoffs and most of the NBA Finals? Sign me up.

Jamaal Franklin – Shooting Guard, San Diego State University

  • Draft projection: Mid-to-late first round
  • Probability of being available at 20: High
  • NBADraft.net comparison: Will Barton/Hassan Adams

I love me some Jamaal Franklin, who remains one of the most underrated players in the draft. The do-it-all shooting guard single-handedly kept San Diego St. in the national conversation the past two seasons after Kawhi Leonard’s departure, leading them to the NCAA tournament both years and throwing down the sickest dunk of the season. ESPN Draft Analyst Chad Ford, who has the Bulls selecting Franklin in his most recent draft board, loves him more than I do, pegging him as “one of the toughest players in the draft and a kid who should contribute immediately — a smaller version of Kawhi Leonard.” Kawhi Leonard? You know, that guy who guarded Lebron James for seven hard fought games in the Finals and has transformed himself into one of the league’s best young stars? Yeah, that’s him. Pretty high praise for the long-sleeved Franklin, and for good reason if you ask me.

At 6’5″, Franklin’s tremendous versatility was on full display over the past couple of years on the west coast, as he led his team in scoring, assists, rebounding and steals per game during his final season. He’s an incredible athlete and fantastic rebounder for his size with the highest of motors, always giving 110% effort on both ends of the floor. His defense, as indicated below by Draft Express, should translate very well at the next level:

Defensively, Franklin showed great versatility with the ability to cover four positions if necessary, thanks to his tremendous toughness and athleticism. He has great potential on this end of the floor as an NBA player if he really makes a commitment and focuses on every possession. His anticipation skills and quick hands make him a pest in the passing lanes and on the ball, and his motor and physical tools stack up very well at his position.

Franklin’s biggest flaw, unfortunately, is his shooting (42.6% overall and 30.2% from three throughout career at SDSU), but as has been the case with Leonard, a little hard work on that aspect of his game can take him a long away. I anticipate Franklin will one day prove to be one of the bigger steals in this draft, but only time will tell.

As you can see, there are a lot of decent options that should be available at 20 (everything after the first round is always a crap shoot) – it all just depends on whether the Bulls decide to go big or not. My guess is that they will end up drafting a center to back up Noah, as they’ve given no indications that they’re going to bring back Nazr Mohammed, and find some mid-level shooters/slashers to fill their back court at minimum salaries, but what do I know? Until then, let’s enjoy Thursday night’s draft and look forward to welcoming two new players to The City of Broad Shoulders.

Other first-round prospects to keep in mind: Allen Crabbe, Rudy Gobert, Ricky Ledo, Tony Snell, Tony Mitchell, Glen Rice Jr.

Second-round prospects to keep in mind: Carrick Felix, Trevor Mbakwe, Colton Iverson, James Ennis, Zeke Marshall, B.J. Young, Brandon Paul

The Deng Dilemma

What should the Bulls do with Luol Deng?

Few Chicago athletes of this generation have ever had me at “Hello.” Brian Urlacher, Derrick Rose, Anthony Rizzo – they qualify. But Luol Deng? He certainly did not. Although I hated Duke, he was a great talent out of college, and in all honesty, I was quite satisfied when the Phoenix Suns agreed to draft him with the 7th pick and then trade him to Chicago.

During the first three seasons of his career, Deng continued to get better and transformed himself from a somewhat raw offensive talent into a very reliable, very productive NBA small forward, improving his field goal percentage from 43.4% to 51.7% over that span. But once the 2007-08 season came around, I started to lose trust in Deng, as he rejected a pretty generous contract extension, missed 19 games because of a lingering Achilles injury and saw a dip in his numbers across the board, including minutes (37 mpg in 06-07 to 33 mpg in 07-08).

By the end of the 2008-09 season, I began to genuinely dislike Deng. He had signed a major six-year contract extension worth $71 million before the season started, yet ended up missing 33 games plus the playoffs due to some mysterious injury. At that point, I self-proclaimed myself as the conductor of the “Luol Deng is a Straight Up Pussy” bandwagon, and many people started hopping aboard. I personally felt that Luol had no interest in trying or caring, and I looked at him as another one of those athletes that got his money and just said “f**k it.” I wanted him out of Chicago, and I wanted him out fast.

The 2009-10 season proved to be a decent turnaround for Lu, but it wasn’t until the 2010-11 season, after the hiring of Tom Thibodeau, that I did a complete 180. Deng has been a different player since then. He’s led the NBA in minutes per game two of the past three seasons (and finished fourth in the other), he made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2012 as well as the last two all-star teams, and he’s battled through literally every injury he’s been plagued with. Now a premiere small forward in the league, Deng is considered the ultimate glue guy. His work ethic is one in which you cannot teach, he’s as tough, mentally and physically, as they come, and he has made himself invaluable to the success of the Chicago Bulls. Call me crazy, but there are few athletes, if any, that I currently love more than Luol Deng, and I can’t imagine him in another uniform – it’d be devastating.

But let’s be honest – the Bulls cap situation going into next season is nothing short of horrendous, as evidenced by this fantastic cap breakdown. Since you’re probably too lazy to click on that link and read what’s within, allow me to sum it up: the Bulls are already into the luxury tax with just eight players (Rose, Boozer, Deng, Noah, Gibson, Hinrich, Butler, Teague) plus the likely Rip Hamilton buyout. Eight players, as you know, isn’t going to cut it, since each NBA team kinda needs at least 13 players on its roster. The 20th overall pick is going to cost $1.472 million by itself, and minimum salary players will cost another $884K each. By now, you hopefully get the point – there is basically no flexibility and no hope for any significant free agent signings this summer. Nate Robinson ain’t coming back, and the chances of a Marco Belinelli re-signing are slim to none. If Cheap Ass Reinsdorf can’t stomach this already uncomfortable salary cap situation, what in god’s name can be done to relieve it?

Insert the Cleveland Cavaliers. They happen to have the first overall pick in one of the worst drafts (stardom-wise) in recent memory. There’s a lot of depth, but to even the most casual of basketball fans, no one screams potential superstar. Cleveland is as open as any organization will ever be to trading that pick away, and what they desperately need is a scoring small forward with veteran experience and the ability to anchor a defense. Luol Deng fits that bill perfectly. However, a two-time all-star isn’t going to be enough to covet the first overall pick. Throw in an asset like Marquis Teague to back up Kyrie Irving and the 20th overall pick? Now we’re talking.

If I’m Chris Grant (Cleveland’s GM), I’m thinking long and hard about this deal. My team just invested the fourth overall pick last year on a shooting guard in Dion Waiters, so why would I want to make that situation even more complicated by drafting Ben McLemore? Sure, I could draft Nerlens Noel and stash him for a year while he recovers from ACL surgery, but what good will that do? We have Anderson Varejao locked up through 2015, plus we’ll be atrocious again next season yet have no chance at winning another lottery (you know, because it’s rigged and all), meaning Andrew Wiggins will be nothing more than a pipe dream.

If I’m Gar Forman, I’m not even thinking about this deal – I’m ready to sign some papers. Not because I don’t want Deng anymore – it would be heartbreaking at first to see him go – but because it’ll make Jerry Reinsdorf get down on his hands and knees thanking me for coming up with a genius way to save him money, and because of two words that every basketball fan will likely be muttering in their dreams in a few years: Victor Oladipo.

Call me biased towards my precious Hoosiers – I don’t care. Victor Oladipo will be the best player to come out of this draft when it’s all said and done for three reasons, and nothing anyone can say or do before June 27th will convince me otherwise:

  1. His unfathomable work ethic and energy 

    Before Oladipo took the college basketball world by storm last season, he wasn’t what one would consider a household name. In three short years, he went from an under-recruited player in high school known for throwing down hellacious dunks in the backyard of my fraternity house (in jeans, mind you) and failing to crack ESPN’s top 100 recruiting rankings to National Player of the Year candidate and potential top-three draft pick. He is the epitome of a gym rat, having spent hours and hours upon end working on his game and improving upon his significant weaknesses. His first two seasons at IU saw him combine for 18/74 from three; in his junior season, he made 30 of 68 threes, good for 44.1%. He led all guards, not just in the Big Ten, but in the entire country, with a 60% field goal percentage. He won Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors, leading the Big Ten in steals per game (2.2). Oladipo is always hungry, constantly trying to raise his game and making the players around him better. He’s the full package, and that much can’t be said about most of the players in this draft.

  2. Nothing phases him

    When the lights are on and the drunken fans are screaming, Oladipo rises to the occasion. Check out these stat lines:
    vs. MSU: 21 points on 8/12 shooting, 7 rebounds, 6 steals, 3 blocks (WIN)
    @OSU: 26 points on 8/10 shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 steals (WIN)
    @MSU: 19 points on 7/11 shooting, 9 rebounds, 5 steals with the go-ahead put back, dunk and free throws in the final minute, albeit on a sprained left ankle (WIN)
    @Michigan for the Big Ten title: 14 points, 13 rebounds, including 7 offensive (WIN)
    vs. Temple in Round of 32: 16 points, 8 rebounds and the heroic game-winning 3-pointer with 14 seconds left (WIN)I can keep going, but you get the picture: Oladipo thrives in big moments, a characteristic that almost always translates well at the professional level.
  3. The writing is on the wall

    A number of GMs have said that Oladipo is hands down their favorite player in the draft. As one GM said, “I know he’s the one guy in this draft that my head coach would love to have right now. He’s an impressive young man on and off the court.” Chad Ford noted that GMs are impressed by his mixture of candor and intensity in interviews. Another GM stated, “Athletically he’s so gifted. And he combines that with hard work both in the game and in practice. He keeps working on his game and getting better. His attitude was just special in the interview we had. He’s humble, but confident. He doesn’t draw attention to himself, but when he speaks he sounds like a leader.” And the best quote of all from Will Perdue (added to this post on 6/7):

    “If you’re talking about the guy who is going to come in and be the most effective player from day one, it’s Oladipo. He’s got that ‘It’ Factor,” that it takes to be successful in the league. A lot of guys in this draft don’t have that. There’s no doubt he plays with an edge. Watching him play defense this season, I wouldn’t have any hesitation putting him into an NBA game and letting him guard Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant from day one.  I think he’s that good defensively.”

    Honestly, what more needs to be said?

Turning Deng, Teague and the 20th pick into Oladipo will do two things for the Bulls:

  1. It will save them a little over $12 million in cap space for the 2013-14 season (Deng’s $14.125M + Teague’s $1.075M + 20th pick’s $1.135M minus Oladipo’s $4.287M), getting them to roughly $10 million under the projected luxury tax threshold of $71.6 million (Cleveland is roughly $15 million under that threshold at this point in time). What does this mean? They can potentially make a run at the highly sought after shooting guard, O.J. Mayo, and fill the rest of the roster out with minimum salary players, giving them, if all goes as planned, a projected starting lineup of Rose, Oladipo, Butler, Boozer, and Noah, with Mayo, Hinrich, and Gibson to round out a fantastic eight-man rotation. How realistic a scenario like this is, I’m not sure. But it does make sense for both the Bulls and Cavs, and if the Bulls aren’t able to sign an impactful free agent this summer, they’ll have all the flexibility in the world next summer, with Carlos Boozer likely to be amnestied just in time for the arrival of Nikola Mirotic and an extremely deep 2014 free agent class.
  2. That very class, plus the resurgence of Deng’s protegé, Jimmy Butler, has suddenly made Deng expendable. A deal like this will free up Butler and allow him to take over as the small forward of the future, all while replacing Lu with Luol Deng 2.0 in Victor Oladipo, a relentless defender with the versatility to guard multiple positions and enormous upside. Although his offensive game lacks a true foundation at this point, his shooting has still improved tremendously, he’s one of the best finishers around the rim due to his unparalleled athleticism and body control, and he’s a fantastic rebounder for his position.

Heading into the season with the current roster plus a healthy Derrick Rose should hopefully be enough to beat Miami next year, but the end of Luol Deng’s contract is very near, and given Chicago’s terrible cap situation, either trading him or letting him walk in free agency may be inevitable. Trading Deng is something that would really hit Bulls fans where it hurts, but if we can replace him with Tom Thibodeau’s ideal type of player in Oladipo as the first overall pick in the draft AND give them major cap room flexiblity, it’s something that management should at least consider bringing up to Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert over the next few weeks.

Heart and Hustle: Bulls Steal Game 1 From The Superfriends

The Bulls may have stolen Game 1 in Miami on Monday night, but they’re certainly not satisfied yet.

They fight through adversity. They never back down. They play for each other. And they have no fear. The 2012-13 Chicago Bulls are one of the greatest sports stories in recent memory whose fairy tale may end when LeBron James decides he’s had enough. But until then, what we are witnessing is a team of warriors who will give anything and everything to win basketball games, playing with an attitude and a swagger that most sports fans would die to see their teams adopt.

After Game 7 of the Brooklyn series, I couldn’t recall a prouder Chicago sports moment in my life. Jordan’s Bulls and the 2010 Blackhawks teams obviously brought joy to everyone – but those teams were great. Those teams were expected to win. This team? Forget about it. Winning just one playoff series with this roster despite Derrick Rose’s ailing ACL, Joakim Noah’s plantar fasciitis, Kirk Hinrich’s mysteriously strained calf, Nate Robinson’s and Taj Gibson’s flu and Luol Deng’s meningitis scare was an enormous accomplishment in and of itself. “Next man up” has been the recurring theme of this team, and it all starts up top. Since day one, Tom Thibodeau has brainwashed these guys into thinking that, no matter what happens, they have enough to win.

Jimmy Butler, who I felt would be something very special for our team this season, has all but earned his spot as the Bulls’ future 2 guard, playing all 48 minutes (ALL 48 MINUTES!) in each of the last three playoff games. He has been nothing short of magnificent this postseason, averaging 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, nearly five trips to the free throw line and almost never turning the ball over in round one (0.7 TOs/game), all while guarding the Deron Williams/Joe Johnson combo AND never committing more than three fouls in a game. On top of that, he took on the impossible task of guarding LeBron James the entire game last night (only committed three fouls too) and was still able to post a 21-14-3 stat line, hitting 9/10 from the free throw line and 2/4 from beyond the arc (Butler’s 3% during 2012-13 season and postseason: 38.1% and 40.9% respectively; 3% during 2011-12 season: 18.2%). No moment is too big for this kid. In only his second year in the NBA, Luol Deng’s protegé has proved once and for all that hard work and a heavy heart can take you a long way in just a short amount of time in this league – and trust me, he’s not gonna slow down any time soon.

Nathaniel Robinson has been, quite frankly, Jordanesque this postseason. He may only be 5’9, but Lil’ Nate has a ridiculous amount of confidence and a monstrous sack of nuts. He’s never seen a shot he didn’t like, and although players like that can typically hurt your team more than help it, Robinson has been as clutch as I’ve ever seen anyone in a Bulls uniform since ’98. Whether it’s him putting up 34 points (23 in the 4th quarter) on 14-for-23 shooting in Game 4 against Brooklyn, 18 points in Game 6 while puking in between timeouts, or 27 points and 9 assists last night in Miami (11 of those points and 5 of those assists came in the 4th quarter as well) with 10 stitches in his upper lip, Robinson continues to thrive in big moments and show the Knicks, Celtics, and Thunder what could have been had they decided not to let the little Energizer Bunny walk for nothing.

Carlos Boozer has, well, disappointed again. Yes, he actually played well against Brooklyn, and I really do applaud him for that. But we’ve grown accustomed to Boozer laying postseason eggs the past few years, and last night was no different: 6 points on 3/11 shooting, 7 rebounds and 3 turnovers. He watched, cheered and yelled from the bench the final 16 minutes of the game, when the Bulls just so happened to outscore Miami 44-31. Coincidence? I think not. It won’t happen this summer, but until 2014, “‘Tis the season to be amnestied…”

Marco Belinelli has been freakin’ awesome the past few games, not just for his “Sam Cassell dance” in Game 7, but also for his ability to hit huge threes and get to the rim late in games. Belinelli has shot 50% from three (3-for-6), 3-for-3 from the free throw line and  has a +/- of plus-15 in 12 “clutch time” minutes (last five minutes of the game and leading or trailing by five points or less) of playoff basketball. To give you some perspective on how huge he has been, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson were a combined 0-for-10 from three, 7-for-25 from the field and a minus-16 each  in 54  clutch time minutes last round (on the other hand, Robinson, Boozer and Noah have +/- of plus-28, plus-24 and plus-20 respectively in clutch time minutes, but they’ve all played much more during those moments). I couldn’t be happier with what Belinelli has given us, as he’s effectively replaced Kyle Korver as our Chicago Hotsauce – he’s just uglier, but at least he can create for himself once in a while.

Not enough can be said about Joakim Noah. In fact, nothing anyone can say will do that man justice. It’s clear that he has become our bona-fide leader, emotionally and physically, and Bulls fans wouldn’t have it any other way. The way he has led this depleted team on essentially one foot, dominating the likes of another all-star center in Brook Lopez and doing everything he can possibly do to help us win has been truly inspiring. Noah is the epitome of a professional athlete. He’s the kind of player that I would have idolized as a kid, and even idolize now, giving 150% night in and night out and fighting til death’s end. It’s admirable, and I feel that all athletes around the country should strive to be as tough and as passionate as he is. Nothing gives me more pleasure than watching him play basketball, and I have no doubt that one day he, along with a fully healthy Derrick Rose, will lead the Bulls to a NBA championship.

If you follow the NBA like I do, you know damn well that these kinds of things never  happen. To predict that a team led by the guys above, along with Taj Gibson, Nazr Mohammed and even Marquis Teague, can go into Miami in front of their pathetic home crowd, steal game one and shock the basketball world? Unthinkable. But here we are, in the wake of Miami’s third loss since February 2 (yes, third loss – they’re 41-3 since then), and we, as fans, aren’t just happy to be here anymore – we’re starting to “bullieve.”

Does this mean Chicago will win this series? No, but every game will be an absolute dogfight. I don’t think the Bulls can truly win this series, but I sure as hell know they’ll leave everything they have on that court each night. Like I said, this is not a great team – Derrick Rose ain’t coming back, Kirk Hinrich is battling through a painful injury, and Luol Deng is still bedridden after a spinal tap. All we can do is pray that the latter two come back soon. But whether we realize it or not, we are all witnessing something great – something inspiring. I couldn’t be prouder to be a Bulls fan right now, and what happens from here on out will just be the cherry on top of an already accomplished and memorable season.

Say Hello… to the Bulls’ New Bench Mob

Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson will headline the Bulls’ second unit next season.

Just a week or so after The Bench Mob drastically fell apart, the Chicago Bulls 2012-13 roster is nearly rounded out. With C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, John Lucas III and Omer Asik officially taking their talents to Brooklyn, New York, Atlanta, Toronto and Houston, respectively, the Bulls have already found a plug for each hole those men have left. Whether the chemistry of the newcomers lives up to that of The Bench Mob remains to be seen, but this new group of guys, led by the glue that is Taj Gibson, certainly has the ability to pick up where the bench left off and, if you’re really optimistic, may even surpass its production from the past two seasons (don’t count on it though). It’ll be tough to maintain the consistency and reliability that the bench provided throughout the regular season, there’s no question about that. However, some of the players whom the Bulls have brought in this summer or have been promoted may bring something to the table that the other guys did not. Let’s take a look at who exactly those players are:

Kirk Hinrich, PG/SG. Replacing: C.J. Watson

Captain Kirk needs no introduction. If he can stay healthy, he’s an upgrade over Watson in my mind. Of course, he’ll be starting in place of Derrick Rose for a good few months, so expectations will be relatively high, but his defense and leadership should make him a valuable asset to this Bulls team. (If you didn’t read my post from two weeks ago about Hinrich coming back to Chicago and what it means, click here.)

Marquis Teague, PG. Replacing: John Lucas III

He’s only 19 years old, but Teague is no joke. It will take some time for him to adapt to the NBA at such a young age and learn the ins and outs of running the point at the professional level, but he was far and away the best player on the board when the Bulls drafted him and has the ability to become an all-star caliber point guard some day. His long-range jump shot is nowhere near that of JL3’s, but his athleticism, quickness and excellence in transition should give him a leg up on other point guards who have come into the league with little or no college experience. He should end up being a pretty serviceable backup point guard for the Bulls as a rookie and will only improve with age and experience. Nevertheless, he has a lot of weaknesses to overcome and will definitely experience plenty of growing pains, specifically with his shooting and decision-making. (If you want a scouting report on Teague and a more in-depth analysis of what  he will mean to the Bulls next season and beyond, read my post from the day after the draft here.)

Jimmy Butler, SG. Replacing: Ronnie Brewer

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Jimmy Butler is Ronnie Brewer 2.0. Brewer has proved time and time again that his potential has been completely maxed out. Like I said back in June, he’ll never be more than a high level defender and role player with a limited offensive skill-set and inconsistent jump shot, whereas the 22-year-old Butler has a much higher ceiling and the potential to be one of the premiere defenders in the NBA. He’s a great team player with an incredible work ethic and attitude. According to the Chicago Tribune, he “practically lived at the Berto Center [before Summer League]. He would work out, rest, then work out again. His body looks fit. His mind sounds sharp. He knows the opportunity ahead of him.” As raw as he may have seemed at times last season on the offensive end, it’s his perseverance and balls-to-the-walls mentality that will ultimately lead to him becoming one of the most important players on this team and possible team leaders some day.

It may not mean much at all, but Butler absolutely tore it up in Vegas for Summer League this past week. He lead the squad in scoring, averaging 20.8 points in the four games he played (he sat out the fifth and final game with an undisclosed injury), good for fourth overall in the league. He also lead the entire Summer League in minutes (averaged 35.5 per game) and pounded the glass for a total of 26 rebounds in four games (side note: the Bulls’ Malcolm Thomas, the 6’9″ man-child out of San Diego State, averaged 12.4 rebounds per game and may have very well earned himself the final spot on the roster to start next season). On top of that, Butler attacked the rim with a vengeance, something the Bulls offense desperately needs, and got to the free throw line an amazing 39 times. He made – get this – 35 of them, good for 90%. I don’t really care how meaningless the Summer League may be, because Butler played some confident and inspiring ball. I think it’s safe to say this man is on a mission and will surprise many people come next season.

Nazr Mohammed, C. Replacing: Omer Asik

A 14-year veteran, Nazr Mohammed is coming off a season in which he averaged 2.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 63 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you find yourself strangely excited about the signing of Mohammed, then there’s something seriously wrong with you – it wouldn’t hurt to go see a doctor or someone capable of bringing you back down to earth. He’s an enormous downgrade from Asik – easily the biggest downgrade at any backup position – and brings very little to the table. Yes, he can catch a ball on the low block, make a layup and shoot free throws decently (63.9% career), all things that Asik cannot do, but his defense is very below average, and he’s relatively undersized (6’10”, two inches shorter than Asik). If anything, Mohammed will bring veteran experience to the court and leadership to the locker room, but nothing more. He is simply a cheap alternative to Asik for a year or so until someone better can be found. The details of his contract have yet to be reported, but you can expect him to earn the veteran’s minimum ($1.2 million/year).

Vladamir Radmanovic, SF/PF. Replacing: No idea

Another brutal signing the Bulls made in order to fill out the roster. I was, and still am, disgusted by this pickup and don’t think I’ll be changing my stance any time soon. To be fair, though, the Bulls simply need bodies. Fortunately, Radmanovic only signed a one-year deal, so you’ll likely only see no. 77 (yes, he wears no. 77) for one short season and then forget about him forever. In 43 games with the Hawks last season, the 6’10” Radmanovic averaged 4.5 points and 2.9 rebounds in 15.4 minutes while shooting a whopping 37.6% from the field. Somehow, he shot nearly the same from outside the arc as he did from inside of it (37%), and I don’t really understand how. He’s a pretty horrendous defensive player, meaning that he will probably struggle to get playing time, especially with Tom Thibodeau at the helm. Don’t expect much production, if any, from the Rad Man next season. There’s a reason he’ll be playing for his seventh team in 11 years and fifth team in five years.

Marco Belinelli, SG. Replacing: Kyle Korver

The 6’5″ sharpshooting Belinelli may not be the most exciting player in the world, but he should fill the void that Kyle Korver has left just fine. They are very similar players: both are very streaky shooters and piss-poor defenders, but unlike Korver, Belinelli has shown very steady improvement offensively over the last few years (he’s also younger, so that makes sense). He averaged a career-high 30 minutes, 11.8 points and 1.5 threes per game for the Hornets last season (shot 37.7% from three as well and is a career 39.3% three-point shooter). Belinelli is purely a catch-and-shoot kind of player and tends to be a little too trigger-happy at times. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him struggle before Derrick Rose comes back and helps spread the floor for everyone, but given the way he played in New Orleans with Jarrett Jack running the point and no one else to open up opportunities (Eric Gordon missed almost the entire season), I’d like to think that Belinelli can pick up where he left off last season and continue to improve. Because of his inability to play defense, though, he will likely be thrown into Thibs’ doghouse early on, just like Korver was, until he can prove that he is willing to work hard and overcome his defensive shortcomings. For a guy who can do pretty much all the same things as Korver can at a much cheaper price ($1.96 million as opposed to $5 million), the Bulls found the right replacement.

Obviously, none of these players should make us jump for joy, and signing them doesn’t put us in a better position to win a title. In fact, just hearing that we signed Vladamir Radmanovic made me gag uncontrollably and led to me pulling a few eyelashes out. But, given the financial situation that the Bulls are in, this is the best they could do. As Nick Friedell wrote last week, the Bulls’ plan requires patience. This is not a team built to win a championship this season; they are good enough to win games, but not good enough to win a title. The Bulls are “stuck in cap hell” for the next two years, so it will take time for them to ultimately get to where they want to be. Until then, all we, as fans, can do is support them like we always have and just hope for the best. Let’s hope that the new second unit can provide some stability and begin a new era of The Bench Mob.

By the Numbers: Chances Bulls beat Rockets in 1994 and 1995 with Michael Jordan

The debate over whether or not the Bulls would have beaten the Rockets with Michael Jordan will never go to rest.

Think about it: how many times have you gotten into a conversation or an argument with someone about whether or not the Bulls would have won eight straight championships had Michael Jordan not retired to play baseball? For me, it must be a good five to ten times and counting. It was only a few years ago when I got into a heated debate with two Rockets fans about this very topic. Punches were nearly thrown and veins began popping out of our necks and foreheads. Fortunately for me, those punches were not thrown, as I would have easily gotten my ass kicked.

This topic has been debated amongst diehard fans, casual fans, “fans” who think they know basketball because they’ve heard of some guy named Jordan, writers, analysts, and scrubs off the street. It has probably also been debated amongst current players, former players, coaches and even front office personnel. The main argument for the Rockets: Hakeem Olajuwon. Of the six championships the Bulls won, they never had to play a team with a legitimate center (Vlade Divac, Clifford Robinson, Tom Chambers, Shawn Kemp/Sam Perkins whom were both true power forwards, Greg Ostertag twice). He averaged 29-11-4-4 during the ’94 playoffs and 33-10-5-3 during the ’95 playoffs. That’s fair. The main argument for the Bulls: Michael Jordan. The Rockets didn’t have him. The best player in the world retired right smack-dab in the middle of his prime after winning three straight championships. No team could have stopped him no matter how hard they tried.

Of course, no one really knows what would have happened had Jordan not retired during the summer of ’93. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop arguing about it. What fun would that be? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion – as long as they can back it up with some sort of logic. For all these years, I’ve always argued just for the sake of arguing – some of it out of bias for my hometown Bulls and my sick obsession with M.J., some of it out of thinking that a Jordan-led Bulls team was truly better all-around than the Rockets. But, being the number-loving guy that I am, I surprisingly never took the time to come up with an answer from a statistical point-of-view. So, after a fellow sports fanatic and buddy of mine, Adam Singer, posed the very question about Jordan’s Bulls beating Olajuwon’s Rockets to me last week, I decided to do something about it. I asked myself, “What are the chances the Bulls would have won championships in 1994 and 1995 with an unretired, cannibalistic Jordan?”

To figure this out, I used a very similar approach (that I learned about in a book called Mathletics) to one of my posts from May, titled By the numbers: Chances the Bulls get to the Finals with a healthy D-Rose. I used Microsoft Excel Solver to power rate each NBA team during every postseason from 1990-1995 using season-long data from nba-reference.com. I calculated the home team’s margin, prediction of each game, and the squared error of each game, which equals (home margin – prediction)^2. The sum of the squared error acts as the “target cell” in Solver and must be minimized in order to come up with accurate team ratings. Assuming that the average NBA playoff team had a rating of 0, you can see below that the Bulls, as expected, received the highest playoff rating during each of their first three championship runs with 15.88, 20.54 and 9.59, respectively. The Rockets, of course, rated the highest during the 1994 and 1995 postseasons with 5.74 and 16.08, respectively.

Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s take all this in for a second. Based on just the numbers above, it’s no coincidence that the Bulls went from making everyone their bitch from 1991-93 to just above average in the two postseasons that followed. They also ranked first overall in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) during the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons and second overall in 1992-93, then plummeted to 14th overall in 1993-94 and 10th in 1994-95. The impact that MJ had on the Bulls can obviously go without saying. Even without him, though, they finished their first Jordan-less season with 55 wins and the third seed in the playoffs. Had Hue Hollins not made one of the most controversial foul calls in the history of the NBA against Scottie Pippen during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bulls would have likely won the series against the Knicks and could have been one step closer to playing the Rockets without Jordan. But, it clearly didn’t work out that way, and they were sent packing before the Finals for the first time in four years.

Anyways, it’s time to get back on track and calculate the chances that the Bulls would have beaten Houston using Excel’s @RISK. The first step was forecasting the average scoring margin for home and away games. There was no right way to do this, so I had to get creative. I figured the most logical way would be to:

  1. Take the Bulls’ average playoff rating over those three seasons above (15.34) and put it up against the Rockets’ ratings in their respective championship seasons (5.47 in ’94, 16.09 in ’95).
  2. Assume the Bulls would have had home court advantage (5.85 points) both years because they finished with only three less wins than Houston in ’94 (55 to 58) and the same amount of wins in ’95 (47 each). I’d like to think that the Bulls would have won at least three extra games each year had Jordan been playing.
  3. Assume they would have beaten every Eastern Conference opponent because it just makes my life easier.

For home games, I took (Home Edge + Bulls Rating – Rockets Rating). For away games, I took (Bulls Rating – Home Edge – Rockets Rating). The projected margin was then calculated using the average forecast and standard deviation (Mathletics states that ”12 points is the historical standard deviation of actual scores about a prediction from a ranking system”). If that number was greater than 0, then the Bulls were given a 1 (indicating they won) and were given a 0 if the number was less than 0 (indicating they lost). If the sum of the wins was greater than or equal to 4, then the Bulls would have won the series. With that being said, take a look at the 1994 Finals simulation results:

After running 1000 iterations, the Bulls won the series a ridiculous 966 times, meaning they would have had a 96.6% chance of beating Houston with Jordan playing. In other words, had the Bulls played as well in the 1994 postseason as they did the previous three seasons, the Rockets would have stood virtually no chance of winning. Seven championships instead of six? Yes please.

The 1995 playoffs were a completely different story. Houston played with much more of an edge after finally winning a championship the year before, and Hakeem Olajuwon was simply unstoppable, as he solidified himself as the best center in the game. Jordan also came back and played in the playoffs, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Check out the 1995 Finals simulation results:

This time, the Bulls won the series only 504 times – you can’t find a more even matchup than that. The split was nearly dead even at 50/50 so, based on numbers alone, it’s very hard for me to argue for any one side. However, I will say this: I understand that Jordan came back near the end of the season and played in the playoffs, but he wasn’t quite the same player that everyone was accustomed to watching until the playoffs actually started. He was very rusty in a majority of the regular season games he played in and shot a career low 41% from the field.

Yes, Jordan’s numbers against Charlotte and Orlando that postseason prove that he finally got his mojo back (31.5 points per game), but the team’s chemistry wasn’t even close to where it once was during their three-peat. The Bulls had added Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Ron Harper and Steve Kerr since Jordan left, and they lost Horace Grant and John Paxson. It was probably very difficult for Jordan to adjust to playing with a completely different group of players and vice versa. Imagine playing two years with Scottie Pippen leading your team and then watching him hand over the reigns, just a month before the 1995 playoffs, to a legend who takes about 22 shots a game and approaches every play, every set and every opposition unlike anyone you’ve ever seen. It takes longer than a month to get used to, so the Bulls entered the playoffs during a honeymoon period, and Shaquille O’Neal’s Magic took advantage. Needless to say, they went on to win a NBA-record 72 games the next season and obliterated everyone en route to their fourth of six championships (finished the postseason with a 15-3 record). Surely, a little chemistry, as well as a little Dennis Rodman, never hurt anyone. Well, except for any women who claim victim to Rodman’s misdemeanor and domestic violence charges. But that’s besides the point.

Look, I don’t want to take anything away from the Houston Rockets. They were an incredible team led by two Hall of Famers in Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and supported by Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, Robert Horry and Mario Elie. After Jordan, Olajuwon may have been the best player in the ’90s and is widely considered the greatest defensive player of all time. Coming up with probabilities is fun and all, but it’s not a final indicator of who would actually win the series. The games would still have to be played. Maybe the Rockets weren’t going to lose that year no matter who they went up against, but I still can’t help but think about what could have been.

From Charles Barkley to Karl Malone to John Stockton to Patrick Ewing to Reggie Miller to Dominique Wilkins to Shawn Kemp to Brad Daugherty to Tim Hardaway, the list of Hall of Famers or great players that never won a ring because they couldn’t beat M.J.’s Bulls is endless. Had Jordan never retired to play baseball, who’s to say that Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler wouldn’t have joined that list as well?

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