Tag Archives: 2014-15 season

The Winning Combination: A Look at the Bulls’ Lineup Data

When watching the Bulls, there are always things that stick out to the naked eye: Derrick Rose is good, Kirk Hinrich is not,  and Aaron Brooks is all over the place.

The beauty of basketball is that unlike baseball (and even football to some extent) the game is not about one-on-one matchups. With constant substitutions, undefined positions or roles, and the need to switch between offense and defense every 20 seconds or so, an individual player’s impact has a lot to do with the teammates he shares the floor with.

That is why I absolutely love NBA.com’s lineup statistics, as it provides an opportunity to evaluate players not just based on their individual stat lines, but rather how they blend with their surroundings. It also gives me ammunition to yell at the TV when I am unhappy with certain substitution patterns and personnel groupings that Coach Thibs leaves on the floor for long stretches of time.

Let’s get to it.

LeBron James, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler

Because of a litany of early season injuries that has (yet again) plagued the Bulls, the amount of data available on five man units is rather thin. The most used lineup for the Bulls this season, the traditional starting lineup of Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, Gasol and Noah, has only logged 143 minutes. By comparison, the most used lineup in the league has logged 325 minutes*, and ten five man groups have logged at least 200. Despite the limited sample size of five man units for Chicago, there are a couple of interesting facts that can be gleaned from glancing over the numbers.

* The most used lineup so far is Kobe-Lin-Boozer-Wes Johnson-Jordan Hill. That group has a net rating of -14.3 and is giving up 118 points per 100 possessions. That is unspeakable badness.

That starting five, despite its relative low minute total, is actually the most used lineup in the NBA on a per minute basis for squads that have appeared in seven games together (yes I know this is an arbitrary cutoff, but that’s how many games the starters have played together. This article will have lots of arbitrary cutoffs; just roll with me, I’m not trying to deceive you). At 20.4 minutes a game, they narrowly edge out Portland’s excellent starting unit, logging 19.4 MPG together.

The Bulls starting group has played excellently together when they’ve been out there. Of five man lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes, they rank fifth in defensive efficiency (97.7), fifth in net rating (+13.3), third in rebounding percentage (55.6%) and sixth in assist percentage (65.9%). They are scoring more efficiently than the most used Cleveland five man unit (111 to 105.6) and getting to the line more frequently than Toronto’s slashing starting five.

This unit creates a balance the Bulls have sorely lacked in past seasons. The addition of Pau Gasol and the emergence of Jimmy Butler as a two way monster have given Chicago the offensive punch they sorely lacked to start and close games.

kirk pass

The second most used five man unit for the Bulls, coming in at a barely statistically significant 88 minutes, has been Hinrich-Butler-Dunleavy-Gasol-Noah. This lineup, essentially the starting five but with Kirk swapped in for Rose, has been less than ideal.

This group cannot score (98 points/100 possessions) nor defend (109.3 pts/100). Their rebound percentage of 46.4% is the lowest of any Bulls unit to log more than 20 minutes. Their eFG% is the lowest of lineups logging that same amount of court time, and their TS% is second lowest, bested (or I suppose I should say worsted) by the garbage man crew of Moore-Snell-McDermott-Mirotic-Mohammed.

The contrast in output from a group that remains 80% intact is startling, especially considering that no other lineup but the two most used has logged more than 45 minutes. The impact that Rose has on a game, even when he is noticeably less explosive and aggressive on drives, is far greater than what I expected. Furthermore, Hinrich, who has the reputation of being a plus defender, seems to mess up the mojo of this unit.

Rajon Rondo Derrick Rose loose ball

To build on Rose’s difficult to observe importance, just check out the Bulls’ defensive rating this season. Overall through December 4th, the Bulls rank ninth in defense, surrendering 101.9 points/100 possessions. While ninth still places them firmly in the upper echelon of the NBA, it is a significant fall from  the past few seasons. What is the source of that dropoff?  Is it perhaps that Taj Gibson has missed seven games, or maybe because Noah has been playing on one leg all season? Good hypotheses, but check out the teams’ defensive rating in the (albeit limited) time Rose has manned the point: 95.4.

The dysfunction of the Kirk+starters lineup is perplexing. Hinrich’s on court defensive rating is 101.4, a hair better than the overall team average. The fact that the defense becomes 12 points worse when Kirk is swapped for Rose seems to be less an issue of pure talent dropoff and more an issue of fit in the scheme. Perhaps the idea of Kirk Hinrich the point guard needs to be put to rest and Kirk Hinrich the shooting guard more fully embraced. In lineups where Kirk and Rose share the floor, lineups that do not require Kirk to guard opposing point guards,  the Bulls hold offenses to just 87.4 ponts/100 possessions.

The Bulls most explosive offensive player this year has been the resurgent Aaron Brooks. Of three man combinations that have logged 50 or more minutes, Brooks is involved in the two with the highest offensive efficiency and 11 of the top 15.

While Brooks has been an offensive catalyst, the team defense with him on the floor takes just as dramatic of a turn down as the offense turns up. Additionally, his somewhat limited role on the team makes him prone to some small sample size noise. Of the five best offensive trios featuring Brooks, none have registered 100 minutes of court time.

When the threshold for qualification is shifted to 100 minutes, a different player comes to the offensive forefront. Jimmy Butler’s transformation has been well documented, but allow me to throw in my two cents: Butler is a part of the five best offensive trios to log 100 minutes. Keeping the focus on trios, Butler is a cog in four of the top five three man units in net rating (the only trio not involving Butler: Rose, Noah and Gasol, the fourth best net).

mirotic_1200_141008

Jake did a great job covering the early returns on the rookies, but allow me to take it a bit further. Mirotic has far exceeded my expectations heading into the season, displaying a feel for the game and a level of maturity you don’t find in most rookies (although spending years as a professional in Europe probably plays into that). Mirotic, who has filled in as the first big off the bench in wake of the Taj Gibson injury, has played admirably with the right lineup pairing.

In 91 minutes of court time with Niko/Noah, the Bulls play at a +13 net rate. In 87 minutes with Taj, that number falls to +4. In 122 minutes of Mirotic alongside Gasol, the Bulls have looked ugly, scoring only 100.6 points/100 possessions while surrendering 106.3, something to keep an eye on. Thibodeau has made it clear that when Taj returns from injury, Mirotic’s role will be greatly decreased. While that is to be expected, I would hope to see a small decrease in everyone’s minutes, rather than just a huge role reduction by Mirotic. As I covered before the season began, the Bulls have the big men personnel to keep a balanced lineup on the floor for 48 minutes while also keeping everyone relatively fresh.

A final Mirotic note before I move onto Creighton’s finest: Niko and Dunleavy constitute the pairing that hast the highest net rating, eFG% and TS%, as well as the second highest offensive efficiency. Spacing is awesome.

The guy the organization, fans, and handsome bloggers thought was going to provide that spacing has been – what’s a way to say dumpster fire without sounding mean – slow to adjust to the speed of the NBA. Doug McDermott has really struggled through the first quarter of the season. Only managing to see 11 minutes of playing time a night, a number that has decreased as the year has gone on, McDermott has been predictably bad on defense. The Bulls’ defensive rating spikes to 108.7 when Doug hits the floor.

The surprise with McDermott has been his struggles on the offensive end, an area where Bulls brass assumed he would have a smooth transition. PER, a stat that doesn’t really penalize a guy for bad defense, is unkind to Doug, who is sporting a four. McDermott is only shooting 23% from three, his area of supposed expertise. Regardless of who McDermott plays with, it has been ugly. He makes up half of the four worst pairs in terms of net rating.

While the statistics and trends I have reviewed today may not hold up over the course of an 82 game season, they are important to keep an eye on moving forward. Lineup combinations, substitution patterns and creating the best matchups were the key to the Spurs’ championship run last season. Lets hope the Bulls will continue to maximize their strengths.

2014-15 League Pass Legends: Charlotte Hornets

Spending the better part of their existence as a completely irrelevant bottom feeder, the Charlotte Hornets (bye-bye Bobcats!) have finally put together a young, respectable core. Looking to capitalize on their playoff berth from a year ago, just the second in franchise history, the Hornets made some key additions through both free agency and the draft.

lance

The biggest (and perhaps most surprising) addition for Charlotte this summer was Lance Stephenson, the 24-year-old wing who developed into one of the more intriguing players in the league the last four seasons in Indiana. Lance brings a much needed creative ability to the Hornets this season, looking to inject some spacing and ball handling into a team that was 24th in offensive efficiency last season.

Charlotte’s struggles on offense last season are not hard to pinpoint. The (then) Bobcats took the fourth lowest percentage of three pointers in the NBA last season, and were about league average in creating points in the paint, pretty much all accounted for by Al Jefferson. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the league’s best offenses typically excel from behind the arc and at the rim, and the Hornets brought in Lance to address those needs.

kemba

Last year Lance averaged nearly 4.5 drives per game, a total that would rank second on this years Hornets squad only to Kemba Walker. Lance also scored 8.1 points in the paint per game, nearly three more a night than the undersized point guard. While Stephenson is not quite a dead eye shooter in the NBA, his 35% three point shooting will add range to a group of wings that desperately needs it.

The most notable departure from last year’s Bobcats team is Josh McRoberts, a member of Charlotte’s four most used five man lineups last season. McRoberts added an element of shooting and creative passing at the power forward spot that will be hard to replicate. But Stephenson, who averaged 4.6 assists last year, should be able to handle the distribution responsibilities admirably. And Marvin Williams, another offseason addition, will provide the floor spacing in the front court that Charlotte will need to open lanes for Lance and Kemba.

vonleh draft

Charlotte, despite not owning their own first round pick, had two other picks to work with. With the ninth pick in the draft, the Hornets grabbed Indiana freshmen Noah Vonleh. Vonleh may have trouble adjusting to the NBA game, but projects to be a physical freak. Standing at 6’9″ with a 7’4″ wingspan, Vonleh famously had the biggest hands of the much hyped 2014 draft class.

(Hilarious side note: The pick used on Vonleh was acquired from the Detroit Pistons in the infamous Ben Gordon-Corey Maggette swap. Joe Dumars!)

joe dumars

 

Vonleh, along with fellow Hoosier Cody Zeller, give the Hornets one of the deepest (and youngest) front lines in the Eastern Conference.

Charlotte’s other first round pick was PJ Hairston. The former Legend (no really he was a Legend!), could be a valuable shooter on the wing. He averaged just under 40% from deep before getting dismissed from UNC and shot 36% from three while in the D-League.

I thought it was strange when the Hornets drafted Hairston, considering his troubled past at UNC. While a lot of those issues can be chalked up to BS NCAA rule violations, there is something to be said of a program like North Carolina dismissing a player rather than appeal to the NCAA. Hopefully the wisdom he gained riding the bus for the Legends will help him make the choices he needs to in order to become an impact NBA player.

Last season the Bobcats finished 6th in defensive efficiency, a quantum leap from 2013 when they finished in dead last in the NBA.  The jump in efficiency is surprising considering the key addition the previous offseason was plodding big man Al Jefferson. Big Al, a feared and respected machine in the post, does not carry a similar reputation to the other side of the ball.

Before coaching the Hornets, Clifford raised Eric Forman
Before coaching the Hornets, Clifford raised Eric Forman

So where did this defensive improvement come from? That would be coach Steve Clifford, the first time head coach who spent about a decade working beneath both of the Van Gundys. Clifford’s conservative approach to pick and roll defense plays to the strengths of Jefferson, allowing him to hang back and defend the paint rather than try and run out on quick guards on the perimeter.

Charlotte, which only allowed 101.2 points/100 possessions, looks to improve upon that impressive mark in year two under Clifford. In addition to the natural comfort level of spending two years in a defensive system, progressions from former second overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in year three should add an element of nastiness to this team. MKG has quietly been establishing himself as one of the most athletic wing defenders in basketball, able to crash the paint and scramble out to find shooters in the blink of an eye. Whether or not his shot develops into a plus skill, Kidd-Gilchrist will have a positive impact on the basketball court.

Charlotte snuck into the playoffs as the seventh seed last year and pretty much served as a warm-up for the Heat on their way to the finals. It was more or less a cute story that nobody outside of hardcore NBA fans picked up on.

I imagine this year will be significantly different. The East is as weak as ever, especially with the Pacers looking incredibly thin at guard and on the wing. The Hornets, with added talent, natural growth from their young core and increased familiarity with Coach Clifford, might end up defending home court in the first round of the playoffs. They clearly are not on the same level as the Bulls or Cavaliers, but they will definitely be in the mix with the Washington-Toronto-Miami crowd.

No longer the doormats of the NBA, the Charlotte Hornets deserve to be a staple of everybody’s League Pass.

2014-15 League Pass Legends: Phoenix Suns

(image via Bleacherreport)
(image via Bleacherreport)

Last season, my League Pass Legends squad shattered expectations and comfortably made the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference. While I wouldn’t be shocked if Phoenix had a similar breakout, expectations are generally much higher than they were for this team a season ago. Last season, projected by many to win 20-25 games, the Suns burst out of the gate and never truly slowed down, finishing 48-34. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to crack the top eight in the absurdly stacked Western Conference (The Bulls and Raptors each won 48 games as well, and received home-court advantage in addition to making the playoffs out East).

This year, the Suns would likely have to win 50 games to qualify. That’s gonna be tough, but certainly not impossible. Phoenix is bringing back star guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe (fresh on a new long-term deal!) in addition to most of last year’s team. Dragic emerged as a stud last year, averaging 20.3 PPG on insane 50.3% FG shooting and 40%+ from downtown. That is some next level stuff right there. If Bledsoe can play 75 games, watch out. The kid is an athletic freak and in his first starting gig last season, he proved it.

The one key departure Phoenix is faced with is that of Channing Frye. Frye has had an up and down career in the NBA, including missing the entire 2012-13 season for heart surgery. He came back strong last year and provided a dangerous weapon in the Suns’ offense by spacing the floor as a big man. Frye is in Orlando now, and the Suns will struggle to fully replace his contributions with the Morris twins.

(image via NBA)
(image via NBA)

Speaking of the Morris twins, Markief and Marcus, they’re another fantastic reason to watch Phoenix on League Pass this year. The Suns, knowing the brothers prefer playing together, knew they could only afford to pay a combined $52 million to them. Rather than trying to figure out how to distribute the money, the Suns were upfront with the twins and let them decide how to split it. The Morris twins were locked up, the Suns received good deals on both players, and everyone’s happy. The Morris bros. should see a lot of playing time this year and their development, especially from range, is key to Phoenix staying afloat out West.

The biggest offseason addition the Suns made comes in the form of the NBA-tiny Isaiah Thomas. The Suns stole Isaiah on a four year, $28 million deal. The last pick (!) of the 2011 draft, Thomas has emerged as an elite scoring guard who can pass the ball as well. Thomas averaged over 20 PPG in Sacramento last year, which makes it all the more insane that the Kings think they improved by replacing him with the ever-mediocre Darren Collison. Thomas will be a huge addition to the Suns bench, and it’s hard to imagine a more fun/potentially great backcourt then a rotation of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas. I’m giddy just thinking about it!

(image via fansided)
(image via fansided)

Oh, and possibly most importantly…ZORAN DRAGIC!!!! The Bros. ‘oran Dragic are an incredibly fun thing about the Suns. I mean two talented, chippy, LEFTY, Slovenian guards playing on one team? And they’re brothers? So down. (Note: I don’t think Zoran will be particularly good or important to this team on the court.)

Overall, it’s going to be extremely tough for Phoenix to displace Memphis, Houston, Dallas or another Western Conference playoff team. However, this extremely talented core of young players combined with year two of the potentially great Jeff Hornacek at head coach means the Suns are a team I will rarely miss on League Pass.

2014-15 League Pass Legends: Detroit Pistons

Hey Folks,

I know it’s been an eternity since I last showed my face around these parts.  To tell you the truth, it’s been so long I forgot my WordPress login info.  But that doesn’t matter now. I’m back and ready to entertain you and hopefully educate you. And without further ado, it’s time to talk about why I think the Detroit Pistons will finally make some significant strides this upcoming season.

To put it quite simply, the Pistons were atrocious last season.  Almost as bad as Joe Nathan, Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria were coming out of the Tigers’ bullpen down the stretch. The Pistons finished the 2013-14 season with a 29-53 clip, eighth worst in the league.  They shot a putrid 44.7% from the field, and even worse from downtown (29th in the league at 32.1%).

Coming into last season, the Pistons had high hopes with the likes of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings arriving on the scene. Needless to say, the duo struggled mightily as Jennings proceeded to be the most selfish point guard east of the Mississippi and Smith got back together with his horrible ex-girlfriend (outside jumpers).  It was a disaster that got Mo Cheeks fired mid-season and had Pistons fans in the metro Detroit area sulking in their poor investment properties they call “homes.”

But, Pistons fans, I’m here to tell you that there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Similar to the beginning of last season, there are numerous reasons to be optimistic about the squad entering the new year.  This year, however, these sources of optimistic are actually legitimate.

After taking a two year hiatus from the game, a familiar face is back and he’s here to bring back the days of caring about DETROIT BASKETBALL.  His name is Stan Van Gundy. With a world of success on his resume, SVG will strive to make the most out of his talented front court and bring back a winner to Detroit.

With Greg Monroe down on the block and Andre Drummond protecting the rim, Van Gundy has a foundation in place that many teams around the league should envy.  In a league where extra possessions are so utterly important, the Pistons finished averaging the third most rebounds in the NBA.  For a team 24 games under .500, this notion foreshadows the makings of rapid improvement.

To put it simply, Detroit needs to shoot the ball better. Sounds simple enough, right? The 2013-14 Pistons literally would have been better off if Jennings (37.3 FG%) or Smith (26.4% from distance) closed their eyes before taking jumpers. Luckily for Detroit, there is a solution to this problem: Fine those two for taking jump shots!! While this idea might rile up the Player Union and causes the next strike, I think its implementation would go a long way towards success in Motown.

Detroit needs to stick to its bread and butter of taking shots near the rim. With Monroe as solid as any young big in the league and Drummond progressing towards being an absolute monster, the Pistons would be foolish not to take 70% of their shots from within 8 feet.  Add in some effective perimeter shooting from Kyle Singler and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and you’ve got the makings of a nice, balanced offense.

While this lineup sounds good in theory, it sounded great last year too.  This is where I think the Stan the Man with the Plan makes his Stand. I don’t think he’ll put up with Smith and Jennings’ BS the way Cheeks did. In my opinion, he wouldn’t have ever accepted another position where a player’s demands or selfish behavior could headlock an entire organization (ie. Dwight in Orlando). That’s what Pistons fans should be banking on. No more nonsense.

And for this reason and others (watching my boy Andre take his play to the next level), the Detroit Pistons will turn heads in the upcoming 2014-15 season and be my team to watch on League Pass.

Over/Unders to Pounce On

This week, Las Vegas sportsbooks released their over/under betting lines for total wins for all of the NBA teams. Last season, Stavi and I studied the list, planned out five bets, and proceeded to call them in an hour after the first game started. Thus, none of our bets were valid, even though we had no money on Indiana or Orlando (the first game of 2013-14). We did, however, go 4-1, so this season will be ensuring we get our bets in on time. If you want to make some easy money, consider hopping on some of our early picks.

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Suns over 42.5 wins

Too easy. Phoenix won 48 games last year with Eric Bledsoe missing a significant amount of time after undergoing knee surgery. Bledsoe is healthy and happy, now that he got his new contract, and the Suns also added underrated scorer Isaiah Thomas. Goran Dragic, Bledsoe, Thomas, the recently extended Morris twins, Gerald Green and other key Suns contributors are still very young. Add in a second year coach coming off a superb debut, and I’m all in on this team going 43-39 or better.

Timberwolves over 25.5 wins

This number is just insanely low. Minnesota won 40 games last year with a historically outlying positive point differential. In other words, it was highly unlikely they won that few games the way they outscored their opponents. Thus, some built in regression to the mean should be considered. The obvious factor here is that Kevin Love was swapped for Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins, and Thaddeus Young. That’s a clear downgrade, at least for this season, but is it a 15 win downgrade? I find that hard to believe. Love leaves something to be desired on defense, and Thaddeus Young was the only real NBA player in Philadelphia last year. Furthermore, if Wiggins flashes some of his insane potential, there should be more than enough talent to win closer to 30 or 35 games. This team is still bringing back established players Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, and others. Pound the over.

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Hawks over 40.5 wins

Last year, this was the only bet Stavi and I lost. Atlanta had the exact same over/under, and we made the same bet. Unfortunately, Al Horford suffered a season ending injury very early on, and the Hawks only got to 38 wins. Without losing any key contributors, the Hawks will get back their two-way star. Coach Mike Budenholzer, a former Spurs assistant, is also entering his second season. I see no reason why the Hawks can’t win half (41) their games, let alone closer to 45.

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Heat over 43.5 wins

I don’t think that Miami is a threat to win the Eastern Conference any longer, but counting them as an about .500 team is a mistake. The Heat return future HOFers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who undoubtedly feel they have something to prove after LeBron essentially left them for not being good enough anymore. The addition of Luol Deng will help shore up the defensive problems that James’ departure created while ensuring the locker room has the attitude needed for a team that lost LeBron James to keep competing. Furthermore, Erik Spoelstra remains a top five coach; this season will be his coming out party for casual fans who think he did nothing while LeBron was in town.