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Welp, I just got back from the United Center and that was a really disappointing one. The Bulls fell behind by double digits in the second quarter only to take the lead in the fourth before succumbing to the resilient Mavericks in double overtime.
Monta Ellis really does have it all. While he missed 19 shots, the 16 that Monta put in were more than enough. Throughout the fourth quarter and overtimes, Ellis hit backbreaker after backbreaker. And while his first three-pointer didn’t come until the second overtime, it gave the Mavs their lasting lead. But that didn’t stop Kirk Hinrich from committing the dumbest foul Dirk Nowitzki’s ever seen…
Hinrich hacked Ellis on a three point attempt with under two seconds left remaining in regulation and the Bulls up by three. While Tom Thibodeau apparently instructed the team to foul with the three point lead, Hinrich let many precious seconds pass before fouling at the exact time Ellis had to take the shot. And let’s not forget that Monta hadn’t made a three all night, 30 points be damned. God damnit, Kirk.
Derrick Rose broke the United Center with a floater for three that tied the game at the first overtime buzzer. Unfortunately, he couldn’t connect at the end of regulation or the second overtime. Rose struggled for most of the night but looked healthy and aggressive. Still, he took an eye-opening 11 threes and only connected on four. Rose has a tendency to fall in love with his jumper and it rarely benefits the team. Still, a season-high 37 minutes and 10 assists are truly nothing to scoff at in this return. Another encouraging night from Derrick overall.
The Jimmy Butler domination continued. He definitely struggled keeping track of Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons at times, but he was the Bulls only reliable scorer in crunch time. 46 minutes felt low for Buckets in this one considering that…
…Pau Gasol played a truly WTF-level 50 minutes. That’s baaaaad. He did rack up 29 points and 15 rebounds in a great performance, but this is not a player built to withstand the minutes that the Bulls are asking of him. With Joakim Noah apparently rolling his ankle at the end of regulation, the Bulls need Taj Gibson back now more than ever.
Nikola Mirotic had another very strong game off the bench. In 27 minutes, he kicked in 15 points, four rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and just two fouls. I wish Thibs would have let him run the floor on fresh legs in overtime rather than sending a hobbled Noah back in. Yet Noah played big in overtime and is so good precisely because he wouldn’t have let Thibs take him out if he could still stand on two feet.
For the most part, Thibs rode the starters and Hinrich til Kirk’s great gaffe. After that, the starting five closed out the game. Aaron Brooks saw just 14 minutes in a 58 minute game.
Watching Dirk Nowitzki live was quite the experience. He struggled for most of the game, but when the going got tough, Dirk got hot. The Mavs kept forcing the Bulls to switch smaller players onto Dirk, usually Rose. Dirk made shot after shot late and found himself wide open for a key three pointer in overtime.
The Mavs have a historically good offense. The Bulls did a decent job trying to stop them, but Dallas hit a lot of tough shots. Monta Ellis getting 35 shots off can’t happen though.
The Bulls take on the Hornets in Charlotte tomorrow. Hopefully no one dies after tonight’s 58 minute affair.
Jimmy Butler has been a fan favorite for most of his Bulls career, but it wasn’t until this season that he’s played like a true All-Star on both ends of the floor. I won’t get into his incredible life story, but it’s well worth a read if you’re unfamiliar. Most players as talented as Jimmy are great offensive players who take longer to become consistent defenders, if ever (like James Harden or Carmelo Anthony). Butler is the rare player who came out of the gate as an elite defender and has, early on this season, developed into a high level offensive player as well.
While the Bulls are no doubt ecstatic about this development, it has come at a particularly opportune time for Butler financially. In the NBA, first round picks are under cheap, cost-controlled rookie contracts for their first four seasons. The deadline for teams to agree to extensions with these players is on Halloween of their fourth season. (You might remember Taj Gibson receiving his contract extension at the buzzer two seasons ago). After Jimmy’s extremely disappointing campaign on the offensive end last year (which we’re about to dig into), the Bulls were hesitant to hand Butler the $12 million per year plus he wanted. With Butler on the shelf to start the year, the two sides agreed it would be mutually beneficial to revisit contract talks after the season.
If Butler keeps up his current level of play, the Bulls will likely match a maximum offer sheet, especially if Derrick Rose’s health issues exacerbate and it becomes time to consider building around other young players like Butler. Let’s take a look at how Butler’s game has gone on the titular unexpected journey towards stardom. Here are Jimmy’s traditional box score statistics over the last three seasons (he didn’t get much run his rookie year):
The numbers that stand out first are the constant increases in scoring. What’s important to note is that Butler’s minutes increased by nearly 50% from 2012-13 to 2013-14 but have remained at the same insanely high level for this season. He’s fluctuated wildly in terms of efficiency from range, but this season’s small sample size is probably the most indicative of his true rate. While Jimmy’s not bricking his threes this year, he’s upped his scoring in multiple ways. Originally thought to have the ceiling of a “3 and D” guy who could lock down top scorers and knock down shots from the corners, Butler has instead become a dynamic playmaker.
To really dig in, we need to look at the advanced stats, which are actually quite simple. Usage % is an estimate of the possessions that a player uses while he’s on the floor. With five guys on each team, an average usage rate would be 20%. Free throw rate (FTr) is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt; it tells us how proficient a guy is at getting to the charity stripe. Three point attempt % (3PA%) is the percentage of FG attempts that come from long distance. Assist, rebound and steal rate measure how often a player accrues those statistics. Finally, Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WP/48) quantifies the number of “wins” a player contributes on a per game basis. It’s a stat that encompasses many aspects of the game and the career leaders are MJ, David Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, Chris Paul and LeBron. (All advanced stats besides FT rate do not include Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets):
The most shocking development in Jimmy’s game has been his usage rate. For his first three seasons in the league, Butler was a markedly below average player in terms of volume on offense. At times last season he would disappear for entire halves. Of course Butler was playing through turf toe, but his role was severely diminished regardless. Jimmy has not just been an important part of the offense this year; he’s been the integral part. Using almost 23% of possessions has made Butler the first or second option most nights on a team that has played far more often than not without its highest usage player (Derrick Rose).
Key to Butler’s increased volume has been the efficiency coming with it. On last season’s anemic Bulls squad, Jimmy took a very high 34.6% of his field goal attempts from long distance. Because he shot so poorly from range, he brought very little value on the offensive side of the floor. By bringing that number under 20% in the early part of this season, Butler has regained his efficiency through a vastly improved post game and constant activity cutting and driving to the basket. Furthermore, taking less contested jumpers has brought Jimmy’s three point percentage up to a more acceptable 33%.
Of course, the most important part of Jimmy Butler’s emerging offensive game is his ridiculous free throw rate. After setting a career high with 18 free throws made in 20 attempts in Denver, Butler’s free throw rate now stands at .588 which is higher than DeMarcus Cousins and free throw legend James Harden!!! It’s no wonder Stacey King loves comparing Butler to Harden (.579 FT rate). Getting to the stripe has always been a big part of Jimmy’s game, but it’s been a delight seeing him continue to rack up free throws as his volume increases so significantly.
Finally, we can see by using WS/48 that Butler may truly be ready to join the league’s elite. Going into Tuesday’s loss to Denver, his WS/48 of .209 would have ranked in the top ten in 2013-14 and is notably higher than his two previous seasons. Combining Jimmy’s constant All-NBA defense with his improved offensive game is lethal. If Butler can keep up what he’s shown thus far, he’ll be a no-brainer All-NBA and maximum contract player.
When the NBA and its Players Union finally came to an agreement on the collective bargaining agreement in the fall of 2011, there was one thing that most of the owners never wanted to do again: overpay for mediocre talent. Owners for years were seemingly unable to resist the temptation to hand out terrible contracts to players who would never be worth what they were making. Every summer there would be a slew of “wow THAT guy got paid?” conversations with my friends. In order to protect themselves from themselves, the owners implemented incredibly strict tax penalties that would cost owners so much they wouldn’t have a choice but to adhere to the salary cap in place.
The new, harsher tax penalties have led to lots of interesting developments across the league, but perhaps the most interesting is the way that teams value (and hoard in some cases) both first and second round draft picks. Rookie contracts have become the new market inefficiency as they present teams with four years of control over a very cheap asset. Take for example Kyrie Irving: Irving, on the open market, would make easily $10 million a year. But 2013-14 will only be the former #1 pick’s third season in the league, which means he is only able to make about $4.8 million.
But the real gold lies in places not so easy to find: the second round. Guys drafted in the second round do not automatically receive guaranteed deals. Historically, players who aren’t chosen in the top 30 do not have long and prosperous NBA careers. NBA teams in the past have used that round two pick on a “project” player, or sometimes on someone from overseas. But more and more teams are closely scouting players who they project to slip past every team at least once. The potential upside is astronomical.
Chandler Parsons is the poster child of second round success stories: Last season, Parsons averaged 15.5 points 3.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds on 48% field goal shooting and averaging 38.5% from three. Parsons, at 6’9″, is the incredibly valuable stretch forward, a guy who is able to draw the attention of the defense when he’s dotted around the perimeter. By draggin an opposing forward a few steps out of the lane, the entire offense opens up and is capable of executing several different offensive actions. The beauty of Parsons is that he is providing all this production and floor spacing while making $900K. In 2013-14, Parsons will enter into the third year of his guaranteed four year contract which will in total pay him a little less than $4 million over its life span.
The last two offseasons have been exciting in Houston. Last summer saw the mega trade that brought James Harden into town, where he was promptly handed a hefty extension. And this summer’s biggest free agent, Dwight Howard, decided to team up with Harden and try and return the title to Houston. Those two huge moves would not have been remotely possible without the financial flexibility afforded to the Rockets by Chandler Parsons and his super cheap contract.
Erik Murphy was the second round pick for the Chicago Bulls, going #49 overall. Murphy is listed at 6’10” and can play either power forward or center. To be clear, Murphy is not the prototypical stopper that Tom Thibodeau loves to have on the floor. Although the former Gator is blessed with great size, he is not exactly fast, agile or much of a jumper. In his senior year at Florida, Murphy only averaged about 5 rebounds a game, a pretty small number for a big dude.
So why did the Bulls decide Murphy was worth a roll of the dice? Last season, Murphy shot 45.3% from three. Murphy averaged two made three balls a game. In 2012-13, the Chicago Bulls averaged only 5.4 threes a game, the second lowest mark in the entire league. They also attempted the second fewest threes in the league, barely edging out the Memphis Grizzlies in both categories.
Coach Thibodeau is one of the most highly regarded and respected minds in the game of basketball today. His overload defensive schemes, made popular by the championship winning 2008 Celtics before he brought it to Chicago, is one of the most commonly replicated defensive systems in the league today. The system has many principles and is difficult to describe, let alone execute on the floor. But one of the most interesting parts of the scheme is the way it limits opponents three point attempts, especially from the corners. The Bulls allowed opponents to shoot just 35.8% from behind the arc, good for the fourth best percentage in the league. Obviously, the architect of this system understands the value of the three point shot. And while most of his energy has previously been expended on preventing them, this season the Bulls brain trust will surely focus on how to more effectively incorporate the shot into the offense. Jimmy Butler made a big leap in regards to his shooting and many fans hope that his averages can tick up a few more percentage points. But Butler alone as a deep threat is not enough. That’s where Murphy becomes interesting.
Last season, Murphy posted a true shooting percentage, or TS% of 64.3%. To put that in perspective, Lebron James put up a 64% TS% in his historically great war path through the NBA. TS%, for those who either don’t know, gives extra weight to three point accuracy, Murphy’s specialty. Murphy, despite his status as a rookie drafted in the second round, is going to force defenses to pay attention to him whenever he is on the floor.
And that’s where things potentially get interesting for the Bulls. Coach Thibodeau is a perfectionist by nature, and I’m sure that he has spent the summer thinking about how he needs to improve as a coach. The most glaring flaw in Thibs’ style is the number of minutes his best players are on the floor. This season, Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich and hopefully Tony Snell can pick up some minutes at small forward to allow Luol Deng to stay fresh for the post season. The biggest disappointment for Bulls fans this summer was that the overuse of Joakim Noah seemingly went ignored in free agency. The Bulls brought back Narz Mohammed to play backup center, despite the fact that he was born in the crustacean period.
Perhaps Gar Forman and the front office view Murphy as the (incredibly cheap) solution to finding minutes for Joakim to rest. Obviously a Murphy-Boozer frontcourt would become a layup line, but if the rookie is paired with the tenacious Taj Gibson the Bulls D could hold up over short stretches of time.
Murphy’s presence on the floor could be a big help to that Rose guy who’s coming back from an ACL injury. Rose, who’s greatest ability is slicing through the lane and getting to the rim, will only find it easier to score from close when an opposing big man is forced to play 15 feet from the basket in anticipation of a kick out to Murphy.
The beauty of it all is that while second round picks are more valuable now than ever, it’s still such a minuscule investment in the grand scheme of things that if he totally flops it won’t be that big of a deal. But if he turns into a cog in the rotation, that super team friendly contract either becomes a potential trade asset or allows the Bulls to address other pressing needs via free agency.