NBA Playoff Preview: Chicago vs. Indiana

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SEASON RECORDS
Bulls: 62-20 (No. 1 seed in East)
Pacers: 37-45 (No. 8 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Bulls 3-1, with the Pacers winning the most recent when Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough just took over.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Bulls: Off. 105.4 (12th in NBA); Def. 97.4 (1st in NBA)
Pacers: Off. 101.8 (23rd in NBA)’ Def. 103.5 (12th in NBA)

THREE KEY BULLS:

Derrick Rose: The soon-to-be MVP is pretty much everything to the Bulls offense — he is the guy they run off screens to get shots, he is the guy they give the ball to in isolation. What will be interesting in this series, and particularly as the playoffs move on, is how the Bulls adjust when teams make it a priority to get the ball out of Rose’s hands.

Luol Deng: He is key in two ways: 1) He will get the defensive matchups on Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy Jr., the two guys the Bulls will key on stopping; 2) He is the difference between the Bulls having an average offense and a good one. Rose will get his, as will Carlos Boozer most nights, but when Deng gets going with them the Bulls offense is infinitely harder to stop.

Taj Gibson: The Bulls depth — and the ability of that depth to control Mike Dunleavy and Josh McRoberts off the Pacers bench — will be one of their keys in this series. Gibson (or whoever the Pacers put on Dunleavy) needs to make him work on defense as well. Which means attack the rim, when Gibson spots up he is far less dangerous. He needs to use his athleticism and attack.

THREE KEY PACERS

Danny Granger: Indiana has got to find a way to score on the Bulls stout defense, and Granger is the guy most capable of creating his own shot and knocking it down. His game has taken a step back this season — he is not shooting at as high a percentage, he is turning over the ball more — but simply put he must have a monster series for the Pacers to have any chance.

Darren Collison: No one man can stop Derrick Rose, it takes a team effort. But Collison is the first line of defense. He has to guide Rose to help, he has to create turnovers and make life hard for Rose, and when the Pacers decide to trap or take other steps to get the ball out of Rose’s hands, he cannot let Rose just split the double and waltz inside. The other key for Collison — holding on to the ball. Collison can be a turnover machine, particularly when he is handling the ball on the pick-and-roll. The Bulls are one of the best pick-and-roll defending teams in the league. If he turns the ball over and the Bulls get easy points in transition, the Pacers will not be able to keep up.

Mike Dunleavy Jr.: The Pacers take a lot of jump shots and Dunleavy is their best guy curling off screens and on catch-and-shoots — the things the Bulls are going to make very hard but the Pacers have to execute to have a chance. He has to get looks and he is going to have to knock down some contested shots for the Pacers to have any chance. And he should put the ball on the floor too (which he is better at than people think, he’s got a pretty rounded game).

OUTLOOK

The Bulls are the league’s best defensive team; the Pacers are a pretty good defensive team. So rule one, bet the under. The key here is the Pacers are not a good offensive team either and what strengths they do have play right into the hands of the Bulls defense. That showed in the regular season meetings when the Pacers mostly struggled to score.

Indiana likes to run guys off screens, have them pop out to open spaces for quick shots or to get room to attack — you can bet the Bulls will bump guys off those lines in this series. Chicago will grind it out, take Pacers players off their preferred lines. Also, the Bulls close out hard on shooters, taking away clean looks. Indiana needs to find a way to get some easy buckets.

The best way to attack the Bulls is to get out in transition — the Bulls are not a great transition defense team. Once you let them get set in the half court they are a wall. Problem is, Pacers do not like to get out and run, and they’re not good at it when they do.

On the other end of the floor, the Bulls are going to do what they do, which is run Rose off a series of screens and put him in isolation and get enough points. The Pacers will have some success slowing this, they are a good defensive squad. But will it matter?

Indiana did beat the Bulls once this past season — the Bulls had one of their worst interior defensive games of the season and Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert combined for 44 and 19. Want to bet on them being able to do that four times in seven games?

PREDICTION

The Pacers just do not have the offensive firepower to hang in this series. It’s going to be a low scoring series. Also expect some ugly games. But the Bulls are the better grinders.

Bulls sweep, 4-0.

Report: NBA cancels vote for in-season tournament, play-in tournament

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
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The NBA had some big ideas about revamping its schedule – in-season tournament, play-in tournament and reseeded semifinals.

It seemed strange that the least radical of these proposals – replacing the conference finals with reseeded semifinals – gained no traction. Who disapproved of that yet supported an in-season tournament and play-in tournament?

Apparently not enough teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This vote won’t happen, because the proposal would lose. The official vote is merely a formality. The NBA knows too many governors would vote no, so not even holding the vote saves the league some embarrassment.

I don’t see how further study will help the in-season tournament. It’s just a bad idea. People won’t care about it. That’s why there have been so many suggestions for generating interest. It’s a losing battle.

A play-in tournament could work. There are several viable permeations. I buy that time to build consensus for that could be helpful.

These changes don’t have to take effect in 2021-22. The 75th-anniversary season just provided an opportunity for spin. If the NBA implemented the new schedule that season and it backfired, the league could drop it and claim it was a one-time alteration.

That window isn’t quite shut, but read the writing on the wall: Too few owners want these changes.

LeBron James again leads NBA jersey sales, Giannis Antetokounmpo second

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Combine the brands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers and it’s going to sell a lot of jerseys.

If you needed confirmation of that — and why would you? — the NBA announced that LeBron leads the league in jersey sales through the start of this season (October 2019 through the end of the calendar year). Giannis Antetokounmpo is second, and Stephen Curry rounds out the top three. Then the list gets interesting.

Here are the top 15 players in jersey sales:

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors=
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics=
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
6. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
7. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
11. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
12. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
15. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Tatum climbing up to fourth — in front of Harden and some other established stars — shows both the growth in his popularity and the power of Celtics’ nation.

The fast-rising popularity of Luka Doncic also is evident with him being sixth, in front of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, both of whom switched teams (which often can spike jersey sales).

Also, note Zion Williamson is 15th without having stepped on an NBA court. Yet.

The Lakers head the list of the team with the most merchandise sold, with the Celtics second and the 76ers third. Toronto is fourth after its championship run (their first time in the top five), and the Brooklyn Nets are in the top 10, a first for that franchise.

These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from October 2019 through December 2019.

Frustrated Bradley Beal reportedly “angry with and emotional about” Wizards

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Just before the start of training camp, Bradley Beal locked himself in with the Wizards agreeing to a two-year, $71.8 million contract extension. That new contract meant not only some bigger paychecks down the line but also Beal could not be traded during this season — a season everyone realized would be difficult with no John Wall.

All the losing is wearing on Beal, however, who said after Thursday night’s Wizards loss to the Bulls:

“I don’t like losing. I’m sorry — especially winnable games… I don’t like losing, so [my frustration is] gonna keep building up for me until we starting winning and changing our culture.”

How do you change the culture?

“Winning games. Have a winning attitude, winning habits.”

This is more than just frustration of the moment with another loss, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Bradley Beal’s pique after his team’s 115-106 loss to the Bulls was real. Really real. A source who was also there told me Thursday that Beal was as angry with and emotional about his team as he’s ever been since being drafted by the Wizards in 2012.

Beal may have intellectually understood what he signed up for this season, that doesn’t make going through it easier emotionally. This season in Washington was going to be about finding players to go around Beal and Wall and make this team a threat. They found a few — Davis Bertans has had a breakout season (but may be tough to keep as a free agent this summer), rookie Rui Hachimura showed promise before his groin injury, Jordan McRae and Thomas Bryant have had their moments.

The concern for GM Tommy Shepard and the Wizards is Beal gets so frustrated he demands out, throwing off Washington’s plan. Technically, Beal cannot be a free agent until the summer of 2022 (or 2023 if he picked up a player option), but that has not stopped players in recent years from leveraging their way out in “pre-agency.” Maybe Beal doesn’t go that route this summer, but you can be sure a lot of teams will be calling Washington just to check on his availability. (This is where we say “the league is cracking down on player-to-player tampering/recruitment,” but if you think that will stop players I know a Nigerian prince who needs a loan and wants to talk to you.)

Much like with Karl-Anthony Towns, expect teams to be monitoring this situation. Just in case. Wizards fans may want to monitor it, too.

 

 

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
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As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.