What is the definition of a .500 team? The same number of wins and losses is a good place to start, and in the case of the Chicago Bulls, 41-41 is exactly the right mark, for the Bulls take mediocrity to an extreme.
They are roughly even with their opponents in almost every statistical category. They shoot the same percentage, rebound the same, get as many steals, blocks and assists and turn the ball over at almost exactly the same rate as the opposition. The only thing that disturbs this yin-and-yang balance is a strong 3-point shooting percentage.
With that kind of game-to-game stability, one might expect the roster to have remained unchanged from October to April, but what makes the Bulls remarkable run of averageness even more exceptional is that GM John Paxson remade the team at the trade deadline. Out went Andrea Nocioni, Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes and in came John Salmons, Brad Miller and Tim Thomas. For good measure, Luol Deng has been out since March with a stress fracture and isn’t expected back.
Even stranger is that on the first night the new Bulls were in uniform—Feb. 22—they dropped a game to Indiana and their record stood at 25-31. After 11 games together, the new Bulls were 4-7 and then a funny thing happened. They closed out the season winning 12 of their final 16 games and in doing so achieved almost perfect equilibrium.
One of those losses was in the season finale against Toronto, which set up their first-round date with the Celtics and what could be an interesting series. Perhaps more interesting than the Celtics might have wanted.
Rajon Rondo vs. Derrick Rose: The first-year player from Memphis is a lock to win Rookie of the Year honors, but one of the most obvious chinks in his armor is long-range shooting. Rose is a 22 percent 3-point shooter and if he is looking for a player to emulate he need look no further than Rondo. While Rose takes 60 percent of his shots from the outside, Rondo takes less than half his shots from outside the paint and shoots 30 percentage points higher from the floor. These two may well dominate Eastern Conference All-Star teams for the next decade, but for now, Rondo is clearly ahead of Rose in the learning curve.
Ben Gordon vs. Ray Allen: Gordon rebounded from a bit of a swoon last season and is now shooting as well as he did in 2006-07. That’s the good news for the Bulls, but Allen does all the things Gordon does, and does them more efficiently. Gordon is not known as a good defender and this would seem to be a good way for Allen to get his playoff season started in a positive manner.
John Salmons vs. Paul Pierce: The Bulls have four players who shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range: Gordon, Salmons, Tim Thomas and Kirk Hinrich. Salmons has had something of a star-crossed career but he can play. Pierce, meanwhile, has been the Celtics’ rock this season and he may have to do more with Kevin Garnett out of the lineup. It will be interesting to see if he falls back into some old bad habits or if he continues to play within the flow and take over when needed. Signs point to the latter, which would be good for the Celtics.
Tyrus Thomas vs. Glen Davis: Although he is only 22 years old, after three years in the NBA it’s fair to ask just what, exactly, is Tyrus Thomas? His per-game numbers improved slightly but that was mainly because he had more minutes. His per-36 minutes totals are almost exactly unchanged except for a drop in rebounding. Most of his shots come from the outside, yet he is simply not a good shooter. It’s a reminder that whenever a long, athletic, raw kid comes out in the draft and gets compared to Garnett, that KG went from long, raw and athletic to smooth and polished relatively quickly. Unfortunately for the Celtics, it doesn’t look like they will have Garnett, so the burden falls on Big Baby and Leon Powe, both of whom advanced their games this season.
Joakim Noah vs. Kendrick Perkins: Noah went from over-exposed college star to petulant NBA problem child right quick, but for all his perceived faults he has become an excellent rebounder and an efficient, if reluctant, scorer. (Which makes him sort of the anti-Tyrus Thomas.) Call it the Dirty Harry Principal: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Perkins, of course, never went to college, but he has grown from being a personal and technical foul collecting machine to a steady producer by adding a few low-post moves to his previous arsenal of dunks and put-backs. With Garnett out he is now the anchor of the Celtics defense and he can’t afford to get caught up in early foul trouble.
Salmons has put up big numbers, but the best of Paxson’s haul may be veteran center Brad Miller who has been extremely productive and remains one of the best passing big men in the game. Additionally, Kirk Hinrich managed to get his career back on track as a steady 3-point shooter, defender and distributor off the bench. The other veteran addition, Tim Thomas, makes just enough big shots to cause problems. That’s a solid second unit, and rest assured, if Stephon Marbury wasn’t on board, Eddie House would be having Lindsey Hunter nightmares.
The Celtics bench, meanwhile, is still a work in progress. Doc Rivers will be working through the mechanics of his rotation in real time as the playoffs progress. But with Leon Powe and Tony Allen back, he now has most of his pieces to play with. Without Garnett, Mikki Moore now has a role and it could be an important one, especially if Perkins gets into foul trouble.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE BULLS
Sweet home, Chicago: The Bulls went 28-13 at home and won 14 of 15 to close the season before inexplicably getting thumped by the Raptors in the finale. The only loss was to the Lakers and along the way they beat Denver, Orlando, Houston, New Orleans and the Celtics back on St. Patrick’s Day. That was the infamous Doc Rivers-Bill Kennedy game where the coach got tossed and the ref’s union filed a grievance.
Clean the glass: The Bulls are not a particularly good rebounding team, particularly on the defensive end where they rank 28th in Defensive Rebound Rate, but they are one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the league. Noah, in particular, rates highly as does deep reserve Aaron Gray. With Garnett, the Celtics are the best rebounding team in the league. Without him they are middle of the pack. (Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub explains this nicely here).
From way downtown… bang: As noted, the Bulls are a very good 3-point shooting team. Part of that is they exercise discretion about launching from distance, ranking 23rd in 3-point shot attempts. The Celtics, meanwhile, finished the season as the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA and also ranked fairly low in terms of overall attempts (21st).
For the last month or so the Bulls have carried the dreaded, “Team you don’t want to play in the first round” designation based on their home court record and their hot streak to close the season. After the Celtics won in Philly Tuesday, it looked like they had done enough to avoid Chicago but the last night of the regular season is a strange beast, indeed.
In many ways, the Bulls are reminiscent of last year’s Cleveland team that came together late after a handful of trade deadline deals and were much better than their regular season body of work indicated. The difference, of course, is that the Cavs had LeBron James and the Bulls don’t.
The Celtics come into the playoffs knowing that Garnett won’t be available and they have put together a strong team in his absence, strong enough to get past Chicago. Winning in the Windy City won’t be easy, but a series-clincher on the Bulls’ home floor could be a spark to kick-start the C’s title defense. CELTICS IN SIX.