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Ben Gordon’s Project: Payback for a Paycheck and Other Chicago Bulls News

Time to check up on the Bulls who are off to a very nice start at 5-5 before leaving on a West Coast road trip from which they’ll likely return with their head atop a pike.

As usual, the story with the Bulls is their back court. Derrick Rose continues his surge in an offense increasingly designed to showcase him. Rose is averaging 18.9 point/game, 5.6 assists/game, 5 rebounds/game, 1.2 steals a game and 2.5 turnovers/game. You’d like to see those turnovers go down a little, but he’s at a little better than a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ration and that’s excellent for a rookie logging heavy minutes. Heavy minutes? Rose has the most minutes on the team. He also has the most shots taken, but Ben Gordon will likely over-take him in that esoteric statistic in a game or two.

Speaking of Ben Gordon, Bulls fans were overwhelmingly toasting Gordon with Hateraide cocktails during his acrimonious contract negotiations with everyone buying into the idea that he wasn’t all that good and shouldn’t start and would do naught but interfere with development of other players (which might be true if Sefolosha was showing anything resembling energy). With Hinrich getting hurt, Gordon has kicked Operation: Payback for a Paycheck into high gear. He’s averaging 25.5 points in four games as a starter. For the season, he’s shooting .471 from the field, which is better than anyone else on the team playing 20+ minutes/game. The variation with Gordon seems to be the extent to which he’s feeling his stroke. If he’s on, he’s going to hit for closer to 30 points, if he’s off, he’ll attack the basket more, try and draw some fouls (he’s leading the Bulls in free throw attempts, too) and will score closer to 20. The shackles have been taken off and Gordon has been producing. If he can continue this pace, it will be very interesting to see how the Bulls handle the situation. Certainly, Gordon isn’t doing anything to hurt his trade value, thus far. You just don’t know how amenable he really is to signing a real contract with them. Add a real center to that Rose/Gordon backcourt and you’ve got something.

The Achilles’ heal for the Bulls, as is traditional in recent years, is still their front court. Gooden hasn’t proved an adequate defender as a center. Nocioni’s always been small for a power forward. Gray’s slow on defense and nobody will pass him the ball to take advantage of his offensive post abilities. Noah’s scoring range is roughly the length of his arm, if there’s nobody in front of him. It’s rough and the Bulls are giving up too much on the offensive glass. Let’s not even talk about defending the rim, especially with Gooden in the pivot.

Then you have the lost players. Luol Deng is still third on the team in scoring, but all he’s hitting with any consistency is free throws. Poor guy gets a contract, only to have a drastic change in the offensive scheme to drop his shooting percentage down to .393. For a career .477 shooter, that drop is mind-boggling. That smooth mid-range jump shot is out of rhythm more often than not and Deng’s role is now more of a cutter, substituting slashing for the lack of a post game. Deng has been playing better that last few games, so there’s hope that it just took him a while to adapt to the system.

You’ve heard of the short story “The Man Without a Country?” Tyrus Thomas is “The Man Without a Shot.” Shooting an amazingly cold .282 from the floor, that jump shot he showed in the pre-season was nothing but a tease. When it came time for the pre-season, it flew South for the Winter. It sounds like Thomas must still be making the shot in practice, ‘cause Coach Vinny still seems to think he can make it, so maybe there’s some performance anxiety. Thomas has his good points as a disruptive force, blocking shots and jumping in front of passes with his long limbs, but his offensive game suffers greatly when he’s not in transition. I’d like to see him given the opportunity to attack the rim a little more, since his athleticism off the dribble is clearly a differentiating factor for Thomas, but that doesn’t seem to be part of the half-court set at this time.

Still, this overall bad shooting is causing problems for the Bulls. The occurrence of ice cold players (players jacking up shot after shot and not hitting a thing) seems to be getting a little better, but it hasn’t completely gone away. It seems, much like you can catch a cold, you can catch cold shooting.

Sefolosha 0-1 (5:21)
Thomas 0-3 (6:10)
Total ice cold misses: 0-4

Nocioni 0-5 (28.31)
Total ice cold misses: 0-5

Everybody taking a shot hits one
Thomas 1-8 (21:28… Not that everyone was shooting that well)

Sefolosha 0-1 (15.48)
Total ice cold misses: 0-1

Thomas 0-1 (14:49)
Sefolosha 0-4 (17:35)
Hinrich 0-5 (20:36)
Total ice cold misses: 0-10

Deng 0-8 (25:47)
J. Noah 0-1 (4:56)
Total ice cold misses: 0-9

Thomas 0-5 (26:04)
Gray 0-1 (10:33)
Total ice cold misses: 0-6

Nichols 0-2 (3:39)
Total ice cold misses: 0-2

With their appearances on the ice cold chart, Thomas is seeing his minutes shrink. Sefolosha, as passive a player as you can imagine, also doesn’t seem to be likely to see more time, as Larry “Never Met a Shot I Wouldn’t Take” Hughes starts to grab his minutes and Lindsey “Isiah’s First Draft Pick” Hunter (Isiah effectively picked him for the Pistons and he turned out just fine) will likely be picking up some more minutes as the back-up point when he acclimates to the system. Hunter (in his old age) might be the best defender on the team, as an added bonus.
Hughes is similar to Thomas, in that his value to the team is a whole lot higher on fast break possessions, than in the half court. If Hughes isn’t feeling it, the rim certainly will. Leaning jumpers will be bouncing off the rim like so many lead balloons. Get him attacking the rim in transition and it’s a different story. Decent player, bad fit.

Basically, the Bulls are playing just enough defense and getting just enough scoring out of their guards to squeak to a .500 record after 10 games. (Though it is worth noting they caught Phoenix when Terry Porter picked the wrong night to give Shaq a day off.) When they lost, they were in the game 3 of 5 times, so it isn’t like they’ve been getting their head handed to them that much, thus far. If a couple more players could remember where their shot went to, they could conceivably be 7-3. Still, without much of a post-game you’re subject to jump shooters going cold, and that’s certainly been the case at times.

The Bulls finish the month of November with a nasty trip West and a visit to Philly. To make matters worse, on the West Coast swing, they skip the manageable Clippers and Kings. Out of the Lakers, Blazers, Warriors, Nuggets, Jazz and Spurs, who do you think the Bulls will beat? The Warriors would seem to be the best bet. If they come out of this trip 2-4, that’s a good sign. It isn’t unrealistic for them to come out 0-6. Then they go to Philly, a team that appears to have finally realized it isn’t pre-season anymore and the games count. If they remember to give the ball to Elton Brand (which seems to be an issue in Philly), the Bulls will be hard-pressed to deny him, especially if Gooden is playing center.

The next two weeks, we see what the Bulls are really made of and then the schedule softens for December and January. I’m still sticking to my take that the Bulls are a .480 team, but there is some potential here I wasn’t expecting.
Conspiracy theorists should note that Demetris Nichols has been waived by the Bulls. Does this mean:

a) They’re clearing room for a trade

b) They’ve got a free agent to sign, like the suddenly available Antonio McDyess

c) They’re too cheap to carry a full compliment of 15 players

I’m thinking the answer is “c,” but you never know. Gordon’s trade value is up there right now.

And finally, for the Bulls Fan Hateraide Squad: Chris Duhon. You remember him. That point guard you thought was worthless and couldn’t play? I’ll grant you he’s a streak shooter and only hitting at a very Bull-like clip of .390, but he’s currently tied with Steve Nash for 5th in assists with 7.4 a game. With a very respectable 4.35 assist-to-turnover ratio. Keep drinking that Hateraide, Chicago.

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