The Eastern Conference will have a clear-cut top tier of 5 teams next season: the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, and New York Knicks. After that, it falls off dramatically, and teams like the Wizards, Pistons, and Bucks will be battling for the right to lose in the first round. The order of those top five (save, perhaps, Miami) will be debated and determined in the season, but it is interesting to wonder how the five will match up against each other in 2013-14. I’ll be doing this series from a Bulls perspective. Today, let’s see how Chicago matches up against the hottest, newest super-team thingy in the NBA.
The Bulls embarrassed the Nets in the playoffs last year. Yes, their first round series went seven games, but it should not have even lasted past five. The Nets should have put the Bulls out of their injury-induced misery quickly and easily. They had the best player, Deron Williams, the second best player (by virtue of Brook Lopez having two healthy feet and Joakim Noah having one), and had Joe Johnson, a multiple-time All-Star, terrific scorer/ball-handler and a guy who has averaged 20 points per game throughout his career. Luol Deng was in the HOSPITAL after having the most insidious sounding procedure ever, a spinal tap. Nate Robinson and Marco Bellinelli were the Bulls’ primary ballhandlers. The Nets had home-court advantage, a 1-0 lead in the series, and a better bench (because the Bulls’ bench was now the starting lineup). Soooooooo yeah the Nets should have blown Chicago away.
And yet, Chicago suffocated their offense, took a 3-1 lead and eventually punked Brooklyn on their monochromatic home floor in game seven. (By the way, the Nets could have at least added ONE COLOR out of the basically endless selection of colors in the world, to their color scheme. I feel like I am looking at an Instagram photo when I watch them in all their black-and-white-ness.)
Since then, though, Brooklyn has done some big things. The Bulls exposed their lack of outside shooting and some toughness last year, so they added two of the toughest dudes in the NBA, who also double as very good outside shooters, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. They also added to their bench. Let’s take a look at how they might match up next season.
PG: Derrick Rose vs. Deron Williams
There has never been a better matchup in league history of point guards whose first names both start with “Der” (FACT). With your mind blown, let’s break it down. Here are each player’s box scores from the last 4 times Derrick Rose and Deron Williams have faced eachother:
Fans pack the house to watch two great point guards.
Feb. 6, 2012 (Bulls 108, Nets 87):
Derrick Rose: 4 points, 0 assists, 0 rebounds, 2/3 fg, +/- of +10 (go figure pt. 1)
Deron Williams: 25 points, 5 assists, 8/16 FG, +/- of -20 (go figure pt. 2)
Whoa! Williams crushed Rose! Just kidding. Rose had two early personal fouls before leaving the game with back spasms. So Williams did most of his good work against C.J. Watson. Which sets up nicely because here are the three previous matchups, when Rose was healthy…
Jan. 23, 2012 (Bulls 110, Nets 95):
Rose: 22 points, 8 assists, 9/16 FG, +/- of +8
Williams: 16 points, 10 assists, 7/14 FG, +/- of -12
Pretty even, but a slight advantage for Rose. But it gets worse for Williams…
March 17, 2011 (Bulls 84, Nets 73)
Rose: 21 points, 2 assists, 8/23 FG, +/- of +14
Williams: 5 points, 11 assists, 1/12 FG, +/- of -12
Yeeeeeeesh. I know Rose didn’t shoot well here either, but still. Of course, it wasn’t Rose by himself locking down Williams, as Chicago plays excellent team defense, but Williams has at times been considered the best point guard in the NBA. Score one for Rose.
Feb. 9, 2011 (Bulls 91, Jazz 86)
Rose: 29 points, 7 assists, 11/26 FG, +/- of +1
Williams: 11 points, 12 assists, 5/13 FG, +/- of -3
Ouch. This game stands out to me, because I remember staying up late to watch it, and I remember Rose absolutely kicking into a higher gear and making Williams look like a chump late in the game. He blew by Williams over and over again, and put him in a straitjacket on defense. Four games, one of which we can throw out because of Rose’s health, is a very, very small sample, I understand. But Williams didn’t come close to outplaying Rose in any of the three legitimate games. And Rose came out with the victory in each instance too, if that matters to you.
And after allllllllllllllllll that said, I will probably vote Williams for next season’s matchup. Listen, I love Rose more than any other player in the NBA. But I just won’t believe that he will be back from injury and be the MVP Rose before I see it happen. That Rose would win this easily. But it probably wont be him. Add in that Williams has a much improved team which will raise his game, and that he returned to “best point guard in the NBA contender” form late last season, and I think Williams takes this one by a slight margin.
Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler vs. Joe Johnson
This is a tough one to call. By name recognition, it should be Johnson by a landslide. He is an All-Star player who at his peak, averaged 25 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists per game and shot 47% from the field. But Johnson, 32, is clearly on the decline, having averaged his lowest points per game, field goal percentage, and assists per game since the 2002-2003 season. Check out his per-36 minutes numbers here, they drop quite significantly across the board from the past few seasons.
Though Butler will hopefully continue to improve offensively and will take on a greater scoring load, this matchup is still mostly based on what happens when Butler is defending Johnson. Butler has the size, strength, and quickness to play Johnson and force him into contested jumpshots, which Johnson sort of loves taking anyways.
In the end, though, Johnson is still an effective player capable of scoring 20 any night, and is a good clutch shooter. Butler is a terrific defender and rebounder, but his offensive game has to come around more.
Small Forward: Luol Deng vs. Paul Pierce
Another very good matchup. Both these guys have been run ragged the past couple of years doing dang near everything for their teams. Pierce had to be the focal point of the offense last year in Boston after Rajon Rondo got injured, and did an admiral job of doing so. In fact, Pierce’s per-36 numbers pretty much stayed the same from the previous few seasons, with a slight increase in scoring and a huge jump in assists, all while doing a huge share of the ballhandling, playing bigger minutes, and having a lot more defensive attention on himself.
Deng, as I outlined before, has been an absolute warrior for Tom Thibodeau. He has seen a pretty big decrease in his points per game, field goal percentage, and 3-point percentage over the last two years under such heavy minutes. Defensively, though, is where Deng stands out and continues to be an excellent player.
This is one is tough to call as well. Pierce has the advantage in terms of offensive ability and shooting, but Deng is a great defender who has the length and quickness to defend Pierce. As this page shows, Pierce’s offensive numbers really suffered this past season, in 106 minutes going against Deng. It’s pretty much a wash.
Power Forward: Carlos Boozer vs. Kevin Garnett
A battle of jump-shooting big men. But one of those jump-shooting big men is still a menacing defensive presence who will probably create a more intense defensive attitude for the team, form a great defensive tandem with Brook Lopez and lock down the paint. The other is Carlos Boozer.
It will be interesting to see how new Nets head coach Jason Kidd uses Garnett. Doc Rivers played him in short spurts, about 5 minutes at a time, the last few years in Boston. When energized, Garnett is still a very good player.
Boozer is also a good player. But has become too one-dimensional at this point. He relies almost solely on mid-range jumpshots. I won’t blame him for not attacking the basket as much, as his athleticism has clearly waned and he is already a bit undersized. He is also very good at that one offensive dimension. He is also a very good passer who can pick out cutters with accurate passes, a very important trait in an offense that relies on a lot of player and ball movement to create open looks. But, matched up against Garnett, who can use his never-ending arms to bother Boozer’s jumper, he would be at a disadvantage. On the other end, Boozer can’t do much to bother Garnett. It would be one really old, slow guy trying to score on another less-old but also pretty slow guy. Not very entertaining and neither would get a ton accomplished.
Center: Joakim Noah vs. Brook Lopez
The numbers can say what they want here. They don’t give the full picture when talking about Joakim Noah.
(Hold one, someone is at the door. Might be the cliche police. Sorry.)
Lopez had great success against Noah last year in 55 regular-season minutes facing him. He scored at a rate of 26.2 points per 36, shot above his regular average, rebounded better than his average, and fouled less.
Noah also played well in those 55 minutes, scoring at 16.4 per 36, shooting an insane 73% against Brook’s defense, and dishing out 4.6 assists per 36. His rebounding, suffered, however.
But I don’t care. I’m taking Noah every day, week, month and year. Lopez can score all the points and shoot all the jumpers he wants, I’m taking Noah’s heart, hustle, constant intensity, rebounding, defensive awesomeness and fantastic passing ability. He played through plantar fasciitis and dominated Brook and the Nets in Game 7 of their series. And his hair is better than Lopez’s curly fro.
Bench: Taj Gibson/Kirk Hinrich/Mike Dunleavy/Tony Snell/Marquis Teague vs. Jason Terry/Andrei Kirilenko/Andray Blatche/Reggie Evans
This makes Brooklyn reaaaaaaaaaaaaaally scary. Kirilenko could probably start on a good playoff team, and Terry and Evans are two players who you can certainly have playing important roles on contenders. Blatche gives them a good option in the paint off the bench. The lineup options Jason Kidd will have will be tremendous, and the Bulls won’t be able to match that. The Nets are deep with shooting, quickness, and veteran-ness (very important quality).
Coaching: Tom Thibodeau vs. Jason Kidd
Thibodeau. Moving on.
The Nets won more individual categories, so it would make sense to give them the vote, which I will. But it’s about more than just the 1-on-1 matchups (which I admit, is a very superficial way to evaluate two teams, but hey it’s August 3rd and there’s no NBA news so leave me alone). It’s about the overwhelming wealth of options that Brooklyn will present, collectively, as a unit. In the playoff series against the Bulls, Chicago choked Brooklyn’s offense by completely ignoring Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans on offense. They threw as much attention at Williams, Lopez, and Johnson as they could, and dared Wallace and Evans to make plays to beat them. In the end, Chicago squeaked by. That strategy will be severely tested this year, with the Nets upgrading from Wallace and Evans to Pierce and Garnett. Pierce will make the Bulls pay from the perimeter if they treat him as they treated Wallace, sagging all the way off of him into the paint. Garnett’s presence will not allow the Bulls’ big men to leave and help on Williams or Johnson like they did when defending Evans.
The point is, there won’t be any respite for the Bulls defense. Slowed Williams down with a double team? Well, now the ball is swung to Pierce and you have to close out on his 3-point shot, except he can dribble by and score at the rim, or pass it off to Lopez who can finish down low, or dish it to Johnson waiting in the corner for an open 3, or drop it down to Garnett who is open since the Bulls defense had to rotate. It will be exhausting, every trip down the court, having to defend 5 legitimate threats to score, which not even the Miami Heat can boast. Throw in some excellent bench players, and I think Brooklyn will really, really good. Too good for the Bulls, even. Chicago would make a 7-game series very competitive with their defense, especially with Rose back. If he gets back to 90% of who he was, he would be the best player in the series, which is always an ace up the sleeve in the NBA. But I think the Nets have just added too much, and have improved the roster over what Chicago currently has.
Now better watch your bank account, Mikhail Prokhorov.