Why These Bulls Will Never Have Enough Luck to Win

Chicago continues to push LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and the Cavs in an increasingly testy series in spite of mounting adversity. The latest setback was Taj Gibson getting a flagrant 2 (and the mandatory ejection that goes with it) after a scuffle with Matthew Dellavedova turned into a shoving match between both teams under the basket.

Losing Gibson in and of itself is more of an annoyance than anything. He provides quality depth and defense off the bench that Nikola Mirotic doesn’t, but he shouldn’t be such a critical cog. Unfortunately for the Bulls his is the only legitimately good defense on the front line at the moment thanks to Joakim Noah’s nagging injuries. Noah’s performance in the series has been particularly sad to watch as his usual high-energy game is a lot less effective at three-quarters speed.

With Gibson out there was no alternative for Tom Thibodeau to turn to for an additional defensive presence. The Chicago frontcourt rotation is suffering for more than just defense with Pau Gasol also sitting out due to injury. While his absence has at least come with the silver lining of more minutes for Mirotic, the Bulls could use as many healthy bodies among their bigs as possible.

Adding Mirotic and Gasol in the offseason, along with Jimmy Butler’s rise as a legitimate two-way perimeter threat alongside the shooting of Mike Dunleavy was supposed to amount to the best Chicago team in years. With Derrick Rose returning there was a faint glimmer of hope that the Bulls might finally be ready to compete again, but the fatal flaw the Bulls have always fought – that their core pieces are too injury-prone to stay on the court together – has never gone away.

Rose finally, after years of battling knee problems, managed to return to the court this season. He may not have been the same player, but he was still better than anything else the Bulls had, and the quality of the team around him meant that Rose didn’t have to carry the load as much as he did in 2011. The depth on the roster blows away anything that the Bulls have ever had around Rose. That depth, however, is only useful if enough of your rotation players are healthy enough to suit up and play at something approaching 100%.

Rose picked up his game once the playoffs started; Noah hasn’t been right the entire time. Noah is at the center of everything that Thibs does. At his best he pings around the paint, flies out at ballhandlers, and rotates back before the offense even knows there’s space to take advantage of. It’s a highwire act that, when performed well, effectively stifles opponents in spite of playing next to the likes of Gasol and Carlos Boozer before him. For his part, Gasol was the offensive-minded power forward Chicago always wanted Boozer to be. He can post up or punish defenses with pick and rolls and pick and pops that fluster defenses gearing up against Rose or Butler.

With both of them ailing, the deep frontcourt suddenly looks really thin. Losing Gibson only made it worse. That’s the real problem with the Bulls, and why they’ll never catch the luck they need to win: with this many fragile players, too much has to go right at once. If it’s not an injury to Rose throwing off the plan then someone else will go down. Noah has always struggled to stay on the court, Gasol is nearing the end of his career and starting to break down, and no one else aside from Butler is reliable enough to help consistently win games.

Out of Fuel in L.A.: The Houston Rockets Story

The Rockets have completely collapsed after a strong performance in the first round against Dallas and after sitting in a favorable position heading into Game 1 of their series with the Clippers. Instead, with Chris Paul sitting out and Austin Rivers starting at point guard, Houston lost by 16 in their own building. Blake Griffin was running the point for L.A. and the Rockets’ defense still proved unable to get a stop down the stretch.

That theme has been prevalent throughout the postseason. Houston’s offensive production has remained strong; any question about James Harden’s effectiveness is absurd. His scoring average has remained about the same as it was in the regular season while he has actually taken fewer shots. His assists are up (as are his turnovers), and his percentages are strong. Turning the blame on Dwight Howard’s offense would be easy as well, and equally wrong. Despite the poor free throw shooting that has been at the front of everyone’s mind thanks to the hard-to-watch hacking, Howard has shot well from the field and put up his typical gaudy rebounding numbers.

The issue for this team is not it’s offense. The defense, which Howard was supposed to help shore up, has been atrocious. Playing against Paul and Griffin will do that to a certain extent, but there are structural problems as well. There’s no reason to lose DeAndre Jordan so many times, and no matter how well Austin Rivers played in Game 3, he’s still Austin freaking Rivers. Some of that is on the defense.

During the “Blake at point guard” stretches in Game 1 the Rockets failed to pressure him as the 6’9” power forward brought the ball up the court, and they allowed the Clippers all the space they needed to operate when the pressure should have forced some very tough choices for the elder Rivers. For all the depth advantages that the Rockets should have had against a brutally thin Clippers team, Houston seems to be the one trying and failing to solve tough problems. Howard getting into foul trouble seemed to completely break the game plan last night, and that’s for a team that thrived in his absence during the regular season.

Now it is worth noting that Paul would be easier to deal with had Patrick Beverley been healthy and available. Instead the AARP backcourt of Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni has been forced to try to keep pace with the wily Paul to ill effect. Of course none of that explains the poor defensive performances in the first two games in which Paul did not play.

Houston has some soul searching to do in the offseason. They need to improve on defense, and they need to do it now. As the Thunder showed this year, you can never tell how long the window for contention will stay open.

Harden’s improvement on defense during the regular season was much-touted, but he’s still not a plus defender. A good team concept with strong defensive players surrounding him is necessary for this roster to compete. Howard isn’t the defensive force he once was, but he’s still pretty damn good, so there’s a strong foundation. Trevor Ariza and Beverley are also capable of playing strong defense. The power forward spot, split between Terrence Jones and Josh Smith during these playoffs, could be the place to upgrade, but that’s easier said than done as Houston’s pursuit of Chris Bosh last summer showed.

The answers may not be easy, and they may ultimately point to Kevin McHale. The Rockets are not substantially less talented than the Clippers, nor do they have more glaring holes, yet they’ve been handily defeated in 3 of the 4 games in this series. That’s the sort of stuff that a great coach can remedy. Whatever Houston does to try to right the ship, it’s quickly becoming clear that they aren’t going anywhere this season.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice If We Had Farmar

Then the Clippers wouldn’t have to play Lester Hudson so long. Or Austin Rivers. Or Jamal Crawford as point guard. It’s been no surprise that L.A. has been thin all season, a state of affairs attributable to Doc Rivers’ love of signing players who are either related to him or had at least one good playoff series in the Eastern Conference five years ago. Would Jordan Farmar have been a suitable replacement for Chris Paul? Probably not, but he would at least be able to run something resembling an NBA pick and roll and avoid turning the ball over on every third possession. At least they have Blake Griffin to back him up.

The “Doc is a bad GM” storyline has been beaten to death, but the Paul injury really highlights the painful choices he has forced on himself as a coach with his personnel choices. Ejecting Jared Dudley along with a pick to get him off the books is the flashier bad move, but losing your only competent backup point guard and not replacing him is almost unthinkable. Sure, the Clips had Nate Robinson, but they refused to even sign him to a rest-of-season deal after his 2nd 10-day contract.

That left the team with the aforementioned Hudson, who, to his credit, is a really good Chinese Basketball Association player. What he is not is a reasonable replacement for Paul. For that matter, neither is Robinson. Their offense is generally predicated on Paul’s passing, and without him on the floor, whether it be due to in-game rest or an injury, the rest of the lineup struggles to operate at the same level. Blake Griffin can run the offense for stretches, but the likes of DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick rely on being set up. Paul is excellent at it, and no one else on the roster can fill that void. It didn’t have to be this way.

The Rockets, who were derided heavily in the offseason for sacrificing quality depth in failed free agency bids, actually look like a deep team, especially in comparison to these Clippers. The losses of Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons were supposed to rob Houston of the bench they’d need to compete in the West. Instead they took some calculated risks, notably on Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, and those have paid off more than anyone could have expected.

The emergence of those two may not have been expected, but it was at least in the realm of possibility. Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu were never going to be game changers, and Rivers the younger’s ceiling at this point is pretty low. If you want to grab veterans grab some that might actually help. If you’re going after youth make sure there’s a real chance of improvement.

Of course, it doesn’t matter how thin your bench is if your opponent constantly turns the ball over and intermittent hacking grinds the game into a near-unwatchable slopfest. James Harden’s one-man quest to out-turnover the Clippers’ alleged point guards didn’t help Houston’s game 1 aspirations to put one in the bag without Paul on the floor. It was an apathetic display by a home team who needed to start the series off on the right note.

That the Rockets’ defense was unable to stop a team who quite literally had Griffin bringing the ball up and initiating the offense is damning, perhaps more so than letting Rivers burn them. They missed their share of open shots, but it was on defense where they lost. They should have managed to punish Doc and the Clippers for their short-sighted roster creation. Instead Houston is facing the very real possibility of being knocked out of the playoffs by a team effectively playing their power forward at point guard.

How Much More Can the Mavs Get Out of Dirk?

It was a very entertaining series to have only gone 5 games, but now Houston will move on to face the winner of the Spurs/Clippers series, and Dallas is forced to go back to the drawing board for yet another offseason.

Ever since winning the 2011 title the Mavericks have been trying to find an heir apparent for Dirk Nowitzki through free agency, an endeavor which started with the tearing down of the defending champion’s roster, most notably through letting Tyson Chandler walk and join the Knicks. Since then each free agency period has featured notable misses. First it was Dwight Howard and Deron Williams. Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony have been targets, as well as, at least in theory, LeBron James.

Only this past offseason, when Chandler Parsons was lured away from the Rockets, did Mark Cuban manage to actually land a player he was chasing. Tyson Chandler was also brought back in a trade with the Knicks, and they combined with the incumbent Nowitzki and Monta Ellis to get off to a strong start to the season. Even as that was happening, it was clear the roster could not contend as currently constructed, so a deal was struck to bring Rajon Rondo aboard. The Rondo experience seems to have been very similar to having a lingering and particularly nasty cold; at first things weren’t right, and the hope was that time would resolve the problem, but the longer the situation persisted the more unbearable it became until drastic measures were required.

Only after exorcising Rondo after game 2 of the Houston series did the Mavs suddenly look like themselves again. The cold was gone – colors were brighter, the air was fresher, and the offense was smoother – but it was already too late to stop Dwight Howard, James Harden and the Rockets from claiming the series.

There are deep roster flaws for this Dallas team, and there have been for a long time. Even the championship team had notable warts, but the presence of a certain giant German papered over those limitations. Nowitzki may never have quite gotten enough credit for this; even in the lean times you could get him the ball in the high post and count on getting a reasonable look, and every guard who ever ran a pick and roll with him suddenly became 25% more dangerous because of how much the defense had to respect his jumper.

With his height and skill, that respect has never really gone away. He’s a little slower now, but the shooting is still there, and he remains an impossible cover if his fadeaway is falling. It’s just not in the average player’s skill set to deal with a 7-footer who’s leaning back at a 30 degree angle and letting the ball fly from high above his head. He’ll still be hitting that shot somewhere when he’s 60. It’s the rest of his game that has slipped, and it has gotten to the point that Dirk alone isn’t enough to prop up a roster without another star.

Defense, never a strong suit, has gotten to be much more of a problem. He knows where to be, but just can’t beat anyone there. That leaves Chandler trying to dart all over the court, accounting for his normal responsibilities as the leader of the defense while also having to try to contend with Dirk’s inability to wall off the paint. The Houston series highlighted that weakness as the Rockets managed to continually force tough choices at the rim by exploiting Nowitzki’s slow feet. Nowitzki’s offense hasn’t been immune to decline either. His drives are rare, his decisions are a half a second slower, and he can’t challenge opponents directly nearly as much. It all adds up, especially in the playoffs, such as in a sequence in the final minutes against Houston that saw him avoid taking a contested three to drive in, pull up for a jump pass, and turn the ball over.

Dirk’s role over the last few years could be described as something like an honorary starter. He will start the 1st and 3rd quarters, then get pulled quickly, only to be reinserted to prop up Dallas’s bench units against opposing benches. In this role his defensive limitations are less glaring and he can feast on weaker opposing lineups. A more aggressive version of this, or bringing him off the bench altogether, could be in the cards.

Carrying the franchise isn’t reasonable anymore, but carrying the offense for strategic stretches is still definitely an option. Limiting Nowitzki’s usage to those situations is the best use of his talents at this point. He needs a rim protector next to him at all times now, but his skill set means that he can mesh well with anyone so long as he’s protected on defense.

Another option could be to slot him at center against bench units, which would serve to hide his lack of quickness. That approach would require some specific defensive personnel, but that could be arranged more easily against opposing benches.

No matter how Rick Carlisle ends up deploying Dirk over the remainder of his career, it’s obvious that the Mavs need more help. Leaning on their big power forward has yielded substantial leeway to a front office that has continually failed in their stated goal of bringing in another star. The slack that Dirk created may finally be used up, and the franchise is no closer to having a long term answer than they did in 2011, but they still have a useful (if increasingly limited) weapon for the time being.

Losing Kevin Love for the Rest of the Playoffs Will End the Cavs’ Hopes of Winning a Title

The Cavaliers’ hopes of winning a championship this season are done if Cleveland GM David Griffin’ belief that Kevin Love will not return for the playoffs this season proves accurate.

Recent struggles by the Hawks and the Bulls, the two biggest threats to Cleveland’s chances of coming out of the Eastern Conference, fueled the belief that the Cavs were likely to make it to the Finals. Whether the odds had actually shifted that far in Cleveland’s favor is debatable, but it is clear that no other team in the East was staking any sort of claim to favorite status.

They may still be the favorites. Milwaukee and Brooklyn are stretching their two biggest hurdles in their first round series, and Kyrie Irving and LeBron James still happen to be pretty solid players. There are, in fact, some benefits to be gained from having Love unavailable. It is easier to slot James at power forward, where he can hold his own against post players, play a looser “free safety” role off the ball, and serve as the hub of hyper-fast, shooting-heavy offensive attacks. James at power forward with Irving at the point and two other shooters on the wing is incredibly difficult to guard.

Of course, the issues that such a setup creates for Cleveland are myriad. The most obvious is that without LeBron at small forward another wing is needed in the lineup. Starting both J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert on the wings makes perfect sense, but behind them things get a lot dicier. James Jones and Mike Miller are a combined 137 years old, and Miller didn’t even get off the bench against Boston. Both are capable of providing a little floor spacing, but that’s about it, and Miller in particular is extremely fragile.

That may lead to an even less palatable option: pushing Tristan Thompson into a bigger role in which he plays next to Timofey Mozgov. Hell, Kendrick Perkins is even in line for a minutes increase, which hasn’t been a good thing in roughly 6 years. These big lineups will make it easier for defenses to cheat onto James and Irving because they don’t feature any significant spacing from the bigs. These are little things in the context of a series against Boston or a struggling Chicago, but if either Atlanta or the Bulls manage to right the ship in time they could knock off this Cavs team now that their options are so limited.

While he may not have been used to his fullest potential in his first (and possibly only) season in Cleveland, Love was the floor spacing 4 that enabled LeBron to stay on the wing and still have driving lanes and room to operate. His underutilization also provided a paradoxical benefit: the Cavs had potential. Even as they had learned to play well and begun to slide into the pole position to come out of the East, Love was there waiting in the wings, not yet living up to his full potential due to his usage within the offense.

He gave the promise of this roster turning into an unstoppable scoring force, with every action a defense could take a potentially devastating choice. A lineup with Love at center and James at power forward may not be able to defend particularly well, but it likely wouldn’t matter if they meshed well together on offense; such a lineup would be completely unguardable if they started to scratch their offensive potential together.

Now that potential is, for this season at least, gone. The team that’s left is good, and potentially very good, but they aren’t great. They’ll need some luck to make it to the Finals at this rate, and will need a lot more than that if they run into a one of the 4 or 5 best teams in the West in a hypothetical Finals matchup. After a year of drama, the chance for a title has been decided by something very predictable: the Cavs no longer fielding the better players than their opponents.