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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Can the 2012 Bulls Emulate the 1994 Bulls?

I predicted that this year's championship could be affected by "key injuries dictating the ultimate outcome in a way rarely if ever seen before." NBA Commissioner David Stern denies that the lockout-compacted schedule has increased the rate and/or severity of injuries this season but, with all due respect to one of the greatest commissioners ever, that is nonsense; this season featured no real training camp, a two game preseason and tons of games stacked on top of one another: the players did not have sufficient time to get into playing condition and they had no time to recover from the little nagging injuries that are inevitable for any professional athlete--and the resulting wear and tear has undoubtedly contributed to the wave of formerly durable players who have suffered serious injuries, including three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard and 2011 NBA regular season MVP Derrick Rose.

When Rose's left knee exploded near the end of Chicago's game one win versus Philadelphia--a game in which Rose came within one rebound and one assist of posting a triple double--I felt sick to my stomach. Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant are the future of the NBA, two true superstars (as opposed to guys who are falsely anointed as such by "stat gurus" and/or media members who do not understand the sport) who have the perfect combination of confidence and humility: they believe in themselves and their teammates but you never see them saying or doing stupid things.

It will obviously be very difficult for the Bulls to win a championship without Rose but there is a precedent for a Chicago team vastly exceeding expectations despite being without the services of an MVP caliber player: Michael Jordan stunned the world by retiring just before the start of the 1993-94 NBA season but Scottie Pippen showcased his all-around "five-tool" prowess, leading the team to a 55-27 record and a hard fought seven game loss to the eventual Eastern Conference champion New York Knicks--and the Bulls may very well have defeated the Knicks if not for a call by referee Hue Hollins that was so egregiously bad that Hollins' partner Darell Garretson later called "horrible", an unusually candid admission considering that referees rarely call out other referees publicly.

Scottie Pippen wrote an open letter to the Chicago Bulls, encouraging the team to be inspired by the great run that the 1994 team made. Here is an excerpt:

While I dealt with my share of injuries throughout my career, I was fortunate to have been healthy for the majority of our run in the 1990’s. The same can be said about Michael Jordan. But, when Michael retired for the first time to play baseball in 1993, we were faced with a similar challenge to what you’re up against—playing without your best player and leader. Granted, Michael chose to step away from the game and Derrick is sidelined because of his injury, but it comes down to the players who are still out there coming together to collectively rise up as a group and win games. We exceeded a lot of expectations in the regular season, finishing 55-27. But as we entered the postseason, a lot of people had written us off and said we didn’t have a chance without Michael. There was a lot of talk about how we wouldn’t make it out of the first round and might even get swept. But we didn’t listen to any of that. We believed in ourselves and we went out to play the type of basketball that we knew we were capable of playing. We swept Cleveland in the first round and it was a great feeling. Even though we ultimately fell short and lost to New York in a second round Game 7, we all believed we could have—and should have—done better. My point is that there was never a moment where we felt sorry for ourselves or let anyone push us into any self-doubt. We stayed positive and believed that if we stuck together and played good, hard defense, we could beat any team out there. That’s what I believe you can do as well. 

You lost a very important piece to the puzzle, there is no denying that. But having dealt with Derrick’s injuries during the regular season, as well as those as some of the others, gave members of the bench an opportunity to step forward as you did all season long. And every single individual on this roster has shown that they can make positive contributions to winning. Obviously the other starters in Richard, Luol, Carlos and Joakim—all All-Star caliber players in their own right—need to raise their level of game across the board to compensate for missing Derrick. But it’s the bench too that will be as important as ever in answering the call. And as we’ve seen these last two seasons, the Bench Mob is up for that challenge. You all believe in yourselves and the coaching staff believes in you too. You’ve already demonstrated you can have success without Derrick in the lineup. Now it’s time to do it when it matters the most.

As you all know, this is when it pays extra dividends to have a coach like Thibs. To me, his preparation is what separates him as one of the league’s very best coaches. It’s got to be his greatest strength. Having watched him coach night in and night out these last two seasons, this team comes ready to play, whether it’s a back-to-back or three games in four nights. He’s always ready and the job that you as players do reflects that. It’s an underrated asset to have a group that truly knows its personnel and the intricate schemes of a gameplan. Thibodeau has you ready to go every night and battle and that’s because of his attention to detail. He’s also kept you focused and prevented you from looking ahead. That’s the mentality you need as the playoffs continue—one game at a time. Execute. Play good, hard defense. Protect the ball. Even without a great player like Derrick, you are still capable of doing those things.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:05 PM

13 comments

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13 Comments:

At Tuesday, May 01, 2012 6:14:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Edifying letter from Scottie Pippen, no doubt.

But I feel it's unfair to expect that much from the 2012 Bulls who were built around Derrick Rose over the past few years, and then suddenly hope they can repeat the brilliance of that 1994 edition with a healthy top 5 MVP caliber player in Scottie Pippen.

There's nobody of his caliber on the 2012 edition to carry the offense and spearhead the defense. It is likely that they will defeat the 76ers in the first round, but not survive the second round vs the Celtics or the Hawks, or advance much further.

As for your second point, the compressed season no doubt played havoc on the health of many players, it is not the sole deciding factor. If that was the case, then more players (the older and more fragile, in particular) should suffer more injuries.

So, Derrick Rose did not suffer injuries due to the schedule alone. His aggressive style of play reminds me of Dwayne Wade, who went through similar injuries after the 2006 season.

Rose was never fully healthy this year - one thing led to another, and it was a matter of time before his body betrayed him.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2012 7:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet M:

I did not say that the season's structure is the "sole deciding factor" regarding injuries but I think that it is obvious that the lack of a proper training camp before the start of the season and the lack of adequate rest/recovery time during the season have had a negative impact both on player health and on the overall level of play.

The Spurs and several other teams essentially tanked games in order to get some rest for older players, so we have an issue not only regarding health (not every team had the luxury to rest players) but also quality of play.

I agree that Rose's high risk playing style is similar to Wade's and thus Rose is probably at a higher risk for injury but, unlike Wade, Rose was not injury prone prior to this season.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2012 1:40:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Agreed.

The Spurs did not tank any games (except that one game vs the Jazz where they benched the big 3 & almost won), rather monitored their veterans' minutes, sat out certain games, yet finished first in the West conference. The Celtics on the other hand, did sit their guys in the last week and lost the 4th seed to the Hawks.

Stern had the option of going with a 50 game season, but he chose to go with the 66 in 120 days. Wonder if that would've avoided the issues you raise, with a full training camp and a reasonable preseason?

Also, Russell Westbrook plays a similar game as Rose, but isn't injury prone (hasn't missed any games dating back to high school) and so far he's escaped the compressed season's scythe.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2012 6:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

The first time the Spurs had an 11 game winning streak this season, they sat the Big Three and lost by 40 to Portland. The second time the Spurs had an 11 game winning streak they sat the Big Three and lost to a Utah team that they may very well sweep or beat in five games. I understand why Popovich did what he did but what it essentially amounted to was the Spurs tanking selected games in order to preserve the Big Three (Duncan and Ginobili in particular but there is no sense in just playing Parker if the other two guys are resting) for the postseason. It is not good for the league when teams are tanking games because the schedule is too compressed for player health or because one team needs to get a certain record to retain a draft pick (Golden State, which started rookies and D-League players and may have considered grabbing random people from the stands if necessary).

The Celtics did essentially the same thing as the Spurs but with two important differences: (1) The Spurs could do this and still get the number one seed because their team is very deep and built up a lead in the standings; (2) some of the Celtic players who sat out were legitimately hurt (i.e., Ray Allen, who has yet to play in the playoffs).

I absolutely think that Stern and the powers that be should have opted for a 50 game season spread out over the same period of time but I think that both the owners and the players succumbed to the extra TV money they could obtain by squeezing in 16 more games. I wonder if Rose, Billups, Shumpert, Rubio, Howard and all of the other players who had season-ending injuries would, in retrospect, opt for slightly less money and a lot more rest?

Westbrook's explosiveness is similar to Wade and Rose's but if you really watch the three of them play Westbrook's game is different; he is more in control than the other two: Wade is always falling on the ground and getting banged around, while Rose's jump stops and twisting moves put a lot of pressure on his joints, but Westbrook mainly uses his explosiveness to go down the court in a straight line and then elevate over whoever is in front of him once he gets to the hoop. You rarely see Westbrook falling all over the place or planting his legs at extreme angles.

Barry Sanders made a career out of planting his legs like Derrick Rose and never suffered a serious injury; some guys are just built differently than other guys and I wonder if this season had been structured better then maybe Rose's body would not have been breaking down prior to him suffering the serious knee injury. I suspect that the previous injuries may have altered his gait and/or weakened his muscles (due to relative inactivity), thus predisposing him to an injury that he otherwise may have avoided. Of course, I can't prove this but neither can someone who disagrees with me prove that I am wrong. This is just speculation but--from my standpoint--it is speculation made by someone who has played basketball for almost his entire life, who has worked as a certified personal trainer and who has observed great athletes up close.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2012 11:49:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

Good observation about Westbrook compared to rose/wade. He does seem to be under control a lot more than the other 2.

The bulls looked fine in the first half, but very surprising 3rd quarter. Sure, their offense stunk, but it was their defense that did them in. While they did well without rose: 18-9. They went 32-7 with him, which is much better. The 94 bulls at least still had a great player, which this year's bulls team now doesn't for the rest of the playoffs.

I see Kobe is still charged with 1 TO from last night. He should have 0. They credited him with a TO with about 50 seconds left in the 1st qtr. on a fastbreak, which Barnes threw a wayward pass trying to get it to Pau, while Kobe went to the right corner and never even touched the ball. I know it'd be near impossible to have a completely accurate box score, with this is just absurd to mess up this. Kind of like when Rondo was credited with an assist once for this play: rondo passes to Allen, who then passes to Shaq, who takes his time and dribbles a few times before scoring, just ridiculous.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2012 3:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

You are right that the Bulls' defense let them down, though part of the problem was poor shot selection leading to transition opportunities for the 76ers. The Bulls have enough talent to beat the 76ers without Rose as long as the Bulls play hard on defense and have better shot selection; I expect the Bulls to win game three and to eventually capture the series.

Assists, turnovers, steals and blocked shots are four particularly subjective statistics; rebounds can be somewhat subjective in terms of tips/taps/back taps. I have long asserted that, even if some of the "advanced basketball statistics" formulas are well founded--and many of them clearly are not--those formulas must have a large margin of error to reflect the subjectivity of basic box score statistics (and the fact that the basic box score statistics do not even come close to capturing everything that happens on the court, including but not limited to setting screens, deflecting passes, drawing double teams, help/recover defense, etc.).

 
At Sunday, May 06, 2012 2:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David - is the an "asterisk" year now in your opinion, as Simmons stated in one of tweets?

Also, do you think the Celtics could beat the Heat in a 7 game series? That seems like the likely ECF matchup at this point.

 
At Monday, May 07, 2012 6:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I don't tweet and I don't pay much attention to what Simmons says but, regarding your specific question, the NBA is not going to attach a literal asterisk to this season but clearly the 1999 and 2012 campaigns differ in several significant respects from "normal" NBA seasons. One could argue that it is tougher to win a championship under such conditions (no training camp, less practice time, condensed schedule, etc.) but one could also argue that a championship won during such a season is not quite the same as a championship won when all of the players and teams are in optimal form.

Any championship is significant and valuable but a lockout season championship is different from a normal championship. The 1999 Spurs somewhat earned a retroactive pass because of the franchise's subsequent dominance in normal seasons but if the 2012 NBA champion turns out to be not the best team but merely the team that is the least injured and then that team never sniffs another title in the next several seasons then the 2012 champion will be viewed through a jaundiced eye.

I think that the Celtics "could" beat the Heat in a seven game series but--unless the Heat suffer a significant injury--I would pick the Heat in that matchup. Now that injuries have effectively taken out the Bulls, the Heat should win the East but I expect them to lose to whoever comes out of the West (most likely the Spurs).

 
At Monday, May 07, 2012 9:09:00 AM, Blogger Matt said...

FWIW, I believe the tweet was related to the Rose injury, not the lockout. Of course, if you're being honest, you could find contingencies for every championship. And by the way David, you probably should tweet. I can't promote 20 Second Timeout all by myself out there!

 
At Monday, May 07, 2012 4:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Matt:

I agree that there are unique circumstances involving many championships, even the ones from "normal" seasons, but these two lockout years will always stick out.

I prefer to express myself in long form, organized articles as opposed to short form, off the cuff tweets.

 
At Monday, May 07, 2012 7:20:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Well the tweeting (by that I mean interacting and not just firing missives) could help build up your profile and drive traffic to your site.

I understand your preference for longform (and leadtime)-indeed that's why I'm here- but one doesn't preclude the other : Clarence Gaines ( @clarencegaines2 ) often merges his tweets into essay.

But I suppose this is slightly straying from the thread...

As for the 1999 championship, while the seedings were skewed, I'm wasn't surprising that the Spurs won. In 1998, they basically added Tim Duncan to a 50 win core. I assumed that they'd win a championship soon. What would have been surprising would have been a team like the 1999 Blazers winning the title. Thatis something I would more readily attribute to the lockout.

 
At Tuesday, May 08, 2012 12:24:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

The spurs might've been a very good team, but they were very lucky to get that shortened season and cash in on it. If it was a 'regular' regular season, who knows.

That spurs team was hardly an all-time great team, and they only lost 2 games in the playoffs total. If anything, Pop was just able to keep that team under control and avoid serious injuries.

And they faced the #8 seed Knicks in the finals. The knicks were the only #8 seed to win a series (4 teams total now). But, not just that, but the knicks won 3 series, absolutely unheard of, and highly unlikely to ever happen again. It's certainly no coincidence that the one time a #8 seed advances past the 2nd round is in the most messed year ever.

 
At Tuesday, May 08, 2012 8:07:00 AM, Blogger Matt said...

"If it was a 'regular' regular season, who knows." Well who EVER knows? While the quality of play was certainly adversely affected by the lockout, the burden of proof should be on you to identify which contender got shot down specifically because of the contracted season, thus allowing the Spurs to 'sneak in'. Best I can come up with is the Jazz. (The Sonics are a more complicated case.)

What were these peculiar advantages that the Spurs had which would have dissipated in a regular season? And outside of the Jazz. They beat a Minnesota team which had a midseason trade and would get out of the 1st round with KG once. They swept a Lakers team but that team had been in flux all year : fired Del Harris midseason, traded Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell for a hurt Glen Rice and experimented with Rodman midseason. Indeed it was the 5th time in 6 years that Shaq's team had been swept. Then they swept a young Blazers team and beat the undermanned Knicks in 5. As I said earlier the biggest lockout related surprise there is that they played the Blazers.

You're also assuming that the Knicks weren't an 8 seed because of the messed up schedule. The best teams in the East -tied for top record- were Miami, Indiana and Orlando.I hardly think any of those teams significantly outclassed the Knicks, who were also trying to fit Sprewell into the team. (While the Knicks may have benefited from some 'generous' calls against the Pacers but you can't blame the lockout for that!) Instead of taking advantage of the unusual circumstances, I think there's a stronger case to be made that the Knicks were hurt by it, at least in the regular season.

 

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