Since Derrick Rose has gone out with his newest knee injury, the Bulls have returned to last year’s Joakim Noah centric offense. They should fight against that impulse to rely on the familiar, because this year Jimmy Butler has shown he can handle a much bigger role. In fact, even when Rose is back, it would serve the Bulls well to allow Jimmy to handle more and more of the offense.
An expanded explanation of the motivations for and the methodology behind my simple linear weights metric, dubbed “Daily RAPM Estimate” or “DRE.”
[Ed. note: I pitched this piece a little while back and it didn’t get picked up where I pitched it, so I’m posting it here. Chicago has picked it up some of late, so it’s not exactly timely, but I wrote it and wanted it to have a place on the internet.]
The Chicago Bulls have been one of the NBA’s weirdest teams this year. They’ve been labeled a contender since they signed Pau Gasol in the offseason. While Pau’s put up big numbers, and Derrick Rose has played 41 out of 52 games, the Bulls don’t look anything like a contender on a night to night basis.
Chicago’s defense, typically the backbone of the team, has fallen off significantly from its usual spot amongst the top 3 to 5 teams in the league to something much more average. The Bulls’ offense, on the other hand, a putrid eyesore last season, is back to respectability. In total, the 2014–15 Bulls have been a pretty good, not great team. It’s worth wondering why anything more was expected.
In some ways, it’s easy to see the logic behind the anointing of the Bulls as sure bets to make the Eastern Conference Finals. No one expected the Atlanta Hawks to become what they are and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense was a huge question mark. Chicago won 48 games last season and upgraded from Carlos Boozer to Pau Gasol and from D.J. Augustin to Derrick Rose. Predicting a significant boost in the win totals from those two seeming upgrades didn’t seem like much of a leap.
The truth of this season, though, has been that Rose has hardly been an upgrade over the performance Augustin provided and, in some ways, has actually been a downgrade. Part of that is how exceptionally well Augustin played last season in Chicago and part of it is the reality of Rose returning from nearly two entire years having played almost zero basketball.
Returning from one major knee injury is a difficult enough task, mentally and physically. Rose is returning from two. As a result, Rose is finishing at the basket worse than ever. Rose still helps the Bulls immensely when he charges into the paint over launching a long jumper, but his forays into the paint are just coming with less frequency than they once did. This shouldn’t be that shocking, really. To have expected Rose to return after being away from the hardwood for so long and be anywhere close to his former self was always absurdly optimistic. That’s not to say he can’t get ever back to that level, it’s just that it’s going to take time for him to get there and may require a change in how he plays. We might not see the best of Derrick Rose this season, and really, that makes total sense.
Gasol has absolutely been an upgrade over Carlos Boozer, that much can not be disputed. But Gasol does present many of the same problems that Boozer did. He is incredibly slow-footed on defense and his effort on that end is often demoralizingly poor. The Bulls defensive drop-off is not all Pau’s fault, but he is a big part of the problem. The other part, which Pau’s presence has exacerbated, is that Joakim Noah has not been himself this season. This, too, could have been predicted, were it not for the Rose-colored glasses with which everyone seemingly viewed this year’s Bulls.
Noah, after being an MVP candidate last season, was absolutely demolished in the playoffs by the Washington Wizards’ frontcourt. It was clear something was wrong with him, and as it turned out, he had to have offseason knee surgery. As a result, Noah, up until very recently, has seen his lateral movement significantly limited and his usual frenetic energy sapped. With Gasol manning the back-line center spot in the Bulls’ defense instead of Noah, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year has been forced to chase around power forwards on a bum wheel. Not exactly an ideal fit or situation.
Finally, a hugely under-discussed portion of the Bulls’ relatively disappointing season has been their lack of wing depth. Even with the problems that Rose’s rustiness and Noah’s balky knee have caused, the Bulls looked pretty close to the contender everyone expected up until January 1st.
What happened on January 1st? Mike Dunleavy Jr. jammed his ankle in a tilt against the Denver Nuggets. He’s been out ever since, as the injury has been the nagging sort. Without Dunleavy’s shooting in the starting lineup to space the floor around the driving games of Rose and Jimmy Butler and the post-ups of Pau Gasol, the Bulls have seen their offense stagnate. It’s been even worse on the other end of the floor. Dunleavy is a classic glue guy on defense, as his 6’9″ length and smart use of angles makes him tough to score over for most other wings in the league. The Bulls have missed him immensely.
Behind Dunleavy on the depth chart is Kirk Hinrich, a formerly solid two-way player who has seen his once stout defense slip markedly this season and who has been an offensive non-entity for a few seasons now. Second year player Tony Snell provides a decent approximation of the length and shooting of Dunleavy, but without the veteran savvy or, more problematically, the trust of Coach Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls have also tried rookie Nikola Mirotic on the wing, but he is really a stretch power forward more than anything, and doesn’t have the foot speed to defend most wings in the league. Doug McDermott, last year’s college Player of the Year, is also around as an option, but he was out until very recently with a knee injury of his own and appears to be firmly entrenched in Thibodeau’s dog-house, a not unusual phenomenon for rookies under the Bulls’ demanding and, at times, unforgiving head coach.
The Bulls’ lack of wing depth was a problem that was there to see for those that, knowing Thibodeau, could guess how reluctant he might be to use the young players who make up the majority of the Bulls’ wing rotation. If Dunleavy didn’t get hurt, this weakness of the Bulls’ roster might never have been exposed, but that’s life in the 82-game grind of an NBA season. Injuries invariably happen.
So are the Bulls a disappointment or did we simply expect too much? It’s a little of both. The Bulls had real weaknesses coming into this season that were glossed over due to the simple math of Rose plus Pau Gasol plus 48 wins last year equals contender. It’s also a long season, so even if the Bulls don’t take the East’s number one seed in the regular season, Rose and Noah could get right, with Dunleavy’s return on the horizon, and the Bulls could still come out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’s just been a more frustrating and difficult road so far than they or anyone else really expected.
It’s tough to disentangle how much of Rose’s reducing his forays to the paint and the rim is mental and how much of it is a drop in physical ability. In watching him night in and night out, he seems to be just as fast as ever, but he doesn’t appear to have the same vertical explosiveness he once did. Even if Rose never gets that burst off the ground back, he can still become an extremely effective player based on his speed, but he has to fundamentally alter his game and improve on aspects of his skillset that he never really needed so badly before. Maybe that’s what his struggles this season have been about: evolving and building a new skillset, a new path to effectiveness. That has to be the hope for Rose fans, because it looks like the version of Derrick Rose who can explode up and over opponents (hi, Goran Dragic) might be lost to us.
This season, Derrick Rose has not been his old MVP self. This is not a revelation, I’m not telling anyone noteworthy information by making that observation. Rose has shown flashes of brilliance here and there, but mostly he’s been okay to pretty bad depending on the night. His overall numbers and efficiency have all trended down over the course of the year. I’m still not quite ready to panic regarding Rose’s struggles, though. Some of this is based on positive things Rose has been able to do and part of it might be wishful extrapolation from a select few (some would say cherry-picked) numbers. Let’s get into it.
Pau Gasol was selected as an All Star starter by the fans. This is, honestly, a joke. Pau Gasol is the Bulls fourth best big man. Yes, fourth best. Behind Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and even rookie Nikola Mirotic. The idea that Gasol was somehow one of the best big men in the entire Eastern Conference is ridiculous. At first glance, it’s easy to see why Pau has received this recognition. Pau is averaging 18 points, 12 rebounds, nearly 3 assists, and over 2 blocks in his roughly 35 minutes per game. Those certainly seem like All Star numbers. However, it’s pretty likely that no one is putting up emptier stats than Pau Gasol is this season.
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything in this space, but I’ve not forgotten it, and I’ve not stopped tinkering with some of the ideas I’ve tried to tackle here before. The idea I’d like to return to today is my enjoyment of simple, easy to calculate, transparent boxscore metrics.
In the past, I built off of an easy to calculate and understand linear weights metric (Alternate Win Score) to create Usage Adjusted Rating, which essentially tried to adjust AWS to credit heavier usage players for the greater degree of difficulty they generally encounter in getting points and remaining efficient. The results were pretty good and passed the laugh test. But calculating UAR and the subsequent variant blend with plus-minus (UARPM) that I developed was best done on season long numbers and well, there are much better one number metrics out there for analysis of season long data. Daniel Myer’s Box Plus-Minus (BPM) and ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) being the best examples. So from here on, I’ll be retiring UARPM from the website.
But for broad strokes analysis of single games, the current best linear weights metric is probably Alternate Win Score. Some people like to use John Hollinger’s Game Score, since it’s readily available on Basketball Reference for every game. I wanted to improve upon AWS and Game Score and build a transparent, easy to calculate and understand metric to quickly analyze game to game performance.
To build my game score metric, I looked to Jerry Engelmann’s 14 year RAPM data set, since it is, to my mind, the best estimate of long run +/- impact that’s in the public domain. After that, I ran a regression of the most basic boxscore stats (per 100 possessions) to get the coefficients or weights for my simple linear weights metric.
I tried to include personal fouls, but they were not statistically significant predictors of RAPM (+/-) at all. All of the other boxscore stats I picked were highly statistically significant with strong p-values. Then, I translated the coefficients so that they were weighted relative to points score (i.e., so that the coefficient or weight for points was equal to 1). The resulting weights for my simple game score metric are as follows:
PTs + .2*TRBs + 1.7* STLs + .535*BLKs + .5*ASTs – .9*FGA – .35*FTA – 1.4*TOV
If you want to translate this linear weights metric directly to a simple statistical plus-minus, you can just subtract the average performance league-wide from the player’s total. Per pace adjusted 36 minutes the average performance in the league currently is roughly 4.9. Here’s the top 25 in the league as of the games played January 16 per game, pace adjusted, with the per-minute average subtracted out, so as to make it roughly +/- impact per game:
Those results definitely pass the laugh test. Anyway, I like this as another tool in the tool kit. I even won over noted one number metric skeptic Seth Partnow to use the metric for some broad strokes performance analysis.
— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) January 14, 2015
Good enough for me!
If any of you have a good idea for a name for this new Win / Game Score linear weights metric, let me know in the comments or on Twitter: @NBACouchside.
Let me get this out of the way at the start: I love Mike Dunleavy Jr. He’s really, really good. You should love Mike Dunleavy Jr., too. Here’s why:
Through 4 games, Tom Thibodeau’s defense is outside of the league’s top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions and that is, obviously, very surprising. Granted, Chicago is 11th in defensive efficiency, so they are barely outside of the top 10, but given that under Thibodeau the Bulls have finished 1st, 1st, 5th, and 2nd in overall defense in the last 4 seasons, it is a bit surprising to see them anywhere but the very tip top of the league’s defensive rankings, even at this early juncture.
The subject of this article might not seem the most timely, given that Pau Gasol just beat the stuffing out of the New York Knicks in the Chicago Bulls’s season opener, recording an efficient 21 point, 11 rebound night in just 29 minutes of play. In fact, this might all end up being a bit of nagging worry that doesn’t amount to much of anything at all. But although the Knicks’ interior defense is incredibly bad, there were some not so great signs for Pau’s prognosis in that game, ones that were also evident during the pre-season as well.