The Eastern Conference is getting tougher, and as the Chicago Bulls eye their potential first-round opponents, things might not seem as simple as they once did. There are reasons why the Bulls could win or lose their first-round playoff series against any of their three potential opponents.
Yes, the bottom of the league looks like slap-stick comedy. I’m not going to deny that. Even the bottom two playoff spots would be nothing more than welcome mats in the Western Conference. However, over the last quarter of the season, the Bulls and their potential first-round opponents have emerged as solid teams.
The Playoff Hunt
The Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards are competing with the Bulls for third through sixth in playoff seeding. The top two seeds appear destined for the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. The bottom two will probably belong to the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats, though, the New York Knicks would like to believe they still have a chance.
To see where teams are at based on current play, I looked at the results for the last 25 percent of games played (16 games) at NBA.com/STATS, along with the plus/minus values. I also looked at each team’s strength of schedule in that span, based on John Hollinger’s rankings at ESPN.
I added in an ad hoc power ranking, factoring in all three criteria. I used the formula: SOS*(Wins+Plus/Minus). It’s not perfect, but it works well enough for these purposes.
|9||New York Knicks||6||10||-1.7||0.459||1.05|
NBA.com/STATS, ESPN's Hollinger Power Rankings
The Bulls have the best record in the East over the last quarter of the season, by far the best plus/minus (third in the NBA), and they’ve done it with the second-toughest schedule in the Eastern Conference (fourth-toughest in the NBA). That makes them the team no one wants to face.
That doesn’t mean any first-round foe is a cupcake, though. As you can see, all three potential opponents are also playing quite well. Let’s take a quick look at why the Bulls could win or lose a series to each of them, listed in order of how they fared in the power rankings above.
Why the Bulls Lose
Based on the regular-season series with the Wizards, the Bulls want no part of this first-round opponent. The Wizards have taken both games so far, including a 102-88 drubbing at the United Center, followed up four nights later with a 96-93 game in Washington.
What’s worse, injuries weren’t really an excuse for either game, as the Bulls had their full rotation in the lineup both times. John Wall averaged 21 points and nine assists and shot 51.7 percent. The Wizards just plain won.
Winning the point guard position has been pivotal for the Bulls this year. According to HoopsStats.com, when they win that battle, they are 26-4, and when they lose it, they are 10-25. Wall has a serious advantage there.
The Bulls don't have an easy way to match up with him. In particular Kirk Hinrich is not quick enough to stay with gun, and Augustin isn't big enough to contain him.
Based on that contest, the Wizards might be the worst-possible first-round foe for the Bulls.
Why the Bulls Win
On the other hand, a postseason series isn't like a regular-season game. The last time the Wizards won a playoff series was 2005, and they don’t have a lot of postseason experience on the team.
Of the starting five, only Nene and Trevor Ariza have started more than one playoff game, and neither of those was the primary presence on their respective teams when they did so.
The Wizards’ head coach, Randy Whitman, has never coached a postseason game either.
The Bulls, on the other hand, have extensive experience. And, Tom Thibodeau is a genius at figuring out how to stop superstars. He’s solved problems like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the past, and he would solve the Wall problem in a series too, probably utilizing rotations with Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah.
Sans Wall, the Wizards have some decent players in the developing Bradley Beal and the underrated Ariza, but none of them are going to carry a playoff team. The Wizards lose if Wall can’t deliver?
Given time to scheme, Thibodeau is the difference in this series.
Why the Bulls Lose
The season series here is in the Bulls’ favor, with Chicago taking two out three.
The Bulls also won last year’s playoff matchup, but both teams' composition has changed enough that it’s hard to draw too much on that result.
These Nets are more the Brooklyn "Celt-Nets" than just the Nets.
The Bulls won against the Nets in 2013 because they just plain outworked, out-fought and out-hustled them. That’s going to be more difficult with competitors like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on the team.
While the Nets started off laughably bad, they've had the best record in the Eastern Conference since the turn of the calendar year. They blew out the Bulls the last time the two teams faced off in Brooklyn. They’re putting their talent to work, even without Brook Lopez, who was lost for the year.
Pierce and Garnett have won a title together. Deron Williams went to the Western Conference Finals in 2007. Those players were integral parts of their team’s postseason success. This team has playoff experience, even if this particular group hasn't won a series together yet.
The trade the Nets made with the Celtics last summer gave them what they needed the most last year in the playoffs—intangibles. The team had a lot of new parts and the Lopez injury to adjust to, but now it's hitting its groove just in time for the playoffs. Between that and the Nets' collective postseason success, they are a threat in any series.
Why the Bulls Win
There are two advantages the Bulls have in this one. First, Thibodeau vs. Jason Kidd is a coaching matchup that’s almost unfair. Scratch that. It is blatantly unfair. Nothing against Kidd and his years of playing experience, but coaching is not the same thing.
And, yes, when the proverbial car of the Nets’ season was swerving wildly off the road and careening toward a massive tree, he managed to yank the wheel just in time to get the vehicle back on the road. Credit him for that. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to navigate the playoffs, though.
Thibodeau will be playing three-dimensional chess, and Kidd will be playing checkers.
It’s not all just about coaching, either. The Bulls have a decided edge in the frontcourt. For the season, the Bulls own the fifth-best frontcourt, based on efficiency, and the Nets are ranked 16th. Even that doesn’t show the whole picture.
The Nets, since Lopez was injured, have been playing Pierce as the power forward and have been going with an undersized lineup.
For the Bulls, after Luol Deng was traded, they started running the offense through Noah, and that’s made a huge difference.
If we look at what’s happened since the All-Star Game, which includes only games with those two variables, the Bulls’ frontcourt is first with a 12.8 net efficiency, and the Nets are 22nd with minus-3.8.
It’s hard to see the Nets winning the series without winning the paint, and it’s harder to see Kidd figuring out a way to outcoach Thibodeau and make that happen.
Why the Bulls Lose
The Bulls and Raptors have squared off four times this season and split the results.
When the Raptors traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, my impression was, whoever got rid of Gay wins the trade. He is a ball-stopping, inefficient volume scorer who makes the players around him worse and the team lose.
If you want evidence, look no further than the results. Toronto was a mere 10-10 when it jettisoned its “best” player and has gone 30-14 since. That’s the sixth-best record in the league during that span.
And, the talents of some of its players have emerged without Gay disrupting offensive flow. Kyle Lowry is averaging 18.1 points, 8.3 assists and 5.1 rebounds since the trade, compared to 14.6, 6.7 and 3.8 before it, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
DeMar DeRozan was averaging 21.5 points and 3.1 assists before the trade. Since it, he’s averaging 23.1 points and 4.1 assists.
That’s 5.1 more points and 2.4 more assists from the Raptors’ starting backcourt since the departure of Gay. That’s a win.
The Bulls are 10-26 when they’ve lost the backcourt battle. If Lowry and DeRozan play big, the Raptors stand to win this one.
Why the Bulls Win
The Raptors are not a bad three-point shooting team, making 8.3 per game at a rate of .369, but that’s not elite. In essence, though, a huge part of their offense comes between the restricted area and the three-point line, which is the area where the Bulls defense wants teams to shoot.
The Raptors attempt 44.6 percent of their field goals between the two semicircles, and that’s the recipe for losing to the Bulls, who yield the fourth-lowest field-goal percentage in that range.
The Bulls don’t even need to “force” the Raptors to play their game. Chicago just needs to let Toronto be Toronto. A few players might get streaky for a game or two, but shooting rarely stays hot for an entire series.
Look for the Bulls to make this physical, pounding the ball inside with Noah, Gibson and Carlos Boozer. Attrition should be the difference for the Bulls.
No matter which of the three teams the Bulls face in the first round of the playoffs, they’ll have more work cut out for them than it once looked. The easy ride to the second round no longer exists. That’s the bad news.
Which team do you least want to see the Bulls play in the first round of the playoffs?
Still, the Bulls are the best team of the four, have established that over the last quarter of the season and should win against any of them. That’s the good news.
Both the Heat and the Pacers have been stumbling down the stretch, opening up the chance that the Bulls could do more than make things uncomfortable for the top two teams should Chicago make it to the second round. Just as the cakewalk to the semis isn’t there anymore, neither is the certainty they get stopped there.
They have a real chance at the Eastern Conference Finals, and that’s the best news.