April 29, 2010

Mr. SKIA's post-draft ideas

One of the unintended consequences of the Bears trade for Jay Cutler -- and the ill-advised one for the late Gaines Adams -- was that it forced the Bears to act in free agency. That is, coming off a horrendous 2-14 year -- What? They went 7-9? Sure as hell didn't feel like it -- the Bears in seasons past would've tried to fill their multitude of holes cheaply and through the draft. But without a pick in the first two rounds and knowing that the beyond-disappointed fan base was clamoring for improvement, the Bears actually went out and spent.

And really, this is the second consecutive offseason where they made bold moves with no regard for cost. No one can accuse the Bears of being cheap anymore, although several people still will. Case in point: the reaction to the jettisoning of Alex Brown in the wake of the Julius Peppers signing. Look, Brown has been a solid player and a good soldier, but he's never recorded more than seven sacks in a season and will be 31 next year. The combination of Mark Anderson and Israel Idonije, both younger and cheaper, should be able to at least match Brown's production.

While I believe the Bears might have signed the relatively-inexpensive Chester Taylor as a complement to Matt Forte regardless, I'm confident that there is no way they would've opened the vault for Peppers if they were still holding the 11th overall pick. Instead we would've gotten an assfull of Jason Pierre-Paul or Derrick Morgan's upside, and while either (or both) of those guys might end up being a force, Peppers is one. Sure, he's also aging, but this team's window of opportunity is small -- the Bears have more old men in prominent positions than the Ft. Lauderdale Wal-Mart -- so they need players who can make an instant impact.

With the Bears still holding five mid-to-late round choices, they hadn't quite pulled a Mike Ditka, and decorum dictated that GM Jerry Angelo attend the draft and make their remaining selections. And considering their limited number of picks, most pundits gave the Bears positive reviews. Because I consider him the authority on all things NFL Draft, here's what Mel Kiper Jr. had to say:

I liked the Bears draft. I liked the pick [of Dan LeFevour]. I think 3-4 years down the road he can help you. ... I like the [Major] Wright pick, they needed help at safety. [Corey] Wootton was a first round pick a few years ago, but had the injury. I gave them a B grade.

And I generally agree with Kiper; basically, I like all the Bears picks but one. What follows is my selection-by-selection breakdown.

Round 3, Pick 75: S Major Wright, Florida; 5'11½", 206 lbs.
NFL.com #105, Scout.com #67, NFLDraftScout.com #134

The best thing about this guy? The name. Absolutely love it. Then again, I'm still wondering how the hell Major Harris didn't become the previous Michael Vick. Anyway, doesn't Major Wright just sound like someone who should be a badass headhunter back there?

In terms of his performance, I like this hit, and he scouting reports on him are generally positive. Most importantly, he brings a straight-ahead speed component that all the Bears safeties save Danieal Manning currently lack.

Best case: Mike Brown
Worst case: Craig Steltz
Money quote: "When you don't pick for the first time until 75, getting a coverage safety in Major Wright to band-aid a position of big need is a good job." -- Peter King, Sports Illustrated

Round 4, Pick 109: DE Corey Wootton, Northwestern; 6'6", 270 lbs.
NFL.com #42, Scouts.com #42, NFLDraftScout.com #71
The Bears best pick, in terms of value. Wootton likely would've gone at least two rounds higher if not for a catastrophic knee injury 18 months ago; while players can return from those kinds of things in eight or nine months, it's usually not until the following season that they round back into form.

Additionally, you can never have too many quality defensive ends, and given the relative uncertainty of both Anderson and Idonije, Wootton was a very good pick. Keep in mind, too, that the Bears are now at a net zero for defensive ends this offseason: They lost Brown and Adewale Ogunleye, and picked up Peppers and Wootton.

Best case: Richard Dent
Worst case: Dan Bazuin, Claude Harriott, Michael Haynes, Karon Riley, Pat Riley, John Thierry; and the list goes on and on (Henry Melton?)
Money quote: "I love the choice of defensive end Corey Wootton in the fourth round. ... He could be a steal." -- Pete Prisco, CBSSports.com

Round 5, Pick 141: CB Joshua Moore, Kansas State; 5'10⅞", 188 lbs.
NFL.com #273, Scout.com #198, NFLDraftScout.com #154

I didn't like this pick at the time, and I like it even less now. I don't think it made any sense from a standpoint of need -- I would've nabbed an offensive lineman here* -- or as the so-called best player available, as the respective rankings show. Is this guy really going to be any better than Corey Graham, Tim Jennings, Woodny Turenne, or last year's drafted Moore, D.J.? I'm skeptical. Meanwhile, I am certain the offensive line could use an infusion of both youth and talent.

* Which brings me to my biggest issue with Jerry Angelo's draft strategy. This was Angelo's ninth draft as GM. In the first year, he drafted two offensive linemen: Marc Columbo and Terrence Metcalf. In the intervening years, he has often used a seventh rounder on a lineman, doing so in each of the last four drafts, but guys drafted in Round 7 rarely crack an NFL roster. Beginning with the '03 draft, do you know how many picks Angelo has used on offensive linemen in the first six rounds? Three. Chris Williams ('08, first), Josh Beekman ('07, fourth), and Tyler Reed, ('06, sixth). Denver and New England, two franchises that consistently have very good offensive lines, have taken 13 and 11, respectively, over the same period.

In my opinion, a team should use at least one mid-round pick on an offensive lineman every year. That's how you build a good offensive line. But the Bears, in the last eight years, have instead selected 13 defensive backs in Rounds 1 through 6 (12 if you don't count Devin Hester). Putting aside that even if you consistently ran the nickel, you would only play as many d-backs as offensive linemen, does Angelo really think this is the way to build a football team, from back to front? As someone so obsessed with getting defensive linemen -- he's selected 13 in the first six rounds since '03 -- it would appear that Angelo believes in the games-are-won-in-the-trenches axiom. I have no idea why he'd adhere to it on one side of the ball, and completely ignore it on the other.

Moore doesn't seem like much of a ball-hawk -- just six interceptions in his career -- but his tackle numbers were strong, and he was honorable mention All-Big 12 the last two years. He supposedly lacks top-end speed, but that's less important given the Bears' scheme than it would be elsewhere.

Best case: Nathan Vasher
Worst case: Roosevelt Williams
Money quote: "Josh Moore has a chance to be a nickel corner in their defense. He has nice cover skills." -- Prisco

Round 6, Pick 181: QB Dan LeFevour, Central Michigan; 6'3¼", 230 lbs.
NFL.com #115, Scout.com #70, NFLDraftScout.com #100

This appears to be the more contentious pick than the Moore one, but I disagree. Quarterback is basically the only position where a guy can increase his value league-wide while on the bench, and LeFevour was a significant bargain at this point. Plus, the Bears were one of the few teams in league that ran with only two quarterbacks last year, so this is a solid selection from a roster-makeup standpoint.

LeFevour, who went to high school just a few miles from where I grew up, put up huge numbers playing in the spread, and most believe that it going to an NFL offense will be a huge adjustment. But that's true of almost all college QBs, and LeFevour supposedly has the arm-strength, size, and athletic ability to at least be a serviceable backup. Considering that sixth-rounders are relative longshots anyway, getting a guy at this point who will almost certainly make the team is a sound investment.

Best case: A mobile Kyle Orton
Worst case: Craig Krenzel
Money quote: "LeFevour was considered by some to be one of the best quarterbacks in the draft, and was a good value at this point." -- NFL.com

Round 7, Pick 218: OT J'Marcus Webb, West Texas A&M; 6'8", 335 lbs.
NFL.com NR, Scouts.com NR, NFLDraftScout.com #267

Who the hell knows with this guy? Obviously, neither NFL.com (whose rankings went 350 players deep) nor Scouts.com (520) thought much of the cousin of longtime-Dolphin Richmond Webb, but I'm thinking that at this point, they might as well gamble on some enormous kid. Even though it has yet to work out in Angelo's first several attempts.

Best case: James "Big Cat" Williams
Worst case: Kirk Barton
Money quote: "He has the size to play at the NFL level, but its going to take a significant amount of coaching for him to realize his potential." -- ESPN.com

And those are your five newest Chicago Bears. If they are lucky, the Bears will end up with two impact players from this class. For obvious reasons, the smart money is on Wright and Wootton. But the real money's on Peppers and Cutler. If both of them don't play like superstars, it'll be far more devastating to the franchise -- and the fanbase -- than this draft ever could be.


A few other draft thoughts:

Gotta admire what the Lions did on Day 1, getting the best prospect in the draft (Ndamukong Suh) and then trading up into the back end of the first to nab Cal's Jahvid Best, a great kid that I covered when he was in high school. Getting impact players on both sides of the ball was huge for a Lions team that has been mostly devoid of talent in recent years. This should mark a huge upgrade for them, and I also liked the Amari Spivey pick.

I didn't understand why the Jets basically gave away Leon Washington (and a seventh rounder) in that deal with Seattle for a fifth-rounder. I know that he had a pretty severe leg injury, but Washington's extremely quick and relatively young. Maybe New York decided there weren't enough snaps for a three-headed monster in its backfield, which just means that not only did the Jets waste significant dollars on a badly-fading LaDanian Tomlinson as a complement to Shonn Greene, but also that the ill-advised signing cost them a productive player in Washington.

Finally, I enjoyed the hullabaloo over the Broncos picking Tim Tebow, a move pretty much universally panned by those not affiliated with the University of Florida and the non-bible-thumping populace alike. I'm no Tebow fan, but here's my question: If the traditional way of evaluating quarterbacks results in a failure rate of roughly 50% among first rounders, then what, exactly, did Denver have to lose? Allegedly sound first-round selections -- guys who didn't have questions about where they held the ball, or the length of their release -- such as Ryan Leaf, J.P. Losman, and JaMarcus Russell have been abject failures. So I just don't get raking a team over the coals for ignoring criteria that are clearly broken. Especially considering that with Tebow there's essentially a stop-loss, as pretty much everyone agrees he would make a very good H-back or tight end. And so even if he fails as a quarterback, the Broncos will still have a useful player. That, to me, completely mitigated any additional perceived risk, and made him a highly defensible first-round selection.

April 25, 2010

More than a speed bump, Bulls becoming contenders

Although the ending no doubt lopped off several decades from my life, I was thrilled to see the Bulls hang on for the 108-106 win in Game 3 over the Cleveland Cavaliers, who after last season's playoff flame-out will be feeling a ton of pressure in Game 4. Unfortunately, the Cavs probably witnessed the Western Conference's No. 1 seed losing a Game 4 on Saturday night, when the Oklahoma Thunder blew out the Los Angeles Lakers 110-89 to tie that series at 2, so there will be no underestimating the threat Chicago poses in this one.

But you have to be happy with the way the Bulls have played thus far. While they might not have looked very good in Game 1, when they never really threatened and spent far too much time preoccupied with the officiating, since then they've been a lot like the scrappy, resilient bunch that gave the Celtics everything they could handle in last year's playoffs.

One of the biggest reasons: an engaged Luol Deng. After a disappointing Game 1 (12 points on 5-for-15 shooting), Deng, who missed that series against Boston with one of his many ailments that I can no longer keep track of, has found the range over the last two games, combining to go 16-for-31. He had a nice all-around performance in Game 2, with six rebounds, five assists, and no turnovers, and the Bulls might've stolen a win had Cleveland not made half their 3s while LeBron James (16-of-23 from the field) nailed a series of extremely difficult shots down the stretch.

After earning a reputation for disappearing into the background during crunch-time, Deng came up huge defensively down the stretch of Game 3, drawing an enormous charge on LeBron that easily could've been an and-one, and then getting a steal on the Cavs' next possession. Because Deng looked so lost for a good portion of the latter part of the season, the Bulls -- as I mentioned in my series preview -- really needed for him to deliver, and for the most part he has.

Joakim Noah's importance was also obvious in Game 3. After a 25-point, 13-rebound performance in Game 2 that still resulted in him being a team-worst minus-15 (and showed the limitations of the plus/minus stat in small samples), Noah was a team-best +13 in 33 foul-plagued minutes in Game 3. The Bulls were clearly a different team with him on the floor, and while his 10-point, 15-rebound, 5-assist line was terrific, I was disappointed by some of the terrible fouls he picked up, especially his fifth. Which is why it bodes well that after the game Noah acknowledged that they were "stupid, stupid fouls." As I said before the series, the Bulls absolutely need Noah out there, and if they are to have any hope of winning Game 4, he has to stay out of foul trouble.

Game 3 had me having flashbacks of this 109-108 win over the Cavs, the final matchup in the regular season that James conspicuously sat out. In both games, the Bulls were extremely lucky that poor free-throw shooting down the stretch didn't completely doom them, although in the regular season one the Cavs simply couldn't convert on the other end, while here they merely ran out of time. And yet, Cleveland's near-comeback also opened a scab from Game 2

In that 112-102 loss, the Bulls played exceptionally well, and entered the final quarter tied. The Cavs slowly pulled away throughout the quarter, opening up a 10-point lead with 2:17 remaining. However, with 58.7 seconds left, a pair of Deng free-throws drew the Bulls back within seven at 107-100. Inexplicably, the Bulls did not foul on the ensuing possession; when I screamed (okay, typed, but I was furious) on the Blog-a-Bull game thread, Why aren't they fouling? I got a few The game's over-type responses. Yes, the game was likely going to end up a loss. But this is the playoffs. Why were they conceding anything?

Seven points in under a minute is a lot to overcome, but teams do it with relative frequency. Hell, exactly 10 days earlier, the Bulls lost that terrible game in New Jersey after blowing a seven-point lead with less than a minute to go in the first overtime. In basketball terms, a minute can be an eternity, and some hot shooting combined with a few missed Cavs free throws might have resulted in an improbable win.

Which was very nearly what the Cavs pulled off in Game 3. A pair of Kirk Hinrich free throws put the Bulls ahead 104-96 with 38 seconds to play, but Cleveland didn't throw in the towel, and a trio of made 3-pointers combined with the Bulls' 4-of-8 shooting from the line resulted in the Cavs having a shot to win the game at the end. Sure, the 40-footer by Anthony Parker wasn't a great look -- had the Cavs held any timeouts, they likely would've gotten a better one, taken by LeBron -- but they had a chance to steal the game because they extended it by fouling, which made the Bulls failure to do so a game earlier all the more galling.

But honestly, I don't have many other qualms with coach Vinny Del Negro's tactics in the series. In Game 3, he even realized that he should be giving minutes to James Johnson, one of only six Bulls under contract for next year, at the expense of Hakim Warrick and Jannero Pargo, neither of whom played. Johnson has been foul-prone and not all that effective, but he has brought energy, and the experience he is getting will be invaluable down the road.

Speaking of which, this series has reinforced just how important making the playoffs was for the Bulls' future. There's plenty of obvious benefits, most notably the postseason reps for the young core. But for this team, which is clearly lacking another scorer, to play so well against what's possibly the best team in the NBA just has to help their chances in free agency. If I'm Dwyane Wade, and I see a team with me getting dismantled by a so-so Boston group while another that wants me gives an elite squad all that it can handle, it would have to make me think twice about my commitment to Miami. Plus just being in high-profile, nationally-televised games helps too. The TNT studio crew has raved about the Bulls; with Kenny Smith calling Rose his favorite player in the league and Charles Barkley reaffirming his love Noah, it's like an infomercial for prospective free agents.

Plus, the Bulls genuinely seem to like playing with each other. Noah's post-game comments almost always contain glowing references to Rose, and how much he loves him. In this one, noting how Rose was unfazed when LeBron decided to try to D him up in the fourth quarter -- to me one of the most encouraging images of the series was seeing Rose go right at LeBron -- Noah said, "D-Rose played huge for us. ... I'm glad he's on my team."

Before the series, I heard quite a few pundits say something along the lines of, "The teams split the season series, but that's not really representative because LeBron James sat out the last regular season game." Unfortunately, they failed to note that one of the Cavs' wins is equally deserving of an asterisk. On March 19, Cleveland beat the the Bulls -- playing without Rose, Noah, and Deng -- 92-85. As far as I'm concerned, they split the regular season 1-1, and the Bulls and Cavs have now played five games with the season series at 3-2. Clearly, this matchup is not the blowout that it was perceived to be, and although I'm not necessarily expecting the Bulls to win Game 4, it wouldn't surprise me, either. As Rose and Noah continue to develop, this team is getting better every day. And the future, regardless of if they are able to sign a marquee free agent or end up conserving their cap space to use in trades, is indeed very bright.

Go Bulls.

April 22, 2010

Panic move: Cubs send Zambrano to bullpen


With the Cubs bullpen off to a predictably terrible start -- if you think it wasn't predictable, click here -- I have been fretting about general manager Jim Hendry handing out several Brandon Lyon-esque contracts next offseason, or, worse yet, having him really panic and pull the trigger on a worthy successor to the Jon Garland-for-Matt Karchner / Kyle Lohse-for-Rick Aguilera / Jose Ceda-for-Kevin Gregg deals that have literally shaved years off my life -- that's right, each of those transactions came to my apartment in the form of a razor, and with patented lift-and-cut technology smoothly removed time from my existence in a single stroke. Sure, it sounds exceptionally efficient, but the whole process is, in reality, quite painful.

Anyway, the upshot is, I've been dreading the story coming off the wire of an Andrew Cashner-for-Tim Byrdak deal, or perhaps a Jay Jackson-for-Takashi Saito swap. And then I saw this headline on ESPN.com:

Cubs moving Zambrano to bullpen

Now, I probably would've gone with something a little flashier, like Panic Move: Cubs send Zambrano to bullpen, but I do admittedly have a flair for the dramatic.

Still, that's what this is: a $53.75 million panic move.

Continuing from Bruce Levine's ESPNChicago.com report:

The Chicago Cubs confirmed reports that manager Lou Piniella is moving struggling starter Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen, in a move that may not be temporary.

"I told him we really needed him in the bullpen," Piniella told reporters.

Now granted, with Ted Lilly returning, someone had to move to the bullpen, and Zambrano could really help there, as he clearly has the greatest chance of becoming an ace reliever. Why? BECAUSE HE'S THE BEST GODDAMN PITCHER of the guys they supposedly considered: Carlos Silva, Tom Gorzelanny, and him. Which is why you want him throwing 200 innings, instead of 70.

I know the choice couldn't have been easy; unlike the bullpen, the rotation has actually been very good. Take a gander at these numbers (through 4/20):

Starter ERA FIP xFIP BABiP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
A 0.69 2.01 3.38 .218 5.54 0.00 0.00
B 1.93 2.48 3.79 .266 6.75 2.89 0.00
C 2.45 2.41 3.68 .362 6.38 2.45 0.00
D 3.15 2.81 3.32 .274 9.90 3.60 0.45
E 7.45 4.72 3.37 .435 12.10 4.66 1.86

Without a doubt, Pitcher E has ostensibly been the worst. But more tellingly, he's also been the unluckiest; while his earned run average and fielding-independent pitching stick out like Matt Stairs' belly, his expected fielding-independent pitching -- using a formula that removes the home run component, which can be profoundly influenced by luck in a pitcher's home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) in a given season -- is solidly near the front of the pack.

Pitcher E, not surprisingly, is Zambrano. Not that any of this should matter, though, because the whole stupid chart serves as an exemplar for why you don't make decisions like these based on three or four starts.

Does anyone think that Pitcher A (Silva) is not going to walk a guy all season? Or allow a home run? Or that he can maintain a .218 BABiP? None of those things are even remotely sustainable; while Silva is an excellent control pitcher, his career walk rate is 1.69 BB/9, and more importantly, he has allowed 1.12 HR/9 and a .312 BABiP. Furthermore, how much longer can we expect Starters B (Gorzelanny) and C (Randy Wells) to not allow a home run? Four innings? Five?

Moving Zambrano to the bullpen shows the same type of horribly-myopic thinking as those prospects-for-middling-reliever deals I so dread. Given the rotation's respective bodies of work the last few seasons, I don't see how Zambrano can be any worse than the #3 starter on this team, behind Ryan Dempster (Starter D) and Lilly, provided the latter is actually healthy. If I were to prioritize which of the five current starters I'd move to the 'pen, I'd go Silva, Gorzelanny, Wells, Zambrano, Dempster.

And really, just how much is Zambrano "struggling"? He undeniably had a disastrous Opening Day, and a quick glance reveals that his traditional stats through four starts -- which I think we can all agree is a totally-representative sample size, and should by all means be taken as the true measure of his ability while his 238 other career starts are completely ignored -- are pretty bad: 1-2, 7.45 ERA. But over his last three games, he's actually 1-1, 4.00, going at least five innings in each while allowing three earned runs or fewer.

More importantly, though, his K-rate has been superb, with 26 in 19.1 innings. As always, he's walking too many guys, but his BB rate isn't that out of line with his career mark (4.1). So Zambrano's struggles are basically a function of two things over which he has varying degrees of control: home runs and hits allowed.

Yes, the home run is one of the three true outcomes, but as I mentioned earlier, there is still an element of luck involved in how many a pitcher yields, especially when you're talking about such a small sample size. After being remarkably stingy with the gopher ball for most of his career, including allowing just 10 homers in 169.1 IP last year, Zambrano has already given up four in 2010. But that's four lousy pitches; if two of them had turned into warning-track outs instead of clearing the fence, Zambrano's home run rate would be more or less in line with his career mark. And so this is largely the product of bad luck, which is borne out by his HR/FB ratio: it's at 21.1%, compared to his career mark of 9.1%.

Zambrano's inflated BAA (.317) is a function of that absurd .435 BABiP, which is 54.3% higher than his career mark of .282. Now I suppose it's possible that he's suddenly become eminently hittable. There are, after all, some disturbing trends in his numbers. Since posting a phenomenal 54.4% ground ball rate in his first full season in '03, Zambrano's GB% has declined every year but one (in 2008, when it rocketed to 47.2% from 46.8%), reaching the low-water mark (44.7%) last season. This year it's at 39.3%, and although it's still plenty low enough to succeed, combined with his increasing line drive rate -- at 26.8% this year, compared to 18.7% for his career -- there are some causes for concern.

But in looking at his strikeouts, it's clear that Zambrano's stuff is still plenty good enough to get major-league hitters out. Given the minuscule sample size -- and the inordinate effect one bad start has on overall numbers just a few games in -- it's infinitely more likely that he's merely the victim of some unfortunate early-season flukiness.

And now the Cubs' entire season has become a victim of it, too. Because reducing Zambrano's workload by 120-or-so innings undoubtedly makes the team worse. I am painfully aware of just how bad the bullpen has been, but how much impact can one player can have on a seven-man relief corps?

Besides, this is a horrifically bad allocation of resources. As best I can tell, no non-40-year-old-Panamian reliever has a deal that averages more than $12.5 million per season, and all the guys in that range are closers. Zambrano, owed the aforementioned $53.75 million over the next three years, basically makes one-and-a-half times that; he's paid the big bucks to log starter innings, and that's what the Cubs should have him doing.

If Zambrano were pitching atrociously, I'd applaud the Cubs for finally grasping the concept a sunk cost and moving him to the 'pen. But he's not. To this point, it's been three decent starts, one horrible one, and whole lot of bad luck. To demote one of your best pitchers based on that, whether it's because you're dissatisfied with him, the bullpen, or a combination thereof, flat-out doesn't make sense. And what happens if Zambrano, who hasn't pitched in relief in eight years, gets injured because his body doesn't handle the sudden transition well? This is just awful on so many levels.

You know, kind of like the Cubs.

April 20, 2010

Rough Draft: A (Not-So) Brief History of the Chicago Bears

Revised -- and shortened! -- from an entry originally posted 3/31/2009

Typically the NFL Draft is my favorite time of the year. Because while I'm usually a curmudgeonly pessimist when it comes to sports, the draft is a time when anything seems possible and even I can be positive. Unfortunately, with the Bears having traded away their first round pick in the Jay Cutler deal (which I agreed with) and their second rounder to acquire Gaines Adams (which I didn't), I just haven't been feeling it. Even last year, when they were also without a pick until the third round, they had all their slotted choices for most of the offseason -- the Cutler trade didn't happened until April 2 -- and so this is really the first time since I was introduced to the internet that I haven't spent an insane number of hours researching potential Bears draftees.

But the Bears not having a pick in the first two rounds can actually be a good thing, as it's usually those selections that leave me depressed. In a lot of ways, first rounders can only disappoint -- if they're good they're just living up to their draft status, and if they're terrible I end up devising different ways to accost general manager Jerry Angelo to deliver a kick in the teeth. Players from the later rounds, however, can only be pleasant surprises; anything you get from those guys is gravy, and so the potential is almost limitless. Traditionally, Day 2 -- and with the revamped format, Day 3 -- is a time when I can dream of a seventh-round selection like Marcus Monk becoming the next Marques Colston, before the reality of his actual skill level gets in the way.

The Bears were once one of the best-drafting teams in the NFL. They drafted Hall-of-Famer Bulldog Turner with the seventh overall selection in 1940, and Turner was All-Pro seven times; every other selection in that year's 22 rounds combined for one All-Pro season. Eight time All-Pro Bill George was a second-round pick, as was fellow Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary. The Bears selected Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in the same draft, for crying out loud. Their 1983 class yielded an astonishing seven starters -- Jimbo Covert, Willie Gault, Mike Richardson, Dave Duerson, Tom Thayer, Richard Dent, and Mark Bortz -- on a team that won the Super Bowl just two years later. That's essentially 1/3 of a championship team's starting lineup from a single draft. Dent and Bortz enjoyed 15- and 12-year careers, respectively, after being selected in the now-defunct 8th round.

From that '83 draft, however, there was nowhere to go but down, and that's exactly where the Bears have gone. It's been especially bad since '87, when snot-nosed Halas family scion Mike McCaskey canned general manager Jerry Vanisi. Then the organization lost its final link to greatness when Mike Ditka was fired in 1993, which is when I'll begin my analysis.

After originally setting out to look at the Bears first round picks, and then later their first three selections, I ultimately settled on their first four picks. This is because I believe that the first four picks are where a team is really looking to fill its needs -- despite the best player available rhetoric everyone spouts -- and they are also the source of a huge majority of a team's impact players.

You're going to have to click on it unless you've set up your electron microscope, but please look at the table below. And really look at it, because the goddamn thing took forever to compile. Anyway, all the players' names are preceded by their draft slot and followed by their position. Reading left to right, the first column has the Bears selections. The second contains what I have deemed to be the best combination of players at the same four positions using the picks the Bears had. Note that the positions do not have to be selected in the same order, just that the same four positions must be represented. The third column is the best overall combination of players the Bears could have had with those picks, regardless of position, while the fourth contains other possibilities they could/should have considered. The fifth column -- headed 'I was prayin' for...' -- has the player I personally wanted that year,* while the last one contains miscellaneous tidbits.

* Let me just preemptively stress that the players in the "I was prayin' for..." column really are the guys I wanted at that time. It seems a tad bit convenient, that someone who calls himself Mr. Sports Know-It-All allegedly liked the guys who ended up being the best players. But in at least two of those cases -- Warren Sapp and Randy Moss -- everyone knew they were exceptional talents, and they only dropped because of marijuana-based "character" issues, which I couldn't care less about. And it's not like I was alone in wanting Sapp and Moss; besides, I was also prayin' for Rickey Dudley and Mike Williams, so it's not like I'm going to make anyone forget Bill Polian any time soon.

What follows is the yearly breakdown. The assigned grades are based more on how well the Bears maximized the talent available in the specific draft, rather than the quality of the players they actually chose; that is, getting two decent starters in a terrible draft rates higher than getting three in a great one.

1993: Curtis Conway was actually pretty effective for some time, but considering the quality of this draft -- and the trio of All-Pros taken consecutively behind him -- it wasn't a very good pick. Carl Sampson and Chris Gedney gave the Bears nothing, and while Todd Perry had some pretty good years, Will Shields is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, assuming they're still letting offensive linemen in. Grade: D-

1994: The Bears picks weren't exactly great, but the entire draft wasn't either, with hardly any stars to be had. John Thierry did nothing but spawn horrible puns like this one: My Thierry on John is that he sucked. I loved Raymont Harris' UltraBack persona, but two quality RBs (Dorsey Levens and Jamal Anderson) were chosen after him, and he couldn't stay healthy. Jim Flanigan recorded an impressive-for-a-DT 40.5 sacks in his six years with the Bears, a span in which he started every game. As for the hoped-for Shante Carver, let's just say that I may have overrated the skills of Pac-10 players a tad during my Cal years. Grade: C-

1995: Some thought it a steal when Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam fell to the Bears. It wasn't. He just didn't have enough speed to play in the NFL. As a defensive tackle. And sorry Todd Sauerbrun, but unless a guy can average 75 yards a kick with 14 second hang time, I ain't drafting a punter before the sixth round, "HANGTIME" vanity plates notwithstanding. Which is why I didn't in my draft re-creation, taking a guard (which the Bears selected fifth) instead. Grade: F

1996: The Bears actually did a pretty good job here, in terms of getting long-time starters; unfortunately, most of those starts came for other teams. Now 14 years in, Walt Harris and Bobby Engram were still first-string until recently and Chris Villarrial started 148 games in his 11-year career. Even Paul Grasmanis played nine seasons. But the Bears didn't select any stars and this draft was loaded with 'em. Grade: C

1997: As a longtime Notre Dame hater, I wanted to kick Touchdown Jesus in the balls when the Bears blew their first rounder in a trade for Rick Mirer, who'd already proven he was a bust in Seattle. Granted, there weren't a whole lot of great QBs available -- Jake Plummer (29,253) was the only one to even top 3,000 career yards -- but still. At least Mirer actually played, which is more than their three picks can say. Grade: F-

1998: This was billed it as a five-player draft -- Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf (umm...), Andre Wadsworth (ditto), Randy Moss, and Charles Woodson -- and the Bears were picking fifth. Most people thought they'd get Wadsworth, and I actually would've been happy with that. But I wanted Moss, whose playmaking at Marshall had become a SportsCenter staple. When the Cards took Wadsworth and Raiders Woodson, Moss was practically wearing a Bears uniform. Instead they chose Curtis Enis** and Moss fell all the way to the Vikings at 21, ensuring we'd all have to watch him humiliate the Bears twice a year.

** The only upside was I spent most of his brief career saying "Curtis Enis hurt his penis," which never actually happened but should have. At around the same time, my friend Peter liked to say, "Ow, that's my Dick Jauron." It was all very mature, really.

Tony Parrish and Olin Kreutz were both very good selections -- really, Lance Schulters and Matt Birk over them was a total toss-up, and at least partially included for variety's sake -- but you've got to nail those Top-5 picks. Grade: C-

1999: Rex Tucker was the only one who gave the Bears anything. Russell Davis was let go way to early, and D'Wayne Bates was chosen because scouting him at Northwestern was much cheaper than booking a flight out of state. In the first round, the Bears were originally on the board at seven, where early projections had them getting local kid Donovan McNabb, whose workouts shot him up the board for the right to be booed by Eagles fans. So the Bears traded down to select Cade McNown, while their original pick became Champ Bailey. Let's just say that history has not been kind to that trade. Grade: Z-

2000: Although I loved his name, I actually wasn't crazy about Brian Urlacher when the Bears drafted him, mostly because the highlight package ESPN showed just wasn't that impressive. (I later realized that this was because all the clips came from the one New Mexico game they had the rights to.) Urlacher ended up being the best sideline-to-sideline MLB I've ever seen. And while Mike Brown ultimately couldn't stay on the field, that's still two top-quality starters from a draft that wasn't all that good. Grade: A

2001: David Terrell was a receiver who couldn't catch, but boy did he look good not doing it. What's particularly egregious is that 2001 was an unbelievable draft for receivers -- Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, Chad Johnson, Chris Chambers, Steve Smith, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh all were picked after Terrell. Anthony Thomas had a good rookie season and briefly captured the city's imagination courtesy of his cool moniker, but Angelo was right: The A-Train was not a "special back." Plus, taking two players from the same school (Michigan) with your first two picks just reeks of scouting laziness to me. Grade: F+

2002: In a terrible year with very little depth, Jerry Angelo did about as well as could be expected in his first draft. Marc Colombo is a starter for the Cowboys, but had 62 major injuries in his three-plus seasons in Chicago. He was like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior rolled into one, and I mean that literally, too -- he's about the size of both those guys combined. Just a gigantic human being. The Dwight Freeney thing was a complete pipe dream, once again fueled by the experts early projections; he would've looked great in a Bears uniform had he fallen that far, although recently-released Alex Brown gave them excellent value as a fourth-rounder. Grade: B-

2003: The Bears ended up flipping the fourth overall pick to the Jets for a pair of firsts, missing out on perennial Pro Bowlers Terrell Suggs and Kevin Williams in the process. Instead they got Michael Haynes and Rex Grossman.^ Haynes started just four games in his career, but Grossman's the one universally reviled as a bust.

^ I should add that in another overt act of scouting dereliction, the Bears somehow managed to select four players -- Grossman, S Todd Johnson, and DTs Ian Scott and the somehow-wasn't-a-superstar-despite-the-kickass-name Tron LaFavor -- from the University of Florida. I mean, there is NO WAY four guys from the same school could have been the best player available at each spot. That's like a quadrillion-to-one shot.

The Bears did, however, do very well with their next two picks, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, both of whom have been top-notch starters from the get-go. They also got some contributors in the later rounds, but whiffing on two top-25 picks in a draft that yielded as many studs as this one really hurts. Grade: C

2004: The Bears did extremely well here in the short term, but this class has aged worse than Nikki Cox. I preferred Vince Wilfork's power over Tommie Harris' quickness, but his agility made him a better fit for Lovie Smith's scheme. Tank Johnson was a great tag-team partner for Harris, but his off-the-field issues derailed his Bears career. Like Harris, Nathan Vasher was very good before durability issues ruined him, and Bernard Berrian's given me almost as much pleasure as a free-agent bust with the Vikings as he did as the Bears' deep threat. Grade: B-

2005: I was absolutely furious when the Bears passed on can't-miss WR Mike Williams in favor of Cedric Benson. Not only did they not have any viable receivers, they also had signed running back Thomas Jones to a four-year deal just a season earlier. Plus, I thought Benson would suck. And his infamous crying on draft day -- when he basically admonished anyone for having the audacity to question his checkered past -- was so appalling that I was wholly convinced he was Curtis Enis 2.0. Of course, now that he's gone, he's turned into Earl Campbell. Perfect.

Mark Bradley wasn't a disappointment when he wasn't injured, which wasn't often. The Bears paid Adewale Ogunleye superstar money for super-so-so production, and Orton's now in Denver, familiarly trying to fend off a guy with a better draft pedigree. Grade: D-

2006: This draft probably got the worst immediate reception, but it actually was one of Angelo's better efforts. With the entire fan base clamoring for more offense -- in 2005, the Bears had finished 26th in points scored and 29th in total offense, and first in points allowed and second in total defense -- Angelo arrogantly used his first five picks (including DE Mark Anderson, who recorded 12 sacks as a rookie in limited playing time) on defensive guys.

Devin Hester was an once-in-a-lifetime force of nature on special teams, but the Bears decided to trade that guy for an overpaid receiver with middling production. Danieal Manning is also very good in the return game, but five years in, the Bears still haven't decided on his position. Dvoracek looked pretty good when healthy, which, like fellow Sooners Tommie Harris and Mark Bradley, was never, and Jamar Williams has shown flashes in his limited opportunities. Grade: C+

2007: Finally, the Bears took the guy that everybody wanted. Unfortunately, Olsen's been a mild disappointment; while productive, he hasn't quite had the breakout many predicted last season. And the rest of this draft was downright terrible. In a rarity for a second round pick, Bazuin has yet to play a game in the NFL. Neither has Michael Okwo. And while Garrett Wolfe is a microscopic dervish on special teams and has improved as a ball carrier, his durability's an issue. Add it all up, and you've got an awful ROI on three top-100 picks. Grade: D

2008: The Bears got their whole 2008 offense in Matt Forte. However, this is what I said last offseason:
Though he was undoubtedly productive, his yards per carry (3.9) worry me a little, and there were a ton of good RBs in this draft.
Chris Williams appears to be the future at left tackle (though he hardly looked dominant last year) and I wouldn't have ignored the medical reports on his back, which has already cost him one season. I like Marcus Harrison, but I thought he would've taken a bigger step forward last year. And while Bennett started last year, he shouldn't have; that amazing chemistry with fellow Commodore Cutler yielded all of two touchdowns. Grade: C+

2009: I liked the Bears draft a lot in the immediate aftermath, but thus far they've gotten far more from their fifth- and sixth-round picks (Johnny Knox and Al Afalava, respectively) than any of their first four. In fact, Henry Melton and D.J. Moore never suited up last year, Juaquin Iglesias played in one receptionless game and Gilbert made one tackle. Still, given they had no picks in the first two rounds and it's still early, I'll withhold my scathing judgment for now. Grade: I

Cumulative Draft GPA: 1.5

And that's the Chicago Bears, not exactly the NFL's honor student. But while the Bears rarely did well as they could have, the same is true for every single team in the league. No organization ever drafts perfectly, or even comes close. Because even when a team gets a 6th-round Pro Bowler, they still passed on him five times just like everybody else. In fact, the key is not to never miss, but to hit home runs just a little more frequently than the competition. Because if you can serendipitously land a Tom Brady every so often, you just might build a championship team.

Reduced to the most basic of terms, the Bears just haven't found enough impact players via the draft. Their 1993-2009 drafts produced four players -- Kreutz, Urlacher, Briggs, and Tommie Harris -- who have earned multiple Pro Bowl berths with the team; as a comparison, the Colts, Patriots, Eagles, and Steelers, have all found at least seven of those guys, and the Lions and Raiders just three. Just like in the standings, the Bears have been much closer to the bottom than the top. Hopefully, even without a pick until the third round, that can change in 2010. It is, after all, the NFL Draft. And anything is possible.

April 17, 2010

Lucky 7: Bulls-Cavaliers


Well, the Bulls did it. They're in the playoffs, which seemed a virtual impossibility just a few weeks ago. They showed a remarkable amount of resiliency and gumption in pulling off a comeback from near-oblivion, which is why I don't think they will be satisfied with merely making the postseason. And so here are seven things I'd like to see in their best-of-seven first round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers:

1. Joakim Noah staying out of foul trouble
If I were the Cavs, I would hammer the ball into Shaquille O'Neal in the early going in hopes of picking up fouls on Noah and getting him out of the game. Because as we saw during the Bulls' 10-game losing streak when Noah was sidelined with his plantar fasciitis recurrence, that would have a devastating effect on Chicago's ability to compete.

The Bulls are completely reliant on Noah's defense, rebounding, and energy. Plus, his game on the offensive end has become increasingly valuable, with crisp interior passing and an improving outside shot and post game. The upshot is, they need Noah out there for as many minutes as possible; if he's limited by foul trouble, the Bulls long odds become nonexistent.

2. Derrick Rose taking over in crunch time
I'm still not sure what to make of Rose as the Bulls' end-of-game alpha dog. Sometimes he seems like he's ready to seize that role, and others -- like the recent loss to the Nets -- he seems to shrink from the moment. I am very curious to see how he does in this series. I don't expect him to be able to go shot-for-shot with LeBron James -- whose sheer force of will should prove to be the biggest difference in this series -- but I'm hoping he at least shows he wants to try.

In last year's first-round epic with the Celtics, Rose deferred to Ben Gordon in the big moments. Was that because of Gordon stepping up, or because Rose stepped aside? This series will be a real litmus test of exactly where Rose is as a player: Can he carry a franchise, or is he better suited to being the league's best second banana?

3. A shortened rotation that includes James Johnson
Johnson deserves to play for a few reasons:
A. He is possibly the only player on the Bulls -- and certainly the only one on their bench -- with the size/strength/quickness combo to at least be a minor distraction for LeBron when he's defending him.
B. He played very well in the 92-85 loss to the Cavs -- 16 points on 11 shots, 8 rebounds, 2 steals and a block with a best-among-starters minus-1 in 36 minutes -- when Rose, Noah, and Luol Deng were all sidelined with injuries.
C. The reps he (and fellow rookie Taj Gibson) get in the playoffs now could be invaluable in the future. The Bulls have virtually no chance at winning the series; so why play someone like Hakim Warrick -- who's not a part of their plans going forward -- at the expense of Johnson, who is?

4. Jannero Pargo glued to the bench
It wouldn't be one of my list posts without an item referencing Pargo's enduring crappiness and Del Negro's steadfast refusal to keep him from the court. And yet, in a triumph of the human spirit, I continue to dream of a Pargo-free world.

5. A Game 5
While I certainly don't think the Bulls will win the series, I do believe they can at least win a game. Everyone -- I'm speaking nationally here -- is looking at them as nothing more than sacrificial lambs; all seven of the TrueHoop Network's legitimate contributors are predicting Cavs in 4. But I'm hoping for just a bit more. As good as Cleveland is, I'm guessing the Bulls will show plenty of fight, and given that they are actually pretty formidable themselves when healthy, should be able to steal a game at some point.

6. A Game 6
Alright, so I'm greedy.

7. A Game 7 Luol Deng
In the Bulls final three games -- all must wins in the playoff push -- Deng appeared to be lost when he wasn't completely disinterested. Despite playing 35 minutes per contest, he averaged just 10.7 points on 40% shooting. In 104 total minutes, he did not block a shot and had just two steals. Call me crazy, but I generally want to see a bit more production from The Six Million Dollar (Per Half-Season) Man.

I don't expect Deng to recapture the magic he showed in the Bulls shocking first-round sweep of the defending champion Miami Heat in 2007 -- for whatever reason, he's no longer the player that averaged 26.3 points on 57.9% shooting in that series. But he needs to be a player. The Bulls infinitesimal chances of shocking the world hinge on Deng being an engaged and productive #3 behind Rose and Noah.

Series prediction: Cavs in 5.5

April 14, 2010

I wish someone would grab Reggie Miller's tie


A coupla things knocking around the ol' thinkblob:

Relax Pax: Attacks Lacks Facts, Impacts Axe; Syntax Lax

My first reaction to the story about an altercation between VP John Paxson and coach Vinny Del Negro was a smart-ass one: Who hasn't wanted to punch Vinny Del Negro?

But that's not really fair. The story, if true, speaks badly of Paxson's management style, but it's also something that I don't think is all that uncommon in the testosterone-fueled world of professional sports. Be it Billy Martin challenging Reggie Jackson to a fight, or Buddy Ryan taking a swing at Kevin Gilbride, this is the kind of stuff that happens among the alpha males who dominate athletics.

Let's take the story -- the original one, not the transparent subterfuge the Bulls PR department has apparently planted in response -- as true on its face; that is, that Paxson was angry that Del Negro again went over the medically-prescribed minute limits for Joakim Noah.

Seeing as how the previous over-usage of a recuperating Noah -- in the 115-111 OT win over Portland in February -- caused a recurrence of the injury and led to Noah missing the next 10 games (all losses), is it any wonder that Paxson would be furious that Del Negro did it again? I would be.

For those (like Reggie Miller) that are saying the coach should decide playing time, that cannot be the case when it comes to injuries. I'm old enough to remember Michael Jordan coming back from a broken foot in the '85-'86 season, and his minutes were rigidly scheduled. In the beginning, he played like four minutes per half, then six, then eight, etc. A coach almost never has the player's best interest in mind, so when it comes to situations like these, the front office -- who works more closely with team doctors -- has to intervene.

Still, trying to fight your employee is probably not the best way to resolve your differences. Terminating him would be. Which I'm sure will be the end result once the season is complete. The question is, will Paxson be around to do the firing?

I have no idea how Jerry Reinsdorf is going to react to this, but it certainly hasn't made the Bulls look very good at a time when they need to be seen as a first-class organization in order to lure a marquee free agent. And it's not like Paxson has been any better at his job than Del Negro is at his: Paxson has assembled a fringe-playoff team, and as coach Del Negro has them on the fringes of the playoffs. While I want to see Del Negro let go because I believe a high-profile job like Bulls head coach deserves someone elite, he is no more incompetent than anyone else in the organization.

And that's just sad.

Marv Albert + Mike Fratello > Any other broadcast team > Marv Albert + Mike Fratello + Reggie Miller

That's how bad Miller is; he makes the entire audio broadcast borderline intolerable. He takes totally indefensible positions -- regardless of what the team doctors may have said, Del Negro should have played Noah because Noah wanted to play more; first KC Johnson shouldn't have sat on Pax-VDN story only to release it, then when Craig Sager clarified Johnson's role, he shouldn't have confirmed the original report by Adrian Wojnarowski -- and pontificates endlessly about them in a most inarticulate way, because he's roughly 37 billion times less intelligent than he thinks he is.

And I actually enjoyed Miller's antics as a player. But he should not be in a nationally-televised broadcasting role. He adds absolutely nothing; instead he merely enrages me when I'm forced to listen to him instead of hearing some actual insight / witty banter between Albert and Fratello. That TNT thought there was something wrong with the Marv-Czar pairing is inexplicable. Those guys don't need a third man, and TNT's execs have failed to heed one of sports' most inviolable precepts: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

With this Bulls team, you never know

Tuesday's 101-93 dispatching of the Boston Celtics was a huge win for the Bulls. But their work in claiming a playoff spot is only partially completed.

Yes, it was great to see Derrick Rose really come through in crunch time, scoring 17 of his career-high 39 points in the fourth quarter, and even hitting a pair of (semi-)clutch free throws. And Kirk Hinrich had a superb shooting game in scoring 30, although it would be foolhardy to think that it is something he could do consistently.

But even though the Bulls are ostensibly that much closer to the postseason, for some reason I am not feeling very confident today. Actually, I know the reason: This season, the Bulls have too often followed a big win with an even bigger loss, as I've seen several great performances succeeded by some major defecation in their pantaloons. To wit:

Big Win Next Game
vs. GSW, 96-91 (OT) L vs. BOS, 106-80
vs. ATL, 101-98 (OT) L vs. SAC, 102-98
vs. ORL, 101-93 L vs. OKC, 98-85
@ NO, 108-106 (OT) L vs. LAC, 90-82
vs. PHI, 122-90 L @ WAS, 101-95
vs. POR, 115-111 (OT) L @ IND, 100-90
vs. HOU, 98-88 L vs. MIA, 103-74
vs. CHA, 96-88 L vs. MIL, 79-74
vs. CLE, 109-108 L @ NJ, 127-116 (2OT)
vs. BOS, 101-93 ??? @ CHA

Quite simply, the Bulls can't afford a similar letdown. Regardless of who is/isn't playing substantial minutes for the Bobcats, Chicago needs to have another performance worthy of a playoff team. Hopefully, I'm just worrying over nothing, but it would be just like this team to get everyone's hopes back up only to crush them with a pitiful showing.

April 13, 2010

8 keys to the 8 seed

With 80 games down and two to play, and despite everything that's come before this, the Bulls control their own playoff destiny. Sunday's 104-88 win in Toronto assured that.

However, the picture is not as rosy as you might think. After the Raptors surprisingly-easy 111-97 win in Detroit on Monday, the Playoff Odds are not in the Bulls' favor. And they're not even close, really. ESPN.com's John Hollinger gives Chicago just a 28.5% of edging the Raptors, which falls between Basketball-Reference.com's odds (29.5%) and CoolStandings.com's (28.2%).

I believe the Bulls' chances are, in reality, slightly better than that. For starters, their final opponent, Charlotte, has its playoff seeding locked in, and with nothing left to play for is likely to rest its regulars, regardless of any claims to the contrary. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of tonight's opponent, Boston. The Celtics still have an outside shot at grabbing the Eastern Conference's 3-seed -- they need to win their final two and Atlanta would have to lose to a Cavaliers team that only cares about staying healthy. Plus, after last year's hard-fought and sometimes acrimonious first-round playoff series, I'm sure Boston would love to knock the Bulls out of the postseason yet again.

Meanwhile, the Raptors play the Knicks at home, a game everyone (but me) is talking about as a gimme. I actually think New York will win. I have a few reasons, other than it's what I'm hoping will happen: 1) The Knicks' style is very similar to Toronto's, only they do it better. 2) While the Raptors are working on a sweep of the season series, they've won the games by eight, six, and two points, and all but one of those was with the injured Chris Bosh playing. 3) Mike D'Antoni is so superior as a coach to Jay Triano that I really think he'll have his guys amped up for the game, and the Knicks will treat it like their playoffs, while the Raptors will think they can just skate to the win.

Having said that, the Bulls can't count on getting any help, and have to assume that they need to win both games to get in. They can't do anything about the winnable games that they've dropped down the stretch; they have to look forward and do whatever it takes to come out on top in these last two. Here's a helpful list of things they can do to ensure they walk away with the eight seed:

1. Limit the turnovers
The Bulls have won four of their last six. In the losses to Milwaukee and New Jersey, they had 16 and 17 turnovers, respectively. In the four wins, they've been remarkably consistent, turning the ball over 10 times twice and 11 times in the other two. That's a difference of six turnovers per game between the wins and the losses. Keep the turnovers to 13 or less, and the Bulls will have a very good chance of winning both games.

2. Play Joakim Noah in crunch time
Look, most of these are going to fall into the Duh category. But the more I watch, the more that it's clear to me that this is not Derrick Rose's team -- it's Noah's. Noah is the leader, it's Noah's energy the team feeds off of, and it's Noah who's their best crunch-time performer.

So he needs to be out there. None of this ridiculous offense/defense thing at the end of games with Brad Miller. Sorry, but Noah is the more productive offensive player. Sure, Miller might be the better shooter, but Noah does so much more offensively, most notably crashing the boards for tip-ins. At this point, Noah is the superior player on both ends.

Besides, Noah is about the only guy on the team that doesn't wither in the clutch, making him one of the players I'd trust most with late-game free throws. And at .754 overall from the line, he basically shoots the same as Rose (.761), Luol Deng (.766), and Kirk Hinrich (.750) even when there's no pressure on.

3. Use newly-signed Rob Kurz to pull a Gillooly on Jannero Pargo
I don't know how many times I've said that Pargo needs to stop playing, but he continues to get his 15 minutes a game. So if horrible shot selection and all-around ghastly play can't take Pargo out of the lineup, maybe a lead pipe to the shins will.

4. Stop focusing on the officiating
The Bulls veteran "leaders" -- I'm thinking of Hinrich and Miller -- are two of the biggest whiners in the league. According to them, they've never committed a foul, and every whistle against them is an injustice of the highest order. When they're not arguing the calls made against them, they're badgering the refs for non-calls on their missed shots / turnovers.

Unfortunately, this attitude has rubbed off on the rest of the team. Especially Rose.

Yes, the questionable calls in the Nets game hurt, but a bigger reason for the loss -- and the Bulls blowing a 7-point lead in the final minute of the first overtime -- was that they allowed their focus to be overcome by the officiating. Instead of putting any no-calls behind them, the Bulls allowed them to fester, and in the process lost track of the important thing -- doing whatever it took to come away with the win.

5. When Derrick Rose gets frustrated, take him out of the game
More than anyone else, Rose clearly let the way the game was officiated get to him. It started with his foul-plus-flagrant early in the fourth, and continued more or less until the moment he fouled out.

I understand that he's still a kid, and prone to getting frustrated. Shit, if I were him, I'd be frustrated too. One of the great mysteries to me is how Rose can go to the hole so often, and yet draw so few fouls. Last year, I would've chalked it up to him being a rookie, except the Thunder's Russell Westbrook got to the line with nearly twice the frequency: 428 attempts in 2668 minutes (0.160 FTA/min) for Westbrook, versus 250 attempts in 3000 minutes (0.083 FTA/min) for Rose. I have no idea what it is, because they also have pretty much the same body type; all I know is that I see Rose take a ton of contact and not get the whistle.

And in the Nets game, a number of questionable calls were made -- or not made, as the case may be -- against Rose, especially on his back-to-back turnovers in the first overtime. But while his frustration is understandable, it doesn't mean that he should stay on the court when he's clearly overwhelmed by it. He's still young. Pull him out of the game briefly, talk to him, get his mind right, and put him back in there.

You know, coach him.

6. Play like champions
Just kidding. But they need to at least play like a playoff team, as opposed to one that chokes at home to the Andrew Bogut-less Bucks, loses to New Jersey (twice), and blows a 35-point lead against the Kings.

7. When a lineup isn't working, change it
In a perfect world, I wouldn't even have to say this. But in the loss to the Nets, Vinny Del Negro stubbornly kept the lineup of Rose, Hinrich, Deng, Miller, and Taj Gibson out there for basically the entire first overtime -- Noah came in for defense for all of 13 seconds -- and beginning of the second, until Rose fouled out. This was despite the fact that from the final minute of OT until that point, the lineup was outscored 11-0.

Even if Del Negro thought Noah was unavailable, he needed to make a move. Miller, who had completely expended himself in helping the Bulls come back from a 12-point, fourth-quarter deficit, had clearly run out of gas -- he missed badly on a pair of 3s in the first OT, either of which would have sealed the win -- and could have used the rest. Del Negro either should have gone small with Flip Murray or brought in Hakim Warrick. Or he could have pulled Gibson (3-of-10 shooting, plus-minus of -16) for either of them.

The point is, he shouldn't have just done nothing when the game was starting to get away from them. And he can't afford any similar inaction the rest of the way.

8. Seriously, don't play Jannero Pargo
I can't emphasize this enough.

April 9, 2010

A win's a win

And boy did the Bulls need a win.

Playing at the United Center on Tuesday night against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that decided to give it a go without an ostensibly healthy LeBron James, the Bulls overcame some late-game free throw dry-heaving to eke out a 109-108 victory and pull even with Toronto in the race for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

With Chris Bosh likely done for the season, it appears that even without the tiebreaker Chicago has the edge over the Raps. Of course, the Bulls (38-40) absolutely have to beat the RuPaul-of-big-men-free Raptors in Toronto on Sunday. However, with the way the Bulls just played in consecutive games against teams missing their respective best players -- Milwaukee minus the injured Andrew Bogut, Cleveland without a resting LeBron -- I wouldn't even consider calling it a gimme. Nor would I say that about their next game, Friday in New Jersey (the Raptors will be in Atlanta). The Nets have already beaten the Bulls once, and have been playing respectably of late, going 4-4 in their last eight games.

Unlike Tuesday's 79-74 loss to the Bucks, the Bulls played Cleveland (61-18) with a sense of urgency and the appropriate level of intensity. Derrick Rose dished out 10 assists and scored a team-high 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting, while Joakim Noah consistently delivered when Chicago needed a big play, finishing with 17 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 blocks.

Just as importantly, Noah spearheaded an inspired defensive effort -- although you wouldn't know it from looking at the box score, the Bulls played a much better game on that end than they did versus Milwaukee, despite allowing nearly 30 more points. The Cavs were just hitting difficult shots; they were almost always long and contested.

Neither team led by more than five in the first half, which ended with the Bulls up 60-56. While I would have liked to have seen the Bulls annihilate the shorthanded Cavs (who were also without Shaquille O'Neal, Delonte West, and Daniel Gibson), my biggest complaint was that coach Vinny Del Negro again went five-deep with his bench. And that included yet another appearance by Jannero Pargo, who inexplicably continues to get minutes in his valiant attempt to drive his field goal percentage into the 20s.

In the third quarter, the Bulls built and blew a 12-point lead, and Cleveland eventually went ahead ahead 85-84 early in the fourth. The Bulls then reeled off a 12-4 run to grab a 7-point lead with 7:01 to go, but the Cavs responded by scoring 11 unanswered, highlighted by a pair of long 3s by Mo Williams, the second of which put Cleveland up 100-96 with 4:45 remaining and had LeBron turning the hardwood into his own personal dance floor. Again.

But this time, instead of rebuking LeBron from his seat on the bench, Noah let his play do the talking, and took it to the Cavs on the court. On the Bulls' next possession, he went hard to the hole and got an and-one to pull them back to within 100-99. After Jamario Moon and Kirk Hinrich (23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, rock-solid D) traded baskets, Luol Deng converted a three-point play of his own to give the Bulls a 104-102 lead.

With Williams briefly going cold -- he sandwiched a pair of off-target 3s around an airballed one by Moon, with Noah controlling the boards to limit the Cavs to one-shot possessions -- the Bulls missed a chance to take a two-possession lead when Hinrich drew a shooting foul just inside the 3-point arc and hit only 1-of-2 free throws.

Unfortunately, that would be as good as it would get for the Bulls at the line.

Trailing 105-102, Williams briefly got loose in front of the Bulls bench, and nailed a 3 just ahead of the close by Hinrich and Taj Gibson. But on the ensuing possession, Noah found himself alone a foot below the top of the key, and without hesitation buried an 18-footer to regain the advantage. As TNT's Doug Collins said:

I'm sure that Cleveland will live with Joakim Noah taking that shot -- under two minutes, game tied -- but you've got to give the young guy credit, he stepped up.

Following that, Williams used an Anderson Varejao screen to get the tiniest sliver of space on Hinrich and Gibson, and drilled yet another 3 -- that's four in a span of 3:53, and 35 points for the game -- to give the Cavs a 108-107 lead with 1:31 left to play.

Derrick Rose responded by knifing through the Cleveland defense with a strong take, and although his hanging bank shot rimmed out, Noah was there to tip it home for a 109-108 lead.

Neither team would score the rest of the way, the Cavs because of some inspired Chicago defense, and the Bulls because they treated the free-throw line like a herpes-riddled groupie.

Even though the Williams 3s were the only baskets the Bulls allowed in the final four minutes in holding Cleveland to 2-for-12 shooting, it was in the final 30 seconds that the Chicago D really put the clamps down.

After Rose missed a forced 3 with the shot clock expiring, Williams took an outlet pass and tried to beat the Bulls down the floor. But he essentially had to go 1-on-4, and his layup was blocked out of bounds by Gibson, who battled foul trouble and missed his last eight field goal attempts, but still managed to log some productive minutes (three blocks, two steals).

Williams got the ensuing inbounds and missed a 16-footer with Hinrich draped all over him. Deng (22 points, 10 rebounds) grabbed the board and was fouled with 14.4 seconds remaining, and proceeded to miss both free throws.

Cleveland then had a few chances to regain the lead, but suddenly looked completely lost without James to turn to in crunch time. Varejao deer-in-the-headlightsed a 17-footer, and Moon had his attempted putback swatted away by Noah. The ball ended up in Anthony Parker's hands, and he found Varejao, who by this point had fecal juices running down his legs, and he chunked a reasonably-open jumper from 15 feet. Rose grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 1.3 seconds left.

He then went to the line and missed both free throws. These weren't in-and-out jobs, either; he completely short-armed each of them as if he were playing Kansas. But on the second miss, Noah made an extremely heady play, back-tapping the rebound so that the clock expired without the Cavs ever getting another possession, letting out a scream as he did so to celebrate what was a huge win for the Bulls.

Some might call it a moral defeat; others prefer immoral victory. But it goes in the W column all the same.

April 7, 2010

A number of reasons to be depressed

Beaten and broken down.

That's how I feel after the Bulls' 79-74 loss the short-handed Milwaukee Bucks at the United Center on Tuesday night.

Knowing Toronto had already lost, the Bulls blew a chance to pull even in the race for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth; with the Raptors owning the tiebreaker, the Bulls just can't afford to miss opportunities like this one. And yet they did, meekly succumbing to an inspired group from Milwaukee.

The reasons to be bummed out by the outcome are almost innumerable. But not quite, as I'm taking it upon myself to examine some of the critical numbers from yet another painful loss:

7: Bulls turnovers in an otherwise very good first quarter that ended with them leading 27-14. The carelessness was indicative of a team playing without a sense of urgency; despite everything at stake, the Bulls couldn't match Milwaukee's intensity and focus, and were completely out-worked by the Bucks, whose playoff berth was all but assured coming in and therefore had very little left to play for.

5: Bulls reserves on the court to start the second quarter. At a time when the team is healthy and in the homestretch of the regular season and most coaches would be shortening their rotation, Vinny Del Negro emptied his bench to start the second quarter. The unit immediately let the Bucks back into the game, giving them a glimmer of hope when the Bulls should have been putting their foot on their throats.

0: (tie)
A) Assists by Kirk Hinrich. Hinrich also shot 4-for-16 (1-for-6 on 3s), had two rebounds, one steal, no blocks, and didn't get to the free-throw line in a 44-minute stint highlighted by nine points. Unfortunately, his atrocious performance was nearly matched by Luol Deng. Sure, Deng had a double-double, but he required 17 shots to get 16 points, had just one assist as he consistently tried to go one-on-one, and played listlessly throughout, missing a number of easy buckets and getting toasted by former Bull John Salmons defensively.
B) Minutes played by the Bucks best player, Andrew Bogut. I told my friend Art before the game that I'd be more confident if Bogut -- out with a grotesquely-injured elbow -- was playing, because Scott Skiles is such a good coach that he no doubt would use it to get his troops fired up for the game, and would be completely unwilling to acccept the injury as an excuse for poor play. You know, unlike the Bulls did when Joakim Noah was out.

7,000,000: The approximate number of dollars the Bulls paid to Skiles through last season to NOT be their coach.

11: Bulls free throw attempts. Despite Bogut's absence in the middle, the Bulls continually settled for outside shots instead of trying to get to the rim.

36.2: The Bulls field goal percentage -- thanks to all those jumpers -- after a hot first quarter (11-for-16, 68.8%).

26-0: Points scored by Salmons against those by Hakim Warrick and Joe Alexander, the players he was traded for.

I suppose you could argue that it's an unfair comparison, given that Salmons played 44 minutes while Warrick played just four and Alexander wasn't even active. But the minutes alone are indicative of the disparity in the talent exchanged, and the game served as Exhibit A for why you shouldn't make a cap-clearing deadline deal with a team you are jockeying with for a postseason berth.

Was there any doubt that Salmons was the Bucks best player? That if he hadn't been on the team, the Bulls would have won the game? Salmons scored a game high 26-points -- twice as many as any other Buck besides Ersan Ilyasova (17) -- and despite being their primary ballhandler in crunch time, didn't commit a turnover in a team-high 44 minutes.

As Art wrote in a post-game email, "I'm so glad we got rid of Salmons and can now sign Joe Johnson to a horrible contract this summer. Awesome."

3: Offensive rebounds the Bulls grabbed after the first quarter. One of the biggest reason the Bucks were able to completely turn the game around and prevent the Bulls from making any sort of sustained run was that they limited Chicago to one-and-done offensive possessions.

2: Points the Bulls were attempting to get, down by three with 7.9 seconds left when Brad Miller got whistled for traveling. Why in the world weren't they setting up to shoot a game-tying 3 when the team is down 77-74? And why is the ball in the hands of the backup center instead of the team's only star, Derrick Rose, who also just happens to be a point guard? Even renowned homer Stacey King pointed this out:

And nothing against Brad right there, but there's a situation you're down 3, with about 15 seconds [actually 13, when the ball was inbounded] to go in the game, and you would think that there would be some kind of pick-and-pop situation. Not to take anything away from Brad handling the ball, but that's the last guy you want to be trying to dribble and trying to create something off the dribble.

Keep in mind that this all occurred coming out of a timeout. I can't even fathom what might've been discussed at that during that stoppage in play. But I suppose it must've went something like this:

Del Negro: Alright everybody, this is exciting. I'm beginning to think that we could actually win this game. I mean, I doubt it, but maybe. Okay Derrick ...

Rose: I'll take the inbounds, go hard to the hole while Miller and Deng set a series of screens on the perimeter, and then find the open man for the game-tying 3?

Del Negro: Hold on there, professor. You're going to be a decoy. We're going to inbound it to Luol. Lu, you're going to act like you're the last person who wants to be near the ball at this point, and you'll find Brad beyond the arc. Now, Brad ...

Miller: Coach, I can make it.

Del Negro: Take it easy, Jimmy Chitwood. You're not going to shoot it, or even think about trying to tie the game. We have to play to our strengths here, so you've got to immediately put the ball on the floor and CREATE. Lose on three, lose on three, LOSE!

I'm always amazed when I look at the stats and Miller isn't averaging 41 turnovers per 48 minutes, because it seems to me that he is constantly losing possession while trying to create something, either by throwing a terrible bounce pass, getting the ball stripped, or just flat-out losing his dribble. Remarkably, Miller averages fewer turnovers per 48 than Rose and, more surprisingly, Noah.

13.9: The percent chance the Bulls now have of getting into the playoffs, according to ESPN.com's John Hollinger, which is pretty much right between CoolStandings.com (15.1%) and Basketball-Reference.com (12.8).

4: The typical number of hours I squander finding/editing photos and creating captions. Which is why, in my depressed state, you're not getting any here. Sorry.