Friday, April 18, 2014

East Round 1 Preview: (4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards

Joakim Noah is one of the ugliest human beings to ever play basketball, but his game is sweet symphony.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By the Numbers

48-34 (27-14 Home; 21-20 Road)
PPG: 93.7 (30th); PPG Allowed: 91.8 (1st)
+1.9 Average Scoring Margin (13th)
Off Rating: 99.7 (28th); Def Rating: 97.8 (2nd)
+1.9 Net Efficiency Rating (12th)

44-38 (22-19 Home, 22-19 Road)
PPG: 100.7 (16th); PPG Allowed: 99.4 (9th)
+1.3 Average Scoring Margin (15th)
Off Rating: 103.3 (18th); Def Rating: 102.4 (T-9th)
+0.9 Net Efficiency Rating (15th)

Season Series: Washington 2-1
Washington 102, Chicago 88 (January 13)
Washington 96, Chicago 93 (January 17)
Chicago 96, Washington 78 (April 5)

Players to Watch:

John Wall

John Wall is a freak of nature. I'm not sure there's an adequate way to describe him other than that. He's a one-man League Pass Alert - I constantly found myself gravitating towards the Wizards when there was no other game of consequence on. And that's saying something, because he's just about the only player on the team that I can even remotely tolerate.

He's one of the league's better point guards, but still has a few serious flaws. He's still a dreadful shooter except for a few select zones where he's improved, and this season he made it worse by getting to the free throw line substantially less than his first three seasons. Defensively, he can get into trouble, because he takes it for granted that there are, in fact, players who can run faster forward than he can going backward. He assumes he can cut off any ball-handler instead of trusting his help.

Still, though, the Wizards are much better on both ends with him on the floor, a trend that continued even after the acquisition of Andre Miller. For the first half of the season, a reasonable person might argue that Wall's on/off splits were influenced by how abjectly terrible Washington's bench guards were - Eric Maynor and Garrett Temple combined to shoot 72-for-213, which is 33 percent. But even after they improved that spot after the Miller trade, Washington still noticed big drop-offs when Wall was on the bench. He averaged 36 minutes per game this season, but in this series, that should jump north of 40. If Wall is on the floor all the time, the Wizards will be in the game.

Joakim Noah

Also a freak of nature - Joakim Noah. No big man in the league has more responsibility on both ends of the floor as Noah does. Chicago can't score - like, at all - they're dead last in scoring offense and 28th in Offensive Rating, and those numbers drop to grossly historically bad when Noah sits. The only reason that numbers are simply worst in the league and not worst in history is that Noah took over the role of point center and stood in the high post and orchestrated the entire offense like he was Bill Walton in 1977 or something.

He averaged 5.4 assists per game, by far the best number we've seen from any center in a number of years - Vlade Divac averaged 5.3 per game in 2004, and that was the best we've seen since Sam Lacey averaged 5.7 per game in 1980 for the Kings. And the numbers trended up as the season went on - for the first 28 games of the season (through December 30), Noah averaged 3.3 assists per game. Over the rest of the season, he averaged 6.5 per game. Starting from February 6 (his first double-digit assist game of the season), he averaged 7.1 per game. This is a center. A center.

Defensively, he's even better. He's just about a lock to win Defensive Player of The Year, by far the best and most important player on the league's second-best defense (and the best defense over the last two months of the season while Indiana was in free-fall). If Chicago is going to have any hope of making noise in the playoffs this year, it's going to be on the strength of their defense, led by Noah.

The Case for Chicago

They'll need every game to be like the one they played in April, where points for both teams were few and far between. Chicago is one of the best teams in the league at limiting three-point attempts, and Washington plays right into their hands as a team with a tendency to actually run plays to create long twos for average shooters.

Scoring is going to be tough for both teams, but especially for Chicago against a good (but albeit not great) Washington defense, and Carlos Boozer's offensive game being non-existent for most of the season. Taj Gibson has largely usurped Boozer for late-game minutes, and the Bulls would be smart to continue to shift minutes towards Gibson and away from Boozer as the playoffs go on.

Best-Case Scenario: Chicago's defense stifles Washington's offense and every game becomes a race to 80. Races to 100, Chicago can't win. Races to 80 are their specialty. Gibson replaces Boozer as the primary power forward and together he and Noah completely close off the paint. Washington's shooters aren't accurate enough to bend the defense outward and Washington doesn't top 90 points in any game in the series. Chicago wins in five.

The Case for Washington

Washington has John Wall. Chicago has Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin. 

Best-Case Scenario: Tom Thibodeau is too stubborn to go away from Boozer and Hinrich, despite how clear it is that the combination doesn't work. John Wall abuses Chicago's guards and gets into the paint over and over again. Noah is waiting for him, but his creativity around the basket and ability to find shooters with seemingly reckless passes keeps Washington's offense afloat. Chicago's offense sputters as the Noah Point Center gimmick can't sustain itself under the scrutiny of playoff coaching. The Wizards steal two games on the road and win in five.

The Pick

Chicago in 7

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