Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vinny Del Negro - Be Like Mike

Vinny Del Negro is not a great x's and o's coach. He botches timeouts. He routinely draws up 'interesting' set plays out of timeouts. He often appears confused. His offenive schemes revolve around forcing contested jump shots, which sounds exactly like defensive schemes. The phrase "in over his head" accompanies most criticisms. But he's working with an incomplete team, with no three point shooting (last in 3p attempts, last in 3p made, 28th in 3p fg%, at .294) and still no low post scorers. But VDN should not be fired. Not now and not this summer.

Del Negro's history suggests that when the games matter most, he's able to get the most out of his players. Everyone remembers the first round series against the Celtics. But to get into the playoffs, the Bulls went 18-11 after the all star break, including a 12-4 run to close the regular season. And the past week, with a virtual bonfire under their head coach, the Bulls have played hard, unified basketball. They put forth a sturdy effort against the league's best team, then beat the streaking Knicks and Hawks after facing large 1st quarter deficits in both games. When it's do or die time, the Bulls under Del Negro by and large do. And the guy who many suggest as a Del Negro replacement? He dies. Remember this?
2008-2009 Playoffs: Western Conference First Round - Game 4
Denver Nuggets: 121
@ New Orleans Hornets: 63

Recent history also favors teams who let first-time coaches grow and handle adverse situations. Doc Rivers, for example, was criticized even more harshly for his poor coaching ability, and almost universally blamed for his team's failure. What happened? He learned how to deal with tough situations, losses and low energy. He picked up experience along the way, and when he finally got a real team, he guided them to a championship.

A better role model for Del Negro might be Mike Woodson. A first-time head coach, Woodson's first three years with the Hawks were atrocious (13-69, 26-56, 30-52). Like Del Negro, Woodson has had a young core of players that he's developed. He could have easily been replaced after three seasons in the East's cellar. But he's been given time to grow with the same core of players, developing them and developing the team into one that could contend for a conference title. He's provided a stable culture where young players like Josh Smith can learn, develop and fulfill his considerable promise. Now in his sixth season, Woodson's Hawks are contenders in the East and have a bright future ahead of them.

More than anything else, the Bulls need a culture of stability and consistency where their young core can grow together. If Bulls' management feels the need to make a hire, it should be for an assistant coach who can help design some offensive creativity. But as these last three games suggest, the Bulls haven't quit on Del Negro. If anything, it shows that they have faith in him. The management and fans should too; at least see what he can do with a full team. The Bulls have had five coaches this decade. I'd like to see the next decade marked by fewer coaching changes, and more commitment to assessing talent and developing players. And this starts with stability.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Role Models: Tyrus Thomas Footnote

Often, players with similar skills and athleticism to Tyrus seem to take longer to develop, because they so often end up playing that in-between space in the game--not quite inside, not quite outside, not always running, not always half-court. He's not a post player, and he's not a jump shooter. He's not a slasher. He has average-at-best handles. He's a runner and a jumper. He's a dunker. He's a blocker. His role model should be Josh Smith.

Let's compare:

Josh Smith Tyrus Thomas
Age 25 23
Height 6'9'' 6'9''
Weight 225 215
Seasons 6 4
Games 398 229
Min 13250 4,455
MPG 33.3 19.9
RPG 7 5
BPG 2.4 1.3
PPG 14.1 7.7

Now let's adjust the stats to per-36 minute totals, and let's look at Smith's numbers after playing a comparable number of minutes (4609 minutes, his total after 2 seasons):

Josh Smith Tyrus Thomas
Reb/ 36 7.8 9
Blk/ 36 2.6 2.4
Pts/ 36 12.6 14

In terms of development, Thomas has had two coaches, clashed with both and been called out by management. Smith has had the same coach his entire career, Mike Woodson (more on Woodson later). Detractors point to Thomas's inconsistencies and say he has a bad attitude. They say he hasn't earned the right to get big minutes. They criticize him for not developing his prodigious talents. I say, what did you expect?!? He's never been given consistent minutes. He's never had a consistent consistent experience with the coaching staff. And most importantly, he's never been in a consistent system, or played in a consistent scheme.

Post players are asked to do the same sorts of thing, for the most part, regardless of the system. Shooting guards, too, by and large. But versatile players like Thomas, who play multiple positions and don't have a clearly defined role? They need to be in a system that they are familiar with. They need to be asked by coaching staff to do the same things, night in and night out, so that they can get into a rhythm. Players like Thomas need to know where they fit and where they stand.

If they ask Thomas to run, then the Bulls need to push the ball 7-10 times while he's in the game. If they ask him to dunk, he needs to get 3-5 ally oops per game. If they don't want him shooting 16 footers, they need to run sets that feature low screens, pin downs, and allow Ty to be active under the basket. They can't tell him to run, then play half-court all night. They can't tell him not to shoot, then run high-screens that leave gaping holes at the elbows for wide-open 16 footers. And good or bad, they can't keep jerking around his playing time. Especially this season, when they are assessing what exactly they have and if they want to keep him.

Role Models

As an organization, the Bulls need to understand what they are, what they are not, and what they want to become.

What they are not: A strong team that is a coach and free agent away from a championship. Among fans and commenters, the two most prominent statements involve firing Del Negro and signing a top tier free agent this summer. Even if the Bulls fire Del Negro, sign a guy like Bosh or even Dwayne Wade, and hire a coach with pro experience, it doesn't feel like the team will have enough to compete for a ring. There are too many holes to fill, and even Wade cannot fill all of them. The 2010-11 Bulls would be a slightly better version of the 2009-10 Heat. At best.

What they are: A young team that needs to develop its talent, with a young coach, and three holes. First, the players that will most likely be around for the near future:
Luol Deng - age: 24
Taj Gibson - age: 24
James Johnson - age: 22
Joakim Noah - age: 24
Derrick Rose - age: 21
If you include Tyrus (23), that's six players -- four of whom start -- who are 25 and under. And are nowhere near their peak. The other side of their youth is development and potential. This has been hit-and-miss for the Bulls in recent memory--then again, every team misses, and a major component of development is player motivation/ attitude. Tyrus Thomas stands out as the biggest potential miss, though, again, he's 23. But I think that this is unfair, and that Thomas should stay for 4 more years. See my footnote for why. The Bulls' 'hits' are Hinrich (who may have already peaked), and Noah, who has made fantastic strides in his third season. I think Deng is playing at about 80% of his potential -- At absolute best, I see him as a "second" second banana on a team kind of like the '08 Celts, where there was no clear first banana and no clear third banana. And Derrick Rose deserves his own extensive breakdown, but suffice to say it's too early to tell what kind of player he can be. Taj Gibson should be the foundation of a strong bench. James Johnson needs to learn about defensive assignments before he can get consistent time coming off the bench.

Vinny Del Negro should not be fired this season, or this summer, or next season. His roster is marginal and has glaring weaknesses. Of his three shooters, two aren't hitting and the third is hurt. His frontcourt bench consists of Aaron Gray and someone who may or may not be a wight. That said, Del Negro needs to make some adjustments. On D, the players need to become more decisive. Derrick needs to fight through high screens. Joakim needs to grab the ball, not tip it to himself. The team as a whole needs to box out on the D glass.

On offense, the Bulls need to stop running the scheme that they're currently using. During the ATL game, they cut to Mike Woodson during a timeout, and he was reprimanding his team for settling for too many jump shots. I'm pretty sure that's what our offense is. Think about this: if you were playing defense, and you had to pick one shot that you would be most happy with the offense taking, it would have to be the long jumper early in the shot clock, right? Doesn't it seem like half of our offensive efforts are exactly this? I mean, when you have poor outside shooting and no one to spread the floor, yeah, the long jumper is going to be left open. But it doesn't mean that shot is viable--the defense gives you that shot on purpose!!! They want you to take it!!! The Bulls seem like they are playing right into the opposing defense's strategy. The Bulls need to try a few different things on offense, and play to their strengths:

1. Take the ball out of Derrick's hands some. The Bulls continue to run everything through Rose. However, without a shooter and floor spacing, things are too clogged up for him to both create effectively and score effectively. And he hasn't learned to draw contact. So let's just stop. Why not play Kirk at point and run plays for Derrick off the ball? Why not set low screens and give him five back doors per game? I mean, the dude is lightning fast and athletic. Last year, the Bulls' second-best five man unit was Deng, Hinrich, Noah, Rose and Thomas. Why not try starting this team, bring Salmons and Gibson off the bench, and let Rose roam?

2. Instead of claiming you have no low post scorer, try getting the players we have to score in the post. TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz explains why and how, but basically, post up Deng and use low screens to free up Noah for easy buckets. Further, with Noah and Deng in the post, why not drop the ball in to Noah, runs screens with Deng and Rose? Noah passes well and could feed either player for easy weak side buckets.

3. More outlet passes (this hinges on improving defensive rebounding %). The half-court offense is inefficient, and the Bulls are relatively easy to guard in half-court sets. Why not reduce the number of half-court sets, and pressure the opposing defense in transition? On changes of possession, the Bulls should look to advance the ball via pass, from the rim to half-court. From mid-court, the point can either assess the numbers and either attack in transition or run a 'hurry-up' set to exploit mismatches. Getting back Tyrus Thomas will help this, as his speed and athleticism will prevent transition defenders from keying on Rose exclusively.