[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview -yfbb]
The Warriors, 29-20, are seeded 7th in the West. Considering how loaded this team looks, I've got to say I'm sort of surprised they're seeded behind the Phoenix Suns right now. On paper, I'd easily have pegged these Warriors to be closer to a 4th or 5th seed. Granted, they lost Andre Iguodala during a crucial stretch earlier this year, but they have found themselves vulnerable at home recently, having lost five of their last seven contests on the home parquet heading into tonight's match-up. The 7th and 8th (Dallas, at 28-21) seeds (and, fine Phoenix, the 6th seed too) are all highly susceptible to the playoff charges being mounted by the 26-21 Memphis Grizzlies (9th) and the 24-24 Minnesota Timberwolves (10th -- that's right, the Bulls, with a middling .500 record, would be 10th in the West right now). I would have included Denver in there too, but with that team being so decimated by injuries, I can't see them mounting a charge and overtaking Minny, Memphis or Dallas, to say nothing of Phoenix or Golden State. Anyway, the Warriors need to string together some more wins and claw their way back into the conference's top 5; when they're on, they can beat absolutely anybody. As a deep-shooting team, their offense may come and go a bit, but even still, with the Splash Brothers in hand, you'd think they would be doing a bit better than this. When you look at the raw rankings, the Warriors' D is actually what stands out: they are ranked 3rd among the 30 NBA teams in Defensive Rating at 101.6 (that number describes points allowed per 100 possessions), and in the top 10 (9th) in terms of opponents' points per game, at 98.9. They are 11th in their own points per game and 17th in their team offensive rating. A championship team is typically in the top 10 in opponent field goals AND their own points per game, but defense, as we all know, wins championships, and of the two a superior defense is generally preferred (hello, 2004 Detroit Pistons).
Back to our Bulls. This year's squad, currently at 24-24, are seeded 6th in the Eastern Conference. This team has a lot of trouble generating a lot of easy looks, and is heavily contingent on thorough passing from Augustin or Noah to get decent (if often heavily contested) shots. It would be nice to see more screening at the top of the key to shake defenders, but the Bulls just aren't very fast, apart from Augustin and Butler, and so lack the personnel to really pull this kind of thing off.
PG - Stephen Curry - This year, Curry is a first-time All-Star (and a starter at that), and for good reason. If Kevin Durant did not exist, I'd be calling Curry the best shooter in the L. But, you know, he kinda does. Curry is averaging 24.3 points per game (5th in the league) shooting a crazy-for-a-guard 58% from the floor, 9.1 assists per game (1st in the league), 4.4 rebounds a game (nothing to sneeze at, 10th among all point guards), 40.4% from three-point range (on an epic 8.3 three-point attempts per), and, at an 86% three-point percentage, is flirting with the infamous 50-40-90 Club, one of the all-time elite shooting measurements in the NBA (a club so exclusive, in fact, that it boasts only eight members since the three-point shot's inaugural NBA season in 1979-1980). As long as that ankle holds up, this kid could be looking at First Team All-NBA Honors this season. Now if only he could get his stuff together on defense...
SG - Klay Thompson - Steph Curry is not the only lights-out long distance gunner on the Dubs. His Splash Brother-in-Arms, Klay Thompson, is a bona fide fiend from deep as well. And, at 6'7" and 205 with good arms, he's not the sieve his point guard is on defense. In fact, if you're ranking the best shooting guards in the league, I don't think Klay Thompson lands too far outside the top 5 (the top 10 in some approximate order would be: Harden, Stephenson, Wade, Arron Afflalo, DeMar Derozan, Wesley Matthews, Klay Thompson, Manu Ginobili, Bradley Beal, and maybe Kobe if you want to be generous?). Thompson is shooting 41% from three and a mediocre 43.2% from the field overall, while averaging 18.5 points (and 7.2 three-point attempts), 2.5 assists and 3 rebounds per game. And this is only his third year in the NBA.
SF - Andre Iguodala - Iggy's stats may be down this year (his 9.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists a game represent his lowest marks across the board since 2005-06, although to be fair his usage is down considerably since he is now the fourth and sometimes fifth option on offense), but damn it, he's still a very special player (although being called "the new Pippen" is a bit hyperbolic). The Springfield native is a great glue guy, and is being compensated accordingly this year in a rich new deal ($48 mill/four years).
PF - David Lee - Although he's pretty much Carlos Boozer on defense, D-Lee is closer to 2008 'Los on offense, averaging almost a 20-10 (19.9 points and 10.2 rebounds as of this writing, actually), despite being the team's third option on offense based on looks (14.6 field goal attempts per game, compared to Thompson's 16 and Curry's 18.6). The guy can flat-out score around the post, even though he has practically zero hops. At $13.88 million this year, Lee is still kind of overpaid for how little he gives you on the other end (aside from a pretty-helpful 6.9 defensive rebounds per game), but, hey, whatever.
C - Andrew Bogut - Bogut has been a somewhat unheralded awesome redemption story on the Warriors, anchoring one of the best defenses in the league despite the fact that two of the Warriors' starters (Curry and Lee) are egregious minus defenders at their respective positions. With Bogut manning the paint and Iggy handling the opposition's best perimeter defenders, Mark Jackson's Dubs have suddenly become a force to be reckoned with on D. If Bogut can stay healthy, and keeping giving the Warriors his 8.2 points and 10.7 rebounds while cleaning up for Lee's middling rim protection at a reasonable-for-Bogut 27.5 minutes per game, he could be the key to the Warriors making a run to the Western Conference Finals this year. The team has very little margin for error though, when it comes to their bigs -- their primary back-ups are a still-hurt Festus Ezeli, an ineffective Marresse Speights, and of course the Fly-Covered Carcass of Jermaine O'Neil.
Key Bench Players
SF/PF - Harrison Barnes - Harrison Barnes is going to be a beast someday. After David Lee went down and Barnes was forced into duty as a small-ball 4 in the playoffs, he came alive, averaging 16.4 points and 6.4 boards a game, while shooting 36.5% from deep. Maybe even soon. The 2nd-year 6'8" UNC product was in line to develop as the starting 3/back-up 4 for the Warriors before their summer free agent acquisition of the man they call IguoDUNKA. This season, as the team's do-everything 6th-man wing, Barnes has exploited his positional versatility, cobbling together 29.1 minutes a game in a variety of different line-ups.
PG/SG - Jordan Crawford - After an out-of-body experience earlier this season, Crawford's numbers came back to earth a bit in Boston before finally being moved to the Warriors last month. He is a massive upgrade for them over Toney Douglas, although he's no 2013 Jarrett Jack. He has averaged 5.6 points and 2.4 assists in 15.2 minutes for the club since coming over, shooting an awful 36.7% from the field as he continues to get acclimated to a very different offense from what Brad Stevens has been running in Boston.
Overall Performance Outlook: How did the Bulls pull off that W on Tuesday over the run-and-gun Suns? With a super-awesome defense, closing out and challenging every single type of shot from every single conceivable angle. If they want to run that unexpected performance back in the Oracle, which boasts one of the best home crowds in the game (along with the Chesapeake Energy Arena, Madison Square Garden, and the Rose Garden), they're going to have to get serious about their best players on the other end. That's right, I'm talking about the Kirk-vs.-Augustin thing. The fact that the Bulls don't seem to want to talk about this like it's not a real issue is just deeply, profoundly silly. Why are they paying this man $4 million? Yes, he's an OK defender. But hey, you know who else is a decent defender? D.J. Augustin. And did you know that basketball involves both defense AND offense? And hey, while we're here, have you taken so much as a GANDER at Augustin's shooting since he's arrived on the Bulls? 41.5% shooting on 5.3 three-point attempts a game? 42.3% from the field? Okay, fine, that second percentage isn't so great, but check out these numbers: 27.9% on 3.1 three-point attempts a game and 34.8% from the field. And those are the two most important shooting percentages of your starting point guard for the Chicago Bulls, Kirk Hinrich. Start Augustin.
-So I guess we're making the playoffs now? Even sans Lu? And maybe Taj too? Damn, Thibs. Maybe you are going out with Kate Upton. A note on the possible Taj trade: I only like it if we're fairly confident we can nab a max-level free agent, otherwise why would we ditch one of the best defenders for his position in the NBA? He's on a very reasonable deal and has really stepped up his scoring game this season. And it looks like the Bulls' Safari for Jabari isn't happening regardless because (a) The East is so bad, even if we were to ditch Taj it looks like we might have a reasonable shot at a 6-seed, and (b) Jabari is probably staying put. Of course, if you're talking tanking incentives in this year's upcoming draft, there's always Riggin' for Wiggins, Panhandle for Randle, Don't Succeed For Embiid (although he might be staying put too), Hex 'Em for Exum, Shart for Smart, and obviously Thwartin' for Gordon.
-I just checked the birthdates of everybody on the Warriors this year -- only 7 of their 15 players are older than me! Darn it Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, et al., you're all achieving so much so soon! I've gotta finish some screenplays or something.
Tip at 9:30 CST/10:30 EST on WGN/TNT (for Bulls fans not in the Chicagoland area)/ESPN-AM 1000.