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The improbably successful rise of John Lucas III

I don't quite get it either, Dwight. (Mandatory Credit: Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE)
I don't quite get it either, Dwight. (Mandatory Credit: Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE)

I mentioned in the Orlando game recap that it may be time to take a longer look at John Lucas III, what with him winning games in Derrick Rose's absence and all. Alex and I hashed it out over email, his stuff is in italics:

yfbb: I'm pretty much retracting my earlier notion that JLIII was not an NBA-caliber player, and that instead he was some kind of teacher's pet or pseudo-coach who didn't really deserve the roster spot. And it's more because of his style of play than the caliber of it, which is still very much at the fringe-level and likely a bubble considering his 3PT%.

Like Mike D'Antoni's offense helped in making Steve Nash an MVP, and later made Jeremy Lin a phenomenon, Tom Thibodeau's system is really conducive to a chucking PG. It's not so much by directive as it is by personnel: the Bulls are so full of players who can't create their own shots that a lot relies on the PG to do so almost exclusively.

And this isn't just true for Derrick Rose, but the bench mob as well: CJ Watson's job when he comes into the game is to do what he can to get as many buckets while the rest of his lineup completely shuts down the opponent. Sometimes it looks streaky, ugly, and ineffective, but that can happen when you're charged with a lot of the offensive load.

In the wake of Rose's injury, what they have in Lucas is someone who can step into Watson's role, with his mindset: Lucas is all confidence, no conscience. There are many possessions where the ball goes in his hands and stays there. But in many cases the Bulls need that from their PGs. While another type of player could be a more efficient caretaker at the position, that likely wouldn't be enough for the lineup that is otherwise completely designed for defense.

Alex: I was in the same boat as you: Thibs' pet, but nothing irregular of contending teams' coaches to have guys like that in the 11th-and-below spots on the roster.

His style is an extraordinary fit for Thibs. Lucas' approach to the game is largely due to the freedom Thibs grants ball handlers. I took a look after last night's game to find that three of the top four Bulls players in shots-per-36-minutes are Derrick Rose, John Lucas III, and Mike James, with C.J. Watson in sixth. Only Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton -- guys on the roster for little more reason than to score -- are in that top six.

This is clearly a systemic phenomena, as opposed to individuals just deciding to shoot a lot because they don't know any better. Thibs is a defensive guru who -- through his understanding of defense -- understands how a point guard with any strong ability to finish at the rim or shoot 3s wreaks havoc on opposing defenses. I wonder how much of that comes from consulting Doc Rivers on how to anticipate and plan from defenses to optimally attack the Celtics. There has to be an impact of Thibs' one strength as a player in his days -- the fearlessness to find a shot as the primary ball handler.

The Bulls are winning, so it's easier to isolate the positives of this, as opposed to analyzing the John Wall-Gilbert Arenas Wizards or Monta Ellis-Stephen Curry Warriors. But we're at a point where it's clear the Bulls are winning because of point guards seeking to maximize their scoring abilities, not despite it. JL3 and James aren't trying to blow past quick help like Rose or Watson can. They're creating openings in defenses to get into spaces where they're most likely to convert possessions.

Watson had one of the most curious green lights last year and I was highly critical of that. Instead of being told to stop shooting so damn much, his long-2-point attempts became 3-point attempts and his drives to the hole got him to the line more. It was when Watson raised his aggression level that his court vision improved to be a better playmaker for his teammates. James can already do this, but his speed and stamina are issues. Lucas is beginning to improve his passes, simply by staying out of that 14-21-foot zone where it's more difficult to pass; and when he's getting in those zones, we're seeing him bounce pass toward the basket instead of shooting those 17-footers too much.

The green light coupled with the way Thibs wants to play inside-out makes the point guards high threats. And that's proving to aid in teammates over-performing a bit on offense. There's great general managing going here, where there's clearly so much communication between Thibs and the suits, because not one point guard has been brought in to do something that point guard is unable to do.

yfbb: I think to your last point, that's why Derrick Fisher wouldn't be a good fit, even if we're assuming he's an NBA-caliber player himself anymore, and can bring championship experience, clutchness, and other such whatevers. He can't run around and make defenses react like even Mike James can, so there's really no place for a PG like that here.

Do you think that there is some other sort of Free Agent out there? Or a passable trade deadline acquisition that was missed? Or are you comfortable with the 4 PGs on the roster now? You can figure that if the Bulls are relying on anyone other than Rose and Watson in the Eastern Conference Finals, they're likely already boned, but then again even if it's 5 minutes in a single game where LeBron is jumping over Lucas's head, it would still be an opportunity missed if somebody else could've taken the spot.

But I suppose that's extreme nit-picking. Lucas has already won the Bulls several games this season.

Alex: Agreed on Fisher. It's why I asked the hypothetical: Is it worth signing him under false pretense just to keep him out of Miami? Because there Fisher wouldn't have the task of being a primary ball handler asked to use his feet to move defenses; that's LeBron's job. Even in OKC, they're looking to get Kevin Durant and James Harden moving more without the ball. If the Thunder are a more likely landing spot, they add a good piece without disrupting their game, though. More important, it's less dangerous to the Bulls.

I wonder if Fisher would be a piece that adds to Miami's threat to the Bulls. I'm thinking no because it isn't much more than last season's addition of Mike Bibby, but not confident in that. If I'm comparing apples to oranges here, letting James walk after his 10-day contract runs out and signing Fisher makes sense. And historically, he's such a low-turnover guy that using a Watson-Fisher backcourt off the bench for 5-7 minutes could be an effective tool to slow down the Heat, 76ers, Pacers, or Knicks when they're thriving on fastbreak points off steals. James is a better shooter and passer right now, but not confident he can get plugged in for a short shift and end up in the minus-column because of turnovers.

As for the deadline, there wasn't anything out there that caught my eye, and I'm hard-pressed to understand why any Bulls fans would disagree. With these point guards scoring so well, the shooting guard position isn't a liability of any sort, despite it not being a strength. I do wonder if Nene could've been had. But that's risky considering his age relative to Joakim Noah, and I fail to understand why the Nuggets would take Carlos Boozer over the Wizards' JaVale McGee offer. That's grasping at a straw. Standing pat was the best option, considering what was on the market.

yfbb: I agree that of the guys that were dealt, they weren't right fits for the Bulls, considering how reluctant they were to bring in too much change during this season. This seemed like a standing pat season from the outset. They did do great personnel work in finding someone like Lucas for a 3rd stringer, and though that won't be as important in the playoffs as getting the people ahead of him healthy, it is a testament to their evaluation skills.