One great thing about the Bulls matching up with the Sixers in these playoffs is that we get a top-notch blog to follow when scouting our opponent. The crew at Liberty Ballers have had a season as interesting as the team they cover: both trying to figure out their roller-coaster season and questioning the big-picture direction of the franchise. They've even gone head-to-head with ownership on the matter.
So in preparation for this series, I asked some questions of Michael Levin of Liberty Ballers. We were totally Vegas bros together at an SBNation conference so it was really no bother. I even extended the same courtesy to him, which has been posted over at Liberty Ballers. My questions are in bold, his answers in italics.
What happened to you guys? What caused things to fall apart, and was there a single thing that caused the slide to begin? Or was the good start to the season the more surprising thing?
It's weird. The first 29 games, they played like a top 5 team. We knew they weren't, of course, but they were playing like one, destroying bad teams while playing a record-setting level of defense and maintaining an absurdly low turnover rate. They actually should have won more games because of how often they'd lose the close ones (I've lost track but it was at one point 1-10 in games decided by 5 points or less) and once that evened out, they could have feasibly been even more successful. But the switch started when Spencer Hawes (who was playing well enough to earn the nickname "Wight Howard") got hurt and more minutes were doled out to rookies Nikola Vucevic. This left them light up front and Hawes' LOOK MA! offense in a bottle being gone made them even more stagnant in the half-court. They take the second most long two's in the league (to the Bobcats) and get to the line about as often as I do. Eventually the long two's stopped falling and they went on a terrifically cold streak.
Tanking wishes ensued. The truth of it is, they're a mediocre team with mediocre talent and a mediocre coach. It's not anybody's fault, it's everybody's fault. But prior to the intentionally lost Detroit game, they've won 4 straight including a good overtime win against a tough Pacers squad. They're as streaky as they come, so hopefully the momentum and luck carry over from the last week of the regular season.
The Sixers have played the Bulls as well as anyone over the past couple of seasons. Do you think they can cause sustainable and consistent matchup issues for Chicago?
There's not one guy I'd point to where it's like: "yes, we can exploit that matchup." Chicago has the defenders to match up with everyone, especially in Thibs system. The closest we could come to a tough one would be Thad Young. Taj is great on D but Thad's really, really crafty down low. Every one of his post moves is part of his Awkwardly Smooth (tm) arsenal. And with a really quick first step and a deadly transition game, he could tweener his way to a decent series. On defense, having Iguodala/Turner/Jrue to move around between Deng and Rose will help a ton. I'm not too worried about Deng, so he'll probably average 27 this series.
How comfortable are you heading into the playoffs with Doug Collins? Has the team started to tune him out yet? Will he try weird rotations for the sake of looking coach-y? Or is his playoff experience an advantage for a team with not so much of it?
Very uncomfortable. "There's a rod poking out of this chair directly into my lumbar" uncomfortable. He's a great motivator, but the team has been getting away from him for months. A lot of it is married couple squabbles (like the ET/Doug relationship) but there are some guys who really just hate how he coaches. Late night texting, short leashes, and a really tight lockout-shortened season has made it hard for him to teach without getting some blowback. And on a team without a vocal leader, the Sixers are pretty sensitive to Doug's nagging.
He's also just not a very good in-game coach. He's serviceable in preparation but his rotations are often befuddling and especially at the ends of games, he makes me want to shove a hot poker through my eye and out my bum. Not an X's and O's guy at all. Watch out for fadeaway jumpers out of a Lou Williams isolation at the ends of quarters. It's fantastic to watch that every single time.
I realize you guys at Liberty Ballers have big-picture issues with the direction of a team with back-to-back low playoff seeds, but in this particular series do you see any hope with Derrick Rose still battling injuries? What would constitute a moral victory, or is there only satisfaction through an actual series win?
Listen I've been driving the tankwagon for a long time because the team has been mediocre since Iverson stepped over Lue in Game One of the 2001 Finals. So the best thing for the franchise would be to get swept and clobbered out of the playoffs so ownership commits to a full rebuild. But for whatever reason, I'm feeling somewhat hopeful and I'd like to see them make this a series. Realistically, Bulls in 5. But the Sixers can be a GREAT defensive team. And by limiting turnovers, they're limiting their own mistakes they could make. If they can get out in transition and manage to hit a few shots they'd normally miss, I think they could pull a big upset. But that's only if everything goes right and maybe the Rose/Noah get Space Jammed before tomorrow's game.