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Bulls vs. Spurs Game Preview, Injury Report, Lineups

Can the Bulls compete tonight with the NBA's forgotten juggernaut?

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Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

[Thanks to Easy Eis for today's game preview. There are openings for the next couple weeks if you want to contribute -yfbb]

To be blunt, the Chicago Bulls have poor momentum heading into tonight's contest against a San Antonio Spurs team that has quietly been the second best squad in the league behind the rampaging Golden State Warriors. After falling on the road to the Indiana Pacers last Friday in a game in which they never led past the eight-minute mark of the first quarter, the Bulls got hit with more bad news post game when Jimmy Butler made his injury issues regarding his foot public (albeit very vague) knowledge. In contrast, the Spurs are completely healthy and are coming off of an absolutely dominating performance of the Atlanta Hawks at home on Saturday that saw Al Horford be the only starter that scored in double figures with just ten points. Yikes.

In an association that seems to value scoring in greater and greater capacity with every passing season, it's easy to forget just how important other elements of the game are like consistent defense and rebounding. While the Spurs are no slouches on offense (nor have they ever been, really), where they have shined this season is in almost every other aspect of the game. Their defensive efficiency rating of 93.1 points per hundred possessions is by far the best in the league and eclipses that of the Golden Standard State Warriors by nearly three and a half points. What's even more impressive is that the Spurs' only core metric team stats that fall outside of the top ten are their pace of play (96.4 possessions per game, 25th overall), turnover ratio (14%, 16th overall), and offensive rebounding rate (22.2%, 20th overall). Their ORR can be forgiven when you consider they have the third best rebounding rate in the league at 52.9%, the best defensive rebounding rate overall at 80.1%, and an effective field goal percentage of 51.6% (tied for 4th overall with Atlanta) that would indicate they make a good deal of their attempts anyway. Sorry for throwing such an abundance of numbers out in just one paragraph, but when the numbers are this easy on the eis eyes, it's hard to complain.

So what's the secret to the Spurs' success? How are they so damn good every season despite being so low-key? For years, their low-keyness was firmly rooted in Tim Duncan, and one could easily argue he is still the best player on the team when considering he leads the entire NBA in defensive RPM at 5.89 pphp when sitting. To put that in even more ridiculous perspective, the next highest player is DeAndre Jordan at 4.34, which means a 39 year old man holds a margin of over 1.5 pphp when off the floor compared to all other players in the NBA. Charles Barkley famously touts that Father Time is undefeated (Kobe Bryant admitted as much himself yesterday), but Duncan will be damned if he goes gentle into that good night. He could channel his inner Dylan Thomas and rage against the dying of the light all the way into his 40s, even if the left leg he famously favors at this point in his career probably looks like a prop from The Walking Dead beneath his sleeve.

But I'm going another direction--one that's less bold in the context of the team but substantially more bold in the context of the rest of the league--by arguing Kawhi Leonard is not only the best player on the Spurs, but is the very best two way player in the league. Bulls fans, before you scream "SACRILEGE!!!" and burn me at the stake for not labeling Jimmy Butler as such (he's probably third best behind Leonard and Draymond Green), consider the following facts. Leonard is the leading scorer for his team at 22.0 ppg despite the presence of LaMarcus Aldridge (quietly having a down year shooting only 42%) and sits at 10th overall in defensive RPM with a difference of 3.32 pphp when out of a game. Furthermore, he is third in the NBA in rebounding for his position at 7.8 rpg despite the presence of two other players on the Spurs' roster that average 8.8+ rpg (Duncan and Aldridge), and is the only small forward other than LeBron James that ranks in the top ten for his position in all major statistical categories. He's also so low-key that when he involuntarily committed Leonard-on-Leonard crime earlier this seasonby playing the Kelly Olynyk to Meyers Leonard's Kevin Love, nobody really even noticed except for Portland fans (and they weren't even upset about it, probably because he also did this in the same game). That's not even the best low-key moment from his remarkably young career. This guy is a sure-fire MVP candidate and absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same sentences as LeBron, Paul George, and Kevin Durant. It's a shame that the Bulls' usual advantage in Jimmy Butler vs. whoever will be at an unusual disadvantage facing Leonard, and when factoring in Butler's unknown foot injury, that could foreshadow a major issue in tonight's game.

However, there is one area that reveals where the Bulls could do some substantial damage against the Spurs, and that is in transition. With an average roster age of about 30.5 years, a previously-mentioned pace of play that ranks in the bottom third of the league, and an average of only 10.6 points in transition per game themselves (27th overall), the Spurs simply can't compete with other teams on the break. If the Bulls are going to win this game, they will need to capitalize on the poor offensive rebounding of the Spurs and follow that up by converting their misses into transition baskets. That means that Derrick Rose will have to give a full physical effort up the court the whole game and that Pau Gasol will have to box out Duncan on a consistent basis, the latter of which has less of a chance to happen than Mike Dunleavy making a quick recovery.

When I wrote the preview last season for when the Bulls faced the Spurs at home, I predicted a constructive loss for the Bulls to a deep Spurs team. The Bulls went on to win that game by 23 points. At the risk of another incorrect prediction, I will say that tonight's result likely won't be a win for the Bulls, but they certainly have what it takes to compete if they play fast and hit the boards hard. Regardless, it should be very entertaining game between two of the league's better teams thus far, and as November comes to a close in this young NBA season, that's about all we can ask for as fans.

Tip is at 8:00 ET and this will be broadcast nationally on NBATV. Both Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich will be out, so expect a heavy dose of E'Twaun Moore.