[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview -yfbb]
Tonight, your ascendant Chicago Bulls head north to face Jason Kidd's long-limbed, switch-heavy Milwaukee Bucks in a potential playoff preview. The Bulls (45-29), who've won 5 of their last 6 games (and 6 of their last 10), are currently the 3-seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks (36-38), who've lost 8 of their last 10 games, are the 6-seed, and thus would be Chicago's first-round opponent were the NBA season to end today. Of course, that's not the case. Chicago is rocking one of the easier schedules in the NBA (only 2 of their final 8 contests come against teams who've won more than half their games). In fact, the Bulls still boast a puncher's chance to overtake the Cleveland Cavaliers for the East's 2-seed. On the other hand, they could realistically finish as low as the 5-seed in the East. As of this writing, they're just 1 game clear of Toronto and 4 clear of Washington. By the same token, he tumbling Bucks could technically miss the playoffs, considering they are 2 games better than Miami (the 7-seed) and only 3 games clear of Brooklyn (the 8-seed).
This game isn't just a game, it's a battle for playoff positioning on both sides. The Bucks would probably much rather face Chicago than Cleveland in the first round (to their own detriment, because we would throttle them). I honestly am not afraid of any team in the East aside from Cleveland, though the 1-seeded Atlanta Hawks' sweet pace-and-space system could prove problematic in a 7-game series, I don't think Tom Thibodeau is worried about any of the Toronto/Washington/Milwaukee contingent in the first round, so suggesting he'd tank games is kind of silly.
Chicago comes into tonight's game incredibly rested, having not played a game since last Saturday's gloriously lopsided demolition derby defeat of the New York Knicks. Our offense also seems to be clicking on all cylinders, as we're averaging 108.3 points on 52.1% shooting over our last 3 games (all wins by margins of 10 or more points). The Bucks have had a day to recover from their Monday defeat at the hands of Atlanta. Were it not for the amazing ascendance of the "Spurs East," what Kidd has done with Milwaukee could be the Eastern Conference's most lauded surprise success story. The dominoes all started to fall after long-time team owner Herb Kohl mercifully sold the Bucks last year. After going a league-worst 15-67 last season, the Bucks nabbed Simeon's own Jabari Parker in the 2014 draft and stole Jason Kidd from his coaching perch in Brooklyn (turns out Lasry was Kidd's financial advisor once upon a time). All of a sudden, with few other on-court personnel changes, the combination of Kidd, Parker and an improved Giannis Antetokounmpo pushed the Bucks to respectability.
Zach Lowe, by the way, loves what Kidd's been doing with these Bucks. And he's not alone. Not by a long shot. While we're here, Sam Smith digs it too. In fact, Kidd's interest in multi-positional dexterity serves as a nice call-back to the Michael Jordan-Phil Jackson Chicago Bulls, especially their second 3-peat squad, which featured four players between 6'6" and 6'8" who could each guard 4 positions, plus a certain 6'11" jump-shooting forward who could cover shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. The big benefit of playing a bunch of long-limbed players with positional fluidity is simple: on defensive switches (especially important in pick-and-roll coverage), players who swap assignments are flexible enough to handle the change. This freedom enables Kidd's squad to be extra-aggressive on defense. It encourages players to clamp down on their man, secure in the knowledge that if they lose him to a hard screen, another able body will be able to pick him up and challenge him without suffering the kind of defensive drop-off typically seen off switches between more traditionally-sized, rigidly-skilled players.
PG - Michael Carter-Williams - It's kind of amazing how much better Brandon Knight was with the Bucks than reigning Rookie-of-the-Year MCW has been, isn't it? At the time of Knight's trade to Phoenix, the Bucks had a surprising 29-23 record (a 55.8% win percentage, which would project out to roughly 46 wins over a full 82-game season). Since then, they've gone a disappointing 7-15 (a 31.8% win percentage, good for... 26 wins in a full season). I know Kidd wanted to move Knight, a near All-Star this season, because (a) he was afraid of overpaying Knight, a restricted free agent this summer; and (b) he wanted to take a flyer on a bigger point guard who could convincingly switch on defense to 2's and the occasional 3.
I would counter Kidd's reasoning with a few quick quibbles: (a) so long as Knight did not pull a maximum salary deal tied directly into the cap (he projects to earn something in the $12 million/year range), his contract would be a bargain after the cap jumps astronomically in 2016; and (b) Brandon Knight is comfortable playing off the ball, at 6'3" with a nearly-6'7", he can cover 2-guards, AND he is currently the starting shooting guard for the Phoenix Suns. I'm not saying that Carter-Williams, who is 6'6" and shares Knight's 6'7" wingspan, can't learn how to control his turnovers and shooting with time. I'm just saying that MCW is actually a month older than Brandon Knight, and though he'll be cheaper for longer (his rookie-scale contract extends through 2017), he's certainly not in Knight's league as a player yet. Carter-Williams has been an inefficient turnover machine for the Bucks. He's coughing up the ball 3.3 times a game for Milwaukee (and 4 times a game on the season!) and shooting 39.1% from the floor on a team-leading 12 field goal attempts per. At least he makes 80.5% of his free throws, I guess? His per-game averages after the trade: middling marks of 12.8 points, 5.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds, but a respectable 1.8 steals.
SG - Khris Middleton - Lucky Charms fiend Khris Middleton is having quite the season with Milwaukee. An unrestricted free agent this summer, Middleton is exactly the kind of hyper-efficient 3-and-D wing guy that GM's covet in the brave new world of NBA analytics, where spacing and emphatic defense are king. He is currently #8 in real plus-minus this year (not a typo), ahead of stars like Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge and Klay Thompson. Real plus-minus, y'all, is a fairly new metric designed to better illuminate how well a given player affects offense and defense while on the court. Beyond futuristic statistics though, the 6'7" Middleton hits crazy shots when it counts; shoots 41.5% from 3 (the 11th-highest 3-point conversion percentage in the league), 85.5% from the free-throw line, and 45.5% overall from the field; and finally, like any good Jason Kidd baller, can play as and guard a 2, 3, or 4. He's averaging 13 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
SF - Giannis Antetokounmpo - The Greek Freak has the inside track on the runner-spot in this year's Most Improved Player race (I think we all know who's going to win the shit out of that award). The second-year 20 year-old from Athens has taken psychotic leaps both literally and figuratively this season, honing and increasing his shooting from within the 3-point line. His takes within the arc now take up 94.4% of his total scoring output (improving his accuracy in this area by leaps and bounds), and he has nearly doubled the amount of his takes within 3-10 feet (he's connecting on 30.7% of those shots) and between 16 feet and the 3-point line (shooting a decent 38.6%).
Kidd has Antetokounmpo shooting way fewer trey's than his predecessor, Larry Drew, did. Instead, Kidd's developing Antetokounmpo's game within the arc, with particular emphasis on using his athleticism (his vertical leap, for example, is nearly 40") and length (a 7' wingspan) to take defenders to school in and around the paint. Antetokounmpo is an ideal Kidd player, too -- a 6'11" guy who plays like a wing (kind of like last year's MVP), but is big enough to switch to the 4 in certain match-ups, and quick enough to cover the 1 in others. Kidd tried starting him at the point early on in the season (that Kidd was confident enough in Brandon Knight to do this speaks volumes towards Knight's efficacy as a shooting guard), and though that didn't take, Antetokounmpo at least had an opportunity to develop his passing. He's averaging 12.8 points, 6.8 boards, 2.5 assists, 1 steal and 1.1 blocks per game, shooting an awesome-for-a-wing 50% from the field. The Greek Freak and Jabari Parker are the future of this franchise, and clearly the main two on-court reasons Jason Kidd left the Nets.
PF - Ersan Ilyasova - The 6'9" Turkish forward jumps at the 4 to start games, but his shot is rangy enough (37.6% from deep and 51.5% from 2-point range, including 48% from 10-16 feet and 49% from 16 feet out to the 3-point line) to justify slotting him in at the 3 in bigger line-ups. After missing 24 games with various maladies, the 27 year-old is finally settling into a groove for the season's final weeks. Since being permanently reintegrated into the Bucks' starting five on March 7th, the dude Basketball Reference calls "Turkish Thunder" (I've never heard him called this, but let's run with it) he's been averaging 15.2 points and 6.4 boards, big upticks from his cumulative season averages of 11.1 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. 6 days ago, he posted a new career high in scoring, 34 points, in a much-needed win over the Pacers. His game is trending in the right direction at just the right time for this weird, upstart collective of malformed basketball misfits.
C - Zaza Pachulia - What the hell has gotten into Zaza lately? The Georgian with the excessive shoulder acne has been absolutely on fire over his last 11 games. He has posted six double-doubles across that span, averaging 13.5 points (on 55.2% shooting!) and 9.9 rebounds in the process. In a March 20th triple-overtime grind-fest against the Brooklyn Nets, Pachulia managed a monstrous line of 22 points, 21 boards, and 7 dimes in 40.1 minutes. Despite his best efforts, though, the Bucks still lost. And let's be honest, even a peaking Pachulia can't hold a candle to Chicago's now-healthy front court. After all, Pau Gasol did reach a new career high in scoring this season against the Bucks' front line, 46 points, and was able to box those bigs out en route to a dominant 19 rebounds.
Key Bench Players:
Jerryd Bayless - Since acquiring Carter-Williams at the trade deadline, Bayless's shooting and playmaking have been crucial for the Bucks. Because Carter-Williams is such a bad shooter, the 6'3" Bayless has had to spot him by playing off the ball to spread the floor (he's actually been more of a mid-range guy this season, shooting 37.8% from 10-16 feet and 41.1% from 16 feet out to the arc). I can't say I ever envisioned him to be so important to these guys.
John Henson - The 6'11" power forward/center has seen his minutes fluctuate a lot over the past two seasons, especially while they figured out what the heck was going on with Larry Sanders. While he wound up playing 26.5 minutes per game last season and taking 9.2 field goal attempts, Kidd has reduced his contributions to 18.2 minutes' worth of run and 5.2 shot attempts per, for totals of 7 points and 4.6 rebounds a night. But Henson, the 14th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, still has room to grow, and still plays important, productive minutes on a playoff team. More than anything else, Henson's finishing ability has taken a huge step forward, as he now averages 55.4% shooting from the floor, a great mark even for a big man. With this skill set being finessed, his chief application on the Bucks is to function as a pick-and-roll behemoth (shout-out to Zach Lowe), whose 7'5" wingspan keeps defenses keyed in on his movement around the paint. It's hard to say just how good Henson will be one day, but the potential for something pretty cool is there. And with those crazy-long arms, you just know J-Kidd's all in on this guy.
Jared Dudley - Dudley looked done last season on the Clippers, a team that really could have used his positional ambiguity last season. Apparently, Jare-Bear had been playing hurt all year. Looks like he's back now, though. And not a moment too soon, as yet another 6'7" guy who can play the 2, 3 and 4 and lights it up from all over the floor (39.5% from 3, 53.2% from 2). He was held out of Monday's game with a back injury, but has been cleared to play tonight.
The Bulls' Starting 5: Aaron Brooks, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah.
Overall Performance Outlook: Look, I know I've kind of gushed about the Milwaukee Bucks in this preview. And that's because I'm sort of aghast at how decent they've been this season, and how bright their future could be if Kidd and co. play their cards right. But don't worry, they're not going to be a real threat to us any time soon. I think it's safe to expect another big scoring night out of Nikola Mirotic, Gasol and Butler as the Bulls make it a clean season sweep of the Bucks.
-Kind of amazing how far Bucks shooting guard O.J. Mayo has fallen at this point, isn't it? He went from being the runner-up to Derrick Rose in 2008 Rookie of the Year voting to being the tenth-best player (don't forget, Jabari Parker is still on this team) on the mediocre-at-best Milwaukee Bucks. Who did he beat out in said 2008 Rookie of the Year voting? Oh, just Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, DeAndre Jordan, and Goran Dragic. No big deal.
-HERE'S ANOTHER SICK BUTLER SLAM. Damn I'm so pumped he's back.
-With every passing day, we get one step closer to seeing Jimmy's back court running mate in the good ol' red-and-black. If the healthy Bulls look this good without him, just imagine what's about to happen next.
Tip at 7:00 CST/8:00 EST on Comcast Sports Net Chicago/ESPN AM-1000.