The Eastern Conference will have a clear-cut top tier of 5 teams next season: the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, and New York Knicks. After that, it falls off dramatically, and teams like the Wizards, Pistons, and Bucks will be battling for the right to lose in the first round. The order of those top five (save, perhaps, Miami) will be debated and determined in the season, but it is interesting to wonder how the five will match up against each other in 2013-14. I’ll be doing this series from a Bulls perspective. Today, let’s see how Chicago matches up against their rivals three hours down Interstate-65.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a Bulls AND a Pacers fan. It’s like 1a and 1b, somehow. I like the Bulls a little more. Don’t ask. So if you find that this article is over the top in its giddiness and homerism towards either team, you can type up a stern comment, put a fake internet name, and then kindly keep it to yourself.
Three years ago, the Bulls had the MVP, Coach of the Year and the best record in the NBA. The Pacers were a feisty, scrappy (many Bulls fans will say dirty ahemJeffFosterahem) team that played good defense under then-interim coach Frank Vogel. They met in the playoffs and while the Pacers battled, won a game, and annoyed the bejeezus out of the Bulls’ players and fans, the series went as expected as the elite Bulls dispatched the upstart Pacers in 5 games.
Two years ago, the Bulls looked to be in top form again winning 50 games in the lockout-shortened 66 game season (that’s amazing). The Pacers were better after adding David West and George Hill to the roster. Chicago looked like it was having the better season again, until all the injury bug tore it down. Rose battled numerous injuries all year and it came to a head with his ACL tear. Later in the series against Philadelphia, Joakim Noah severely sprained his ankle and missed the last few games. That’s why the Bulls season ended with C.J. Watson, for some God-forsaken reason, passing to Omer Asik in the final moments of Game 6 of the first round instead of keeping the ball himself and forcing Philly to foul him instead of Asik. That would have been Rose and Noah, if not for injuries. The Pacers, meanwhile, kept ascending and nearly knocked off the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs. Miami finished off the Pacers strong, winning the last 3 games of the series, but Indiana established itself in a higher tier of the East.
Last year, the Pacers officially surpassed the Bulls. You can ponder whether or not the Bulls would have finished ahead of the Pacers with Derrick Rose, but all we can do is examine what happened in reality. The Pacers made it to the doorstep of the NBA Finals, while the Bulls fell flat in the second round against Miami.
Man, the Heat are annoying.
Anyway, my point is to highlight the slight decline Chicago has experienced from the tip-top of the East with the corresponding ascension Indiana has experienced. The Pacers and Bulls look to be very evenly matched this upcoming season, to the point where, as I type this, I’m bouncing back and forth between who I think will be the better team.
I seriously, seriously, can not wait until these teams play this year. Rooting interests aside, the games they play this upcoming year should be some of the most intense, physical games of the year. Also consider that both teams have star players returning from injury, which will only add to the excitement and level of play when they meet. The East is going to be so, so fun, and it’s been a while since I could say that. Let’s break down the matchups.
Point Guard: Derrick Rose vs. George Hill
George Hill is a crucial, crucial player for the Pacers. He has improved as a passer at point-guard-y things, while still retaining the combo-guard scoring ability that got him to the NBA. He has good height, at 6-foot-2, and looooong arms for a point guard. Having watched nearly every Pacers game last season, I can attest to the fact that Hill brings a calming influence to the team, similar to David West. In a pinch, those are the two guys I would find myself hoping would get the ball and make a play (as great as Paul George is, I still find myself waiting for West and Hill to make the crucial plays). His arsenal of offensive moves, from his pull-up jumper to his Tony Parker-esque floaters, bring a dimension of off-the-dribble scoring that the Pacers otherwise lack. In other words, George Hill is very, very key.
But, he often struggles defending the elite, athletic point guards of the league (who doesn’t?). Check out this four game stretch of opposing point guards’ stat lines, towards the end of the season when the Pacers were fighting the Knicks for the 2nd seed:
Russell Westbrook: 24 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, (OKC 97, IND 75)
John Wall: 37 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds (WAS 104, IND 85)
Kyrie Irving: 29 points, 7 assists, (IND 99, CLE 94)
Deron Williams: 33 points, 14 assists (BKN 117, IND 109)
That’s an average of 30.8 points and 8.8 assists through those 4 games. Yes, it is a cherry-picked small stretch of four games, but throughout the season, the better point guards in the league always gave the Pacers problems. After the Pacers started off the season slow, I remember thinking to myself how it seemed like scoring point guards were really killing Indiana. Rose fits the mold of those same guys: athletic, explosive, and a great scorer.
Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler vs. Paul George
This is a great matchup of two players on the rise (Did I mention this will be a good fight between these two teams?). With Danny Granger’s likely return to the starting lineup, that will shift George to the shooting guard spot, and Lance Stephenson to the bench. I will be interested in seeing how George handles the switch to the off-guard position, which will probably bring with it some more ball-handling responsibilities.
This can be good or bad. On one hand, George turns the ball over sort of a lot. He averaged just under 3 turnovers per game last season. On the other hand, the increased responsibility may help him improve that aspect of his game, and help the Pacers develop a much-needed secondary ball-handler after George Hill. The Pacers offense does not rely so much on individual creativity, but it is still nice to have players who don’t get every pass or dribble deflected when they try to do something, which is what it really seemed like at times for Indiana, especially against Miami in the playoffs.
On the other side, Butler showed some surprising ability to get to the basket and score last season, and a pretty good three-point shot. George, for all of his fantastic defensive ability, can still get caught out of position and allow shooters to catch with space. Couple that with how Derrick Rose will immediately become the #1 focus of the defense, and Butler should have an easier time scoring and being effective on offense against Indiana this year. These two didn’t guard each other much this past year, as George slid over to the small-forward spot without Granger, so it will be fun to watch two young, athletic, defensive-minded players who can both flash great athleticism and potential on offense.
Small-Forward: Luol Deng vs. Danny Granger
Now we get to the meat of the matchups between Indiana and Chicago: the front-courts. It starts with Deng and Granger, two similar yet pretty different players. Both players are players who lack the elite athleticism or ball-handling skills to really be among the best small-forwards in the game. Both are very valuable but probably a little overpaid, and both have been the subject of many trade rumors.
But in terms of actual playing style, they are pretty different. Deng likes to cut to the rim and have Joakim Noah or Carlos Boozer, both excellent passers, hit him for an easy score. He also comes off many pin-down screens for his trademark mid-range jumper. Deng has recently embraced the 3-point shot, but not to the extent Granger has. Granger loves the 3, and his field-goal percentage relies heavily on how he shoots from deep on a given night. Granger is not as good attacking the basket as Deng but is a more effective long-range shooter.
On the other end, Deng is an elite defender with the length and enough quickness to bottle up almost anyone. Granger came in to the league with tremendous defensive potential, but within a couple of years, he had to shoulder a huge offensive burden while playing with the likes of Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy and T.J. Ford. So while Granger has always been a good defender, he probably hasn’t been as good as he could be.
On the surface, then it’s a pretty even fight. Both players are good all-around players that can do a little bit of everything. Deng is probably a little more consistent, while Granger has the greater ability to catch fire but is also more susceptible to nights where he shoots 4/14 or 5/17 or something like that.
But the reason that Deng wins this matchup is, obviously, the question of Granger’s health. It’s been about the same amount of time since we really saw Danny Granger play as it’s been since we saw Rose last play (I don’t count the 5 games this past season that Granger played and looked like a shell of himself). Will he be back to form of the past few seasons? Can he even sniff his former All-Star level form? Does he still actually have knees?
Power Forward: David West vs. Carlos Boozer
Another innnnnnnnnnnnnteresting one. Another case of pretty similar seeming players who are also quite different. To start, both are listed at 6-foot-9, both are about 240/250 pounds, both are a bit undersized and, like their small-forward teammates, lack elite athleticism. Both are ground-bound, muscle men who have surprisingly soft touches from mid-range and are both bald (except that one time Carlos Boozer sprayed on some fake hair and made himself look like he had Lego hair). West averaged 17/8 last year, Boozer averaged 16/10. West shot 49.8% from the field, Boozer roughly 48%.
But say “David West” to a Pacers fan and they will tell you how important the guy is to the team, how he is the backbone of locker room, how his leadership and calmness instill a confidence in the team, and how, in need of a clutch shot, they want the ball in his hands.
Say “Carlos Boozer” to a Bulls fan and they will roll their eyes before you get done saying his name. Then they will say a sentence that, and I would bet a very tasty pizza on this, will include the word “amnesty.”
The biggest difference is on the defensive end. West is not a shot-blocker or speedy menace, but he is almost always in the right place, always gives maximum effort in stopping the ball-handler, and is basically a brick wall when defending the post.
Boozer, on the other hand, is a player who the Bulls most compensate for on the defensive end. The guy simply does not move his feet to stay in front of opponents, does not block shots, and does not challenge shots well because of his short-ish arms. He slaps at the ball for lucky steals a lot, and YELLS RANDOM WORDS ALL THE TIME LIKE “GIMME DAT!!!!” AND “GRAB DA BALL!!!!!!!!!!” while still standing in the same spot and not actually bothering the offensive player. He is a very good rebounder, however, which has helped the Bulls be one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA.
In the end, West is the rock of a team that is a real Finals contender, while Boozer is a player who often gets benched for his backup down the stretch of close games. No disrespect to Carlos, but West wins this every day of the week.
Center: Joakim Noah vs. Roy Hibbert
How do I choose? It’s two players who play the center position completely differently, yet are extremely effective and indispensable to their teams. With Noah on the bench, Chicago misses his rim protection and his frenetic defensive effort, flying all over the court to cover the point-guard on a pick and roll, then recovering to the big man, then sprinting across the court to help on a drive to the basket. The Bulls also miss his high-post passing on offense, a much needed weapon, and (don’t laugh) his improved tornado jumpshot. With Hibbert on the bench, the Pacers entire defensive philosophy of not helping into the paint and sticking to 3-point shooters fails. Ian Mahinmi is a tall, athletic player who does an admirable job covering the paint too, but he doesn’t completely discourage drives to the rim like Hibbert does. On offense, Indiana misses his post-game, where he has a size advantage every night.
Both players had triple-doubles this season with BLOCKS as the third category (check out #3 on this list). Both players are fan-favorites who are absolutely beloved by the fanbase and their teammates.
As much as I love Noah, and you all know how much that is, I have to choose Hibbert.
You see, Hibbert brings that rare quality of having a skill that the opposition absolutely has to gameplan for. When you play the Miami Heat, you have to gameplan for the crazy court vision and passing of LeBron James. When you play the OKC Thunder, you have to gameplan for a man as tall as Kevin Durant being able to score from absolutely anywhere. When you play the Golden State Warriors, you HAVE to gameplan for the insane shooting range of Stephen Curry; your big men have to come out so much further than normal on pick-and-rolls, and it screws up your entire defensive strategy.
Against the Memphis Grizzlies, you have to specifically plan a way for your best perimeter scorer to get open and score against Tony Allen. Same goes for Kevin Love’s rebounding, Chris Paul’s ball-handling, etc. It forces you out of your strategy and makes you adjust to what your opponent wants to do, throwing you off your game and making you uncomfortable.
Hibbert brings that same level of skill when it comes to protecting the paint. May I remind you of this? The entirety of the Pacers playoff series win over the Knicks was based around Hibbert being able to protect the rim, thus allowing everyone else to stay home on the Knicks’ plethora of shooters. We saw the consequence in Game 1 against Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, when Hibbert wasn’t on the floor to protect the rim for LeBron’s game winning layup (I have my own opinions on that, but whatever).
Because of this, Hibbert edges Noah slightly. And that hurts me to say.
(But I love Hibbert too! I’m a Bulls and Pacers fan, remember! I can’t lose in this article!)
Bench: Taj Gibson/Kirk Hinrich/Mike Dunleavy/Tony Snell/Marquis Teague vs. Lance Stephenson/C.J. Watson/Luis Scola/Chris Copeland/Ian Mahinmi
That’s a darn good bench the Pacers have put together. Watson and Scola could probably land starting jobs somewhere in the NBA if they were on the free market. Stephenson took major strides forward last year in becoming an important cog in the steamroller that was the Pacers starting lineup. Copeland provides great shooting, and Mahinmi was the only bench player for the Pacers last season who I ever had any confidence in when he stepped on the court.
Gibson and Hinrich could also probably find starting jobs, but Dunleavy/Snell/Teague are pretty outclassed by the rest of the Pacers bench. Larry Bird did a fantastic job of turning the Pacers’ biggest weakness (It would be numbers 1-35 on a list of Pacers’ biggest problems) from last season into a potential strength. It could be one of the best scoring benches in the league next season.
Coaching: Tom Thibodeau vs. Frank Vogel
This is where the disadvantages the Bulls have on the roster can be made up. Frank Vogel is an excellent coach, he has helped completely turn around a team that, at one point, looked destined for Milwaukee Bucks-land. He has given this team an attitude and intensity. For all his great work, though, his offensive schemes have seemed to fall flat on their faces. He is somewhat handcuffed by a roster that has no great ball-handlers or passers.
But Thibodeau has taken the same problems in Chicago and at least molded an offense that has plenty of ball and player movement. Now, someone will probably read that and write a stern comment to me showing how poor the Bulls’ offensive statistics were last year. This is true, but my point is how they play together, whipping the ball around with quick, sharp passes and players moving to the right places at the right times. There’s only so much scoring you can get with with Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler and Nate Robinson out there. Give Thibodeau an actual full season with his best players (Rose) and I would bet Chicago will rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. The development of Butler into a legit shooting guard, something Rose hasn’t ever really played with after Ben Gordon, only reinforces that notion in my mind.
The Pacers, on the other hand, always seem to be standing around watching each other. With about 12 seconds on the shot clock, they decide it would be smart to post up Hibbert and West. At this point, though, the defense has decided to deny the post entry and force the Pacers to create a shot against the shot clock. This leads to things like Paul George being too fancy with the ball or Lance Stephenson jacking up a long 2-point jumper (grrrrrrrrrr).
The Bulls play so much better as a unit offensively, it’s not even funny.
The Pacers win the individual categories 4-3. But the coaching difference should almost count for more, because it raises the game of all the players on the team when everyone is playing as a cohesive unit. On the other hand, the number of mind-numbing, hair-pulling turnovers the Pacers committed last year, not just during the Miami series but all year, was astounding.
The Pacers are an amazing, possibly historically great defensive team with a loaded roster. The Bulls have the superstar, better coaching, and a similar defensive pedigree. The Pacers have a better bench, but in a playoff series, bench depth becomes less and less important. So who do I choose, and why?
It’s Indiana. And it’s because of Hibbert. There’s so many variables with these two teams, with Rose and Granger’s returns and George and Butler’s ascensions, that I have to go off of what is sure. And what is sure, is that Hibbert will be in the middle of the paint, thwarting Rose’s drives and forcing Chicago to be an outside shooting team, and Chicago still probably doesn’t have enough outside shooting.
But I could be completely wrong. And I wouldn’t care either way.