As the Raptors head to the United Center, looking for their 3rd win in a row against the 12-17 Bulls tonight, it's worth thinking about whether Masai Ujiri's plan for this season, as Tim Chisholm discusses over at Raptors Republic, is being dictated, in part, by the awful state of the Eastern Conference.
With so many teams either tanking (Philadelphia, Orlando, Utah) or just plain terrible (Brooklyn, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Sacramento, L.A. Lakers), does it really make sense at this stage for the Raptors to blow things up? That question isn't rhetorical, by the way. I'm really not sure.
Again, the debate here really shouldn't be about whether tanking as a means of building a contending team actually works -- because in some instances it clearly does -- but whether, as it pertains to the Raptors at this moment, it's a viable option. As Zach Lowe states in his Grantland column today: "This is a deep draft, but you don't tank for the no.7 pick."
Of course, Ujiri also has to take into consideration that the Raptors are currently playing their best basketball in years. They're in Chicago tonight looking for their 5th win in the last 6 games, and their 8th in the 11 games since Rudy Gay's departure. The team looks loose, they're moving the ball, and everyone -- whether this is entirely relevant or not -- seems to be having fun out there.
And check this out:
This is Terrence Ross' shot-chart for the season -- check out his percentages from the corners! Per TSN's Josh Lewenberg, Ross is 11th in the NBA in made corner 3s this season, and 1st in the league since the Rudy Gay trade; during which time he's been knocking them down at 55%. Time will tell whether Ross can become a consistent threat from downtown, but his shooting has been a really nice development, and a good reason why it's well-worth exercising some patience when it comes to his overall development (*cough* less John Salmons, please *cough*).
And speaking of shooting: the team the Raps face tonight doesn't have any! The Bulls, whom the Raps beat handily back on December 14th, are 5 games under .500, but are currently tied for 8th in the East; which again, shows you how bad things are in the leastern conference. Chicago's 27th in the NBA in 3-point percentage (32%) and are 29th in the NBA in effective field-goal percentage (45.9%). Offensively they've just become unwatchable. They rank 28th in offensive efficiency -- scoring just 96.5 points per 100 possessions, and every single half-court bucket seems like an excruciating chore. Watching the Bulls on offense is like having your wisdom teeth removed.
That being said, the Bulls have won 3 of their last 4 games -- including a close one last night in Memphis. Things might be looking up a little, but this team is so far removed from who they were supposed to be, according to the pre-season projections (cue Derrick Rose sad face), that's it's all a little depressing in Chi-town.
Here are 3 keys tonight for the Raptors:
Good Ball Movement
Again, this should be a key to victory in any NBA game, but it's still worth reiterating. Since the Gay trade the Raptors seem to have discovered that moving the ball, and pulling their opponents out of position helps the offense. It wasn't rocket science, but it sure took them a while.
While the Bulls may be brutal offensively, Thibodeau still has his team playing very solid defense (the only reason they're above water). The Bulls rank 5th in defensive efficiency, only allowing 98.6 points per 100 possessions, and once they get into their half-court defense, they're a pain in the ass to score against. Iso-ball doesn't work, so the Raps will have to continue their Spurs-lite ways in order to create openings.
Control the Glass
Like the Raptors, the Bulls are a very solid rebounding team at the offensive end. In fact, without put-backs and extra possessions, created by the likes of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, this team just wouldn't be in games. The Raptors bigs will have to make sure they box-out effectively to prevent the Bulls from getting cheap buckets when their outside shooters chuck up those bricks.
Stop Jimmy Butler
Luol Deng (the subject of many recent trade rumours) was a game-time decision last night, and at the time of writing it's unclear as to whether he'll play tonight. If he doesn't play then that leaves Jimmy Butler as the only Bull remotely capable of creating his own shot. Butler has struggled with injury this season (that didn't stop Thibs playing him 46 minutes in a blowout against Dallas!!) but against Memphis last night he was excellent -- getting to the line 14 times as he led his team with 26 points.
If the Raps can stop Butler from penetrating deep in the paint, and can force him and his teammates to take mid-range jumpers, and shots from outside, they should be golden.