Isaiah Canaan’s a one trick pony, but it’s the trick Chicago needs

Nobody seems excited about new Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan. This is not a huge surprise, as most citizens have simply never heard of the guy. Those who are familiar with his work in Philadelphia the past two seasons were underwhelmed with Canaan’s defense, decision making, and inability to expand upon his only good skill: shooting.

Most of Bulls Twittersphere arrived at their bummed out conclusion about Canaan based on this grim profile by Jake Pavorsky from SBNation’s Liberty Ballers. The well-researched article goes deep on Canaan’s limitations as a point guard: he’s a bad floor general; he can’t finish near the basket; his defense just plain sucks, especially when forced to defend shooting guards.

Canaan’s shortcomings in Philly were amplified by the context around him. The 76ers were not a team built to win basketball games, and Canaan was forced to do things well outside of his comfort zone. It’s a bad sign that the opportunity to run the show did not result in much progress for Canaan, but do not let his failures in one facet of the game obscure the value he brings elsewhere.

Coming to Chicago presents Canaan with the opportunity to fit into a role that better suits his abilities. Between Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls do not need any more ball dominant guards on the roster. Between the #ThreeAlphas, there will be no shortage of guys comfortable pounding the air out of the ball. What this team desperately does need is shooting, and shooting is what Canaan can do.

Isaiah Canaan averaged 25.5 minutes over the 77 games he appeared in last season and jacked an unconscionable 6.3 threes per game. Despite the high volume. the Murray State product managed to connect on 36.3% of those attempts. According to NBA.com, 2.5 of Canaan’s triple attempts per game – about half – were pull up shots off the dribble. On pull ups, Canaan managed to shoot just 32% from three. But when Canaan fired away off the catch, which he did 3.9 times per game last year, he connected on 40.1% of his attempts, an excellent rate that warrants off ball attention from opposing defenses.

Canaan simply will not have the ball in his hands enough to come close to approaching the number of pull up threes he took last season. And if a few of those low efficiency attempts are shaved down and replaced by shots Canaan has shown a consistent ability to make, it’s not crazy to think his overall percentage could creep up to 38% or 39%.

Canaan will continue to be a crappy defender. It’s unlikely he will grow a few inches and improve his inside finishing. He’ll never sniff the assist totals of a guy like Rondo. But, on a team completely devoid of guards who can shoot, Isaiah Canaan will make an impact. Regardless of which of the alphas he shares the court with, Canaan will afford an extra sliver of driving space for his backcourt mate. Canaan was stretched far beyond his capabilities in Philadelphia, but as a member of the Chicago Bulls I believe he can settle into a role that maximizes his value to the team.

The Lineup Laboratory: Let’s Make Space

We know who is going to be playing for the Bulls. A flurry of moves this offseason resulted in one point guard being shipped out and another high profile one being signed on. The Bulls followed up the Rondo signing with the (second) most surprising move of the summer by luring Dwyane Wade from the Heat on a two year deal.

In a vacuum, both of these signings are very justifiable. After the Rose trade, the Bulls were able to get a proven veteran coming off a very good season on what is basically a one year deal. Compared to some of the supersized contracts that were handed out the first week in July, Rondo is almost a bargain, and fills a clear positional need.

Wade, coming off his healthiest season in years, absolutely has gas left in the tank. The Bulls are more than a wing short of being able to contend with the Warriors and Cavaliers of the league, and adding Wade, despite the high cost, bolsters what is generally a shallow position across all 30 teams. While Wade has never figured out how to shoot threes, his herky-jerky “dad at Lifetime wearing a knee brace” game figures to age well.

These would be great signings if basketball was baseball. Baseball is a game of one on one battles, and the team that has more talent in their lineup tends to win. In basketball, simply acquiring talent is not enough. In basketball, a player’s ability to succeed is impacted as much by who he shares the court with as how good skilled he may be as a shooter or driver. Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler would make a killer 3-4-5 in a batting order. But as a 1-2-3 on the basketball court, these undeniably talented players add up to less than the sum of their parts.

The projected Bulls starting lineup – Rondo, Wade, Butler, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez – features just one above average three point shooter. The streaky Montenegrin is going to need to improve his consistency from beyond the arc if the Bulls starting group hopes to have any space to operate on offense.

The severe shooting deficit in the Bulls backcourt will ultimately limit one of the few strengths of this roster. Between Mirotic, Lopez, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio, the Bulls have a very deep PF/C rotation. Unfortunately, it will be spacing suicide anytime two of these players share the floor and one is not Niko. To cover up the flaws of the roster’s architecture, Chicago is going to need to get creative and find a way to squeeze 48 minutes of outside shooting from the power forward spot.

Already we are hearing about Fred Hoiberg‘s plan to have Doug McDermott play power forward. The 6’8″ McDermott is far too weak a rebounder to hold up at the position for long stretches. But against some of the other stretch fours in the league, McDermott may be able to provide valuable spacing on offense while avoiding his biggest weakness: perimeter defense.

I expect the Bulls will also use Jimmy Butler at the 4 at times during the season. Butler is strong enough to hold up in the post against most big men (including LeBron James). Butler has the quickness to torture other power forwards on the perimeter, and his less than great three point shooting upgrades to average when he’s considered a four. Lineups with Wade, Tony Snell and Butler will give the Bulls the flexibility to switch often on defense, the strategy used by the Thunder and Heat to stop the Warriors in the playoffs.

I imagine Taj Gibson, who has played 89% of his career minutes at power forward, will see most of his playing time come as the backup center. A Taj and Lopez pairing, which should be superb on defense, is just not going to result in a functioning offense with the spacing issues across the roster.

The real losers in this roster shakeup are Portis and Felicio, two players who desperately need on court experience to improve their feel for the NBA game. There are just not going to be enough minutes for these guys on a consistent basis. Both players showed they are not afraid to take a perimeter jumper last season, but until defenses start respecting Portis and Felicio outside the paint, their presence will only further clog the dirty drain that is the Bulls offense.

We still have a long time between now and the start of the regular season and the Bulls may not be done tinkering with the roster. Just a few hours ago it was announced the Bulls signed Isaiah Canaan, who instantly becomes the best shooter in the Bulls backcourt and will provide value off the bench and off the ball. The team could also shake things up by trading Taj Gibson, making $9 million in the last year of his contract, for a three point marksman. Should the Bulls stand pat with this group, Fred Hoiberg is going to have to get very creative with his rotations.

Rond’oh!

In a strange way, it’s been nice to see a flurry of activity from the Bulls front office in the point guard market. I was not alone in my frustration a season ago when the Bulls trotted out  the oft injured Derrick Rose, diminutive Aaron Brooks, and local real estate owner Kirk Hinrich to hold down the fort for a second consecutive season.

The swap of Cameron Bairstow for Spencer Dinwiddie was a low-risk move with the tiny potential for a nice payout. The big trade that sent Rose to the Knicks was judged to be a positive one by this writer, mostly because of the addition of the (suddenly) cheap Robin Lopez, but also because of the potential upside Jerian Grant brings to the table. And while Jose Calderon is nothing more than a shooter at this point in his career, I could envision him carving out a successful role next to Butler as a floor spacer.

All of these small moves were nice, but the Bulls were still clearly lacking someone they felt confident could soak up the majority of minutes at the one, a feeling that motivated the team to award Rajon Rando a two year, $28 million contract that reportedly has a partially guaranteed second year.

The Rondo signing appears to make sense on the surface. With a roster lacking any proven point guard talent, why not take a one year flier on the guy who lead the league in assists a season ago, averaged two steals a game and hit a career best 36% of his threes?

As anyone who watched Pau Gasol loaf through the past two seasons in Chicago knows, the box score does not tell the whole story. A closer examination combined with a careful eye can sometimes paint a different picture than some counting stats in the newspaper.

Rondo spent the past season on a typically dysfunctional Kings team that failed to crack .500 for the 37th consecutive season. The Kings scored a lot of points in George Karl‘s high paced system but surrendered even more on defense, posting a net -3 for the season. Rondo’s presence on the floor did nothing to help matters, as the team was more than a point better per 100 possessions when Rondo was on the bench.

Plus/minus can be a misleading stat at times. Starting players on talent-deficient teams can have artificially low net ratings compared to their teammates who are able to feast on opposing bench units. But when you consider that Rondo played 70% of his minutes alongside DeMarcus Cousins, who was exactly even in net rating, Rondo’s statistics begin to look more damning.

Despite his gaudy assist totals, Rondo does very little to improve his team’s offense. Rondo is a terrible shooter who is reluctant to even attempt long jump shots. A career 29% three point shooter, Rajon’s poor stroke is made even worse by the fact that defenses completely ignore him on the perimeter. Rondo absolutely needs to have the ball in his hands on offense to be remotely effective. When he doesn’t space becomes tight for all of his teammates. Look at what happened on this play against the well-coached Charlotte Hornets:

Hornets ignore Rondo pt 1

As DeMarcus Cousins runs to set a pick for Rudy Gay, Kemba Walker, Rondo’s defender, turns his head completely away from Rondo and begins to focus his attention on stopping the pick and roll.

Hornets ignore Rondo pt2

As soon as Cousins receives the pass from Gay, Walker has completely committed to clogging the lane for any potential drive from the big man. Rondo is left totally alone, a complete afterthought for the defense. Rondo ended up making the wide open three after the ensuing pass from Cousins, but he has been unable to connect on those shots at a high enough rate to force defenses to re-calibrate their strategy.

This is the biggest reason I hate the Rondo signing. After struggling through last season with a starting back court that couldn’t make a three, the Bulls are doubling down by signing the worst shooting point guard in basketball.

For all of the dynamic things Butler can do on a court, attracting attention off the ball is not something he does. As we saw quite a bit last season, Butler felt most comfortable with the ball in his hands running the offense. To compliment that, the Bulls need to pair him with a point guard who is going to keep help defenders occupied far away from the paint. Rajon Rondo could not be further from fitting that description.

I just cannot comprehend what Gar Forman and John Paxson were thinking  when they signed Rondo. Do they expect him and Butler to play well off each other? Unless Butler is spending his summer turning himself into a 40% three point shooter, I struggle to imagine a scenario where these two are able to power the Bulls to a half decent offense.

If Rondo’s outside shooting was his only issue, it would be bad enough. But there are several other aspects of offense the newest Bull struggles at. Rondo was arguably the single worst transition player in the NBA last season. According to NBA.com, of players to handle the ball on at least 200 transition possessions, nobody scored less frequently, and turned the ball over more frequently than Rajon Rondo. Only Jordan Clarkson and Klay Thompson (who took a lot of transition threes) shot free throws less often in transition than Rondo.

All of which brings me to my final complaint about Rondo’s offensive game: his utter fear of the charity stripe. Rondo has failed to crack 60% from the line in four of the last six seasons. And as his percentages have dropped, so have the attempts. Rondo got to the line just twice a game last season, a shockingly low number for the player who finished tenth in the league in drives to the basket. People complain about Rondo hunting for assists to boost his stats, but I think a lot of his hunted dimes are the result of his unwillingness to draw contact in the paint for fear of embarrassing himself shooting free throws.

This was a particularly poor market for free agent point guards, but the Bulls somehow managed to overpay for a low upside rental who makes no sense from a roster construction standpoint. Michael Wonsover looked at some of the other point guards the Bulls could have potentially signed for less money who may have also fit better alongside Butler. Allow me to add rookie Wade Baldwin to the list. The Bulls passed on Baldwin to take Denzel Valentine, another old college player with legitimate red flags. Baldwin projects to be a capable defender and a good shooter who does not need the ball in his hands to make an impact. Sort of like an ideal partner for Jimmy. Sort of like the opposite of Rondo.

The frustrating thing about the GarPax regime is they have the ability to make smart moves along the margins, but completely botch their bigger decisions. Grabbing Dinwiddie for free? Smart. Getting Justin Holiday back for washed up Hinrich? Savvy! Signing Felicio out of training camp for less than $1 million? Potentially franchise-altering!

But between the Gasol signing, the all-in Doug McDermott trade, the Thibs firing/Hoiberg hiring, and now the signing of Rajon Rondo, this front office has proven that they are incapable of making the decisions that count.

 

The Bulls draft night was a success because they didn’t trade Jimmy Butler

After that bombshell of a trade dropped on Wednesday, many fans and followers around the league wondered what the Bulls organization would do as an encore performance in the NBA Draft on Thursday night.

And if you followed along on Twitter throughout the night, it seemed to get very close to a 1-2 punch of losing Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler on consecutive days to officially start the tear down. Depending on who you listen to, it was either GarPax listening to offers but taking none too seriously, or Tom Thibodeau getting revenge on his former employers by making it seem like they were shopping their now franchise player.

Alas, none of this came to pass, as all that was left was two reasonable picks made by the front office. We’re breaking them down for you here.

Denzel Valentine

The Bulls drafted Denzel Valentine out of Michigan St. with the 14th overall selection in the first round on Thursday night. Valentine stands at 6’5” and 220 lbs, with a large 6’10” wingspan. He is a 22-year-old out of Lansing, Michigan and progressed tremendously each year in college under the tutelage of the legendary Tom Izzo.

For those Big Ten fans out there, they remember Valentine as the do-it-all senior leader who drove the Spartans to a 29-6 record and a #2 seed in the tournament, even after missing a couple weeks in the middle of the season.

In his Senior campaign, his best by far in East Lansing, Valentine averaged 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game, shooting a staggering 44.4% from deep on 7.5 attempts per game. These numbers are indicative of what Valentine can do on the court, namely, everything. This will be a nice change of pace from a front office who have drafted some one-dimensional players in the first round over the past few years, like Doug McDermott.

What makes Valentine tick is his court vision, passing ability, and general high basketball IQ. These are all attributes that successful NBA wings tend to have. On top of that, as illustrated by his 44% from deep, Valentine is a plus-shooter from the outside. However, with Nikola Mirotic and McDermott already in the fold, his court vision and passing ability will probably be called upon more.

Valentine also possesses quality ball-handling abilities as he was the de facto point guard for the Spartans last year. This will help replace Rose in that facet of the game and his overall versatility on offense will be a sight for sore eyes for many Bulls fans who have seen too many one tool players recently.

However, as with every prospect, there are certainly some weaknesses in the Bulls shiny new first round toy. For starters, let’s point out what Gar Forman said after trading Derrick Rose. Forman exclaimed that the Bulls were looking to get younger and more athletic following along with the recent trend in the league. His first chance to do that didn’t exactly follow along those guidelines.

Valentine is 22 years old, or to put it another way, four years older than #2 overall pick Brandon Ingram. While Valentine is obviously still younger than almost every Bull, GarPax have recently selected some of the oldest players possible in McDermott and Valentine.

As for the athletic portion of Forman’s proclamation, Valentine doesn’t exactly check off that box either. He ran an underwhelming 3.46 3/4 court sprint at the draft combine. To give you an idea of that statistic, it is equivalent to what the 7’1” center Zhou Qi out of China ran in his combine effort. That’s not who you want to be compared to in terms of speed if you are hoping to be a successful wing in the Association.

Another issue with Valentine is his below-average defensive abilities. While he does posses a strong ability on the boards, especially as a wing, the rest of his defensive game is not up to the same standards. Given Valentine’s relative lack of quickness, he often struggles to stay in front of quicker guards, meaning it will be tough for him to stick at the 2 position on the court. This also means it will be tough to keep both him and McDermott on the court at the same time as there may be too little quickness and defensive ability to compensate for.

One final small issue is one that Bulls fans do not want to hear. Potentially troublesome knees. Valentine has never had a serious knee injury but did miss a couple weeks last season after needing arthroscopic surgery in one of his knees. Bulls medical staff don’t see it as a pressing issue but it will definitely be something to keep an eye on.

Overall, this was a solid selection from the duo of Forman and Paxson. A relatively low-risk pick with a well-known prospect. Valentine will help spread the floor and become a solid playmaker that can play just as well off the ball as on, which may be his most important attribute given he will be sharing a court with Butler.

Paul Zipser

With the 48th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft the Bulls selected 6’8” Paul Zipser. I know that anytime someone hears a tall, lanky, German guy was selected, they immediately want to compare him to Dirk–but that’s not the case here. However, Zipser is a very nice compliment to the Bulls first round selection, Valentine.

The German native is considered one of the most NBA-ready foreign prospects given his age (22) and experience with the German national team and Euroleague. Zipser is expected to join the Bulls this season. Many of his strengths align with needs of most NBA teams: most notably, shooting and defense.

Zipser is regarded as a small forward with the possibility of playing power forward in a small ball lineup. Zipser has a nice shot, shooting 49.5% from the field this past year in what is regarded as the second best league in the world in Germany. He also contains a surprising quickness for a forward. Combined with his length, these assets make him an above-average defender for multiple positions.

Overall, I like this pick. Going with an experienced overseas prospect who can shoot and play well off of the ball as well as defend is what you are looking for in a role player. And any serviceable rotation player you can pick up in the second round is a added bonus to a solid draft night for this front office.

You can still hate LeBron James

Well folks, it happened: LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers crawled back from a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 deficit against the seemingly insurmountable Golden State Warriors to claim a championship for the city of Cleveland. And as is tradition in 2016, Twitter became a luscious garden of Hot Takes, as the tears of a million Jordans provided the necessary nourishment for takes—ranging from scorching hot to borderline absolute zero—to bloom beautifully for all the Internet to enjoy.

But as Twitter harvested this fresh crop of Takes, something bizarre and disarming occurred: the world reached a sudden consensus that the time to hate LeBron James had passed. As an experienced user of the Internet, I’ve come to be wary of any perceived Internet consensus. It’s important that there are people out there who think things like “a hot dog is a sandwich” or “Young Thug is not a religious figure”—these disagreements bring balance to the Internet force and allow us to identify idiots on the web.

So on Sunday night, as the timeline collectively asked no one in particular “How can anyone dislike this guy?”, it became clear that something was afoot. Two primary narratives emerged: the first from people who have always liked LeBron, painting the ever shrinking bandwagon of LeBron haters as “Michael Jordan fanboys…clutching their 1992 Air Jordan tennis shoes while quietly whimpering.” The second was from people who have long disliked LeBron but can no longer hold onto that disdain because of “the way he delivered” throughout this epic series. Both narratives are oddly detached from the way that we consume sports.

Let’s establish a baseline of facts so that I seem reasonably intelligent: LeBron James is one of the top five basketball players ever to play in the NBA and the best all-around player in the NBA right now. He has a remarkable set of physical gifts and can do things that nobody—Jordan, Magic, Bird, you name it—could do. He absolutely dominated the last three games of the Finals, and the notion that anyone else deserved MVP is nothing short of preposterous.

But all of these facts were facts two weeks ago, two months ago, and two years ago. To say that LeBron played amazing basketball in these Finals understates the historic evisceration he handed the defending champs. I hate LeBron James, but I’m not a moron. So why, suddenly, did LeBron become beyond reproach from good old fashioned hate?

As a 10-year-old Pistons fan in the summer of 2003, I hated LeBron from the instant he was drafted by the Cavaliers. I delighted in telling all of my friends that Darko Milicic would win a title before the self-titled King, and I delighted even more so in being proven right less than a year later. I was a little shithead.

During the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals I was forced to confront the fact that LeBron was rather good at basketball, good enough on his own to decimate my beloved Pistons. But that didn’t mean that I stopped hating his guts. As his first tenure in Cleveland twisted and turned, with the Cavs never assembling an adequate supporting cast for LeBron to deliver a title to his hometown, I cheered on his continual failures because they validated my hatred. And when LeBron went on national television and committed the most perplexing public relations faux pas of the 21st century, I roared with excitement as the LeBron hate train left the station.

I own a “LeBron went south but his mom rides West” shirt that I wear at every conceivable opportunity. (I should probably wash it.) I laughed at his 2011 Finals collapse, reveled in hot takes about whether or not he had a clutch gene, and, ultimately, avoided ESPN for days after his first two titles, still clinging to the only argument I needed, Shawn. And as he came back to Cleveland looking to avenge his Decision, nothing made me giddier than seeing Steph Curry become the cool little behemoth standing in the King’s way.

Given this history, why would any of the events of the last two weeks cause me to change my mind about LeBron James? I never hated him because he wasn’t good at basketball, because he wasn’t as good as Jordan, because he wasn’t clutch, because he was an unrepentant crybaby on and off the court, because he subtweeted his teammates and coaches, or because he comically lacked a degree of self-awareness that anyone in the public eye should have. On the contrary: all of those irrational criticisms were true—became true, even—because I hated him.

Sports hate is not rational. We yell and scream at and about people who are literally the best in the world at what they do because it gets our juices flowing. More often than not, we cherry pick moments and narratives on and off the field to create heroes and villains among a crop of people who are pretty similar to each other in a vacuum. (The reminders over the past few days that LeBron is by all accounts a model father and spearheads significant charitable endeavors buttress this notion; it’s not like the guy just now became a decent human being.) That’s how we explain away nitpicking the performance and behavior of multimillionaire superstars in bizarrely different ways—“can you just IMAGINE if LeBron had thrown HIS mouth guard at a fan?!?!”—and it’s what allows us to harvest our bounty of hot takes in the first place.

But there’s something special about that sports hate. No, I’m not just going to suddenly shut up and enjoy the greatness of an athlete that I’ve always despised. And no, I’m not going to just give in, essentially waving the white flag because the guy is just too damn good. I’m a hater through and through, and the number one object of this perverse fandom is punk ass LeBron James.

I know I’m not alone. Whether it’s Tom Brady, Alex Rodriguez, or Sidney Crosby, the world loves to hate athletes who have proven themselves great time and time again, and even when we occasionally pause to ask ourselves how and why that hate flows, we remember that Brady is a deflator, A-Rod is a steroid abuser, and Crosby is soft.

So on behalf of LeBron James haters everywhere, I will begrudgingly step forward and take this L. But when the 2016-17 season gets going, I’ll be right here, ready to kick the LeBron hate train into high gear as I always do, hoping for him to once again fail and whine about it so I can laugh in his stupid face. And despite what the tides of Twitter may tell you, dear reader, you’re more than welcome to join me on the hate train—which is suddenly far less crowded than it was two weeks ago—for what is sure to be another exciting season of literally hoping a complete stranger sucks at his job in a way that will disappoint millions of people. All aboard!

Your source for Chicago Bulls and NBA news, analysis and general wit.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,863 other followers

%d bloggers like this: