Tag: michael jordan

The Camouflaged Mediocrity of the Chicago Bulls

“Out-of-town stupid” is a term often used for national or regional sports writers who may not understand or know of the intricacies of the team or organization they’re talking about.  This is obviously a phenomenon that occurs everywhere; of course out-of-towners wouldn’t know as much as local reporters or even the most vigilant of fans.  However, some organizations just do a better job of obfuscating their true natures, or never draw enough attention to themselves to warrant a deeper look.

The Chicago Bulls might be the very best at that obfuscation, and the nature of their mediocrity is that of non-action, which would naturally draw less attention than other NBA franchises who take bad risks or make poor decisions.

Like many things, it starts at the top.  Jerry Reinsdorf has obviously had enormous success overall with the Bulls since purchasing them in 1985, but much of it was in spite of himself and the people he hired.  Giving him credit for six championships in eight years goes along with giving him credit for breaking that same team up and ousting one of the greatest coaches of all time (and by proxy, the best player of all time).  It would be easy to point at that as an isolated incident, but it simply isn’t.

Another enterprising individual on Bulls site Blog a Bull came up with this brilliant chart that maps out Reinsdorf’s repeating pattern of nepotism.  Long story short: the Bulls have ousted two of the winning-est coaches in NBA history in favor of completely inexperienced coaches from Iowa State.  Iowa connections don’t stop there, and there are strange New Mexico connections as well.  The linked article explains and shows it better than I can, but the point is clear: this is an organization that has never given positions of power based upon success, but rather based upon “I knew this guy.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been successes or good decisions made.  There absolutely have been.  In the rare moments the Bulls do participate in a trade, it has rarely gone terribly.  The draft record is mostly decent to above average, and there hasn’t been any catastrophic decisions made there either (save for perhaps the drafting of Marquis Teague, when then-coach Tom Thibodeau wanted Draymond Green).  There have been times when there has been a pretty clear plan on how to approach the future, and sound risks and decisions were made to facilitate that plan.  A lot of it hasn’t worked out, but judging a decision purely based on the outcome is a fool’s errand.

However, there’s a few trends that are rather apparent at this point.  These trends are all likely characteristic of Reinsdorf himself, as like in any organization, it will resemble who’s in charge.

  • They are averse to risk.  There is a long, ever-expanding wasteland of “almosts” and “could haves” in regards to trades involving the Chicago Bulls.  Obviously not all of those trades should have been made, but the point is that trades just aren’t their style, because the risk is too great to them.  The biggest problem with this is missed opportunity; too often, they have lost a player in free agency that they could have traded in the previous season for nothing, or have missed a chance to build assets.
  • They are cheap.  This is a common meme for any criticized owner, but Reinsdorf has earned this dubious title.  He has a long-running track record of resisting any pro-union measure in either sport in which he owns a team.  He was one of the primary “tough nuts” in the 1994-1995 MLB player’s strike.  He has avoided paying the luxury tax for the Bulls almost every year.  Contract disputes with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, two of the best 25 players of all-time and also underpaid during their careers, are known to anyone with some time and Google skills.  There are a number of other cases to point out, but Jerry’s prudent nature isn’t a terribly unknown reality.
  • They will have their way.  There are two common threads between Phil Jackson and Tom Thibodeau; both are among the winning-est coaches in NBA history, and both are people who refused to be pushed around by the Bulls’ front office.  Because of that, they were both deposed despite making the playoffs in their final season (and in Jackson’s case, winning a championship!).  The reasons given for their departures haven’t been entirely honest, accurate, or smart.  Most of the evidence points to this: neither Phil nor Tom were willing to bend to the front office’s will (whatever that will was), and they got sent away because of it.  Both were replaced with inexperienced Iowa State coaches.  Tim Floyd was pretty terrible.  So far there’s little to like about Fred Hoiberg.
  • Their track record with the handling of training and injuries is poor.  I’m not sure if this is an organizational mandate, an inability to hire effective training and medical staff, or a combination of those or other factors, but the Bulls have a curious history in this regard.  The most famous of this is Derrick Rose’s stunted return, but there are numerous other incidents that point to an alarming trend of poor handling of athlete wellness.


Many of these subjects are rarely talked about in national media, but they’re also largely ignored in local media.  There are a multitude of reasons why this might be the case, and the more salacious possibility is that the Bulls highly curate and manage the writers that cover the team.  The amount of excuses given for this organization by local media is bordering on sickening; no single situation appears to be bad, but we’re now at a decades-long run of excuse after excuse after excuse.

The most that ever gets said about the Bulls in the national media are cryptic, vague statements such as “the Bulls are weird” or “I’m not sure what they’re doing.”  To my knowledge no major national writer has delved much deeper than that when talking about Bulls dysfunction, but that should come at no surprise.  National writers gravitate towards either the greatest teams or the loopiest ones, and the Bulls haven’t qualified as either for a long time.  Their organizational dysfunction isn’t so bad when compared to the Kings and Lakers of today, the Knicks and Timberwolves of yesterday, or other front-office tire-fires of yesteryear.  Additionally, most of the Bulls’ problems don’t stem from individually poor choices; there’s no unforgivable draft blunder or ill-advised trade to point to.

With the Bulls, it’s a death of a thousand cuts.  Some of those cuts might grab momentary media attention (such as Thibodeau’s firing and subsequent shaming by a public, personal attack by Reinsdorf), but the Bulls are still widely regarded at worst as a reasonably stable organization.  I suppose that statement is completely true, if only because they’ve been consistently awkward, risk-averse, and mediocre.


MJ vs. LBJ: A statistical comparison after 12 seasons

I was going to begin this as a MJ vs. Kobe vs. LBJ comparison, but Kobe’s numbers just weren’t terribly interesting.  MJ vs. LBJ, however, is very interesting.  This analysis includes the first 12 years of both careers.  I won’t be including playoff stats in this analysis, though I will touch on them when appropriate.

Note on my background: I’ve been a rabid NBA fan since the late ’80s, however, I was 9 years old in 1990.  I have gone back and watched a lot of the 90’s Bulls in recent years, so I am remembering this with better eyes than my teenage brain.

I’m going to go stat by stat (or group by group) and will be considering the context of the era and their teams.  Obviously I could have a bias, being a Bulls fan, but I’d like to think I’m going to be objective.

Here’s the comparison page, courtesy of basketball-reference.com: MJ vs. LBJ comparison.

Time Played
MJ (age 21-33): 848 games (984 possible), 837 starts, 32,706 minutes
LBJ (age 18-30): 911 games (968 possible*), 910 starts, 35,769 minutes
* – due to 2011 lockout

LBJ’s health throughout his career is remarkable, and it shows here.  If you include playoff games, LeBron started 20 more of those than Jordan as well.  All told, Lebron played more than an entire season, 83 games, than Jordan has.  However, Jordan did play three years of college as well, but we’re looking at NBA stats here.  All told, it’s important to remember that LBJ has 63 more regular season games than Jordan after 12 years.  Not a monumental difference, but notable.

MJ: .509 FG%, .340 3P% (1544 attempted), .524 2P%, .523 eFG%, .584 TS%, .843 FT% (7394 attempted)
LBJ: .496 FG%, .342 3P% (3671 attempted), .535 2P%, .531 eFG%, .581 TS%, .745 FT% (7730 attempted)

These are overall similar numbers, though there are two notable differences: LBJ’s much higher 3P attempts, and MJ’s higher FT%.  The 3P difference can probably be chalked up to era, as the three-point shot was less emphasized back then.  Jordan was just simply a better free-throw shooter as well, so no groundbreaking findings here.

The surprise is that LBJ’s numbers stand up as well as they do.  We often consider MJ the best scorer ever without much more thought, though LBJ’s numbers do really stand up.  Much of this is due to the extra emphasis on the three-pointer, but LeBron is also one of the few athletes in NBA history who was as effective (if not a tiny bit more) than Jordan was at driving in the lane.

MJ: 4729, 5.6/game
LBJ: 6301, 6.9/game

LBJ’s vision and passing acumen are often lauded, and the stats bear it out.  MJ was certainly no slouch, but LBJ clearly gets the edge here.  MJ was a very good passer, LBJ is easily the best passing non-point guard in history, and on par with other hall-of-fame point guards.

Miami Heat's James passes against the Detroit Pistons in a preseason NBA basketball game in Miami
he was good at this.

MJ: 5361 rebounds (6.3/game), 3944 DRB, 1417 ORB
LBJ: 6502 rebounds (7.1/game), 5421 DRB, 1081 ORB

It’s not surprising that LBJ has the rebounding edge, but it’s very interesting that MJ had 50% more offensive rebounds.  ORBs are largely recognized as more difficult and valuable.  This is likely a product of the triangle offense, but also that MJ relished tip-ins and rebounding his own shot a bit more than most.

MJ: 2165 steals (2.6/game), 783 blocks (0.9/game)
LBJ: 1553 steals (1.7/game), 724 blocks (0.8/game)

The steals are the obvious difference.  However, I do think there are three things at play here: MJ wasn’t always guarding the best opposing wing (that was usually Pippen’s duty), MJ played in an era where steals were a bit easier to get due to NBA rules, and MJ gambled a bit more for steals than LBJ does.  Regardless of that, ~600 more steals is a huge deal (especially when you consider the large intrinsic value of a steal, which often becomes a 4-point swing), and is a testament to Jordan’s fast hands and tenacity.  The fact that he outpaces LBJ’s blocks is also impressive and a bit surprising.


MJ: 2404 (2.8/game)
LBJ: 3067 (3.4/game)

This discrepancy could be easily explained by the fact that LBJ had the ball in his hands more (since he effectively played point guard a lot), but MJ’s usage rate is higher as well (33.5 vs. 31.7), so this is actually a pretty meaningful difference.  Add that to the fact that Jordan played in an era that was harder for ball handlers (just like when we mentioned MJ’s steal numbers), and this is pretty impressive and meaningful.


I won’t bother analyzing other stats, as the above are the most meaningful differences.

The other important things to consider when comparing these two are their team situations, other era-specific differences, and the simple fact that they are very different players.

Jordan and LeBron both played on mediocre teams in their early years, but through 12 years Jordan had played with elite teammates for a couple more years than LeBron had.  Pippen is arguably better than any teammate LeBron has ever had (Wade is the only debatable one), and LeBron didn’t really have even good teammates until he went to the Heat.

We’ve already covered differences in their respective eras concerning three-point attempts and defense, but it’s also important to note that defenses are different now in more ways than the ability to defense ball handlers.  Zone defenses and theories are commonplace now, and that has made things harder for iso-type play.  The league’s best offenses back in Jordan’s day were simply the teams with the best offensive stars (and their amount of them), while now the league’s best offenses are the ones with the best scheme and players that fit it.  Players like Danny Green and Mike Miller would have been afterthoughts in the 90s, while they are much-revered as essential cogs in their respective offenses nowadays.  This is due more to the way offense is played, rather than heightened media attention.

Finally, these are just two different players.  Jordan’s game was predicated on finesse and tough shot-making on offense, while LBJ looked to pass more and used his size to bully his way in the post and in the lane.  Both were tenacious defenders, both among the best wing defenders of all time.  However, Jordan was one of NBA history’s greatest pickpockets, while LeBron could defend almost every position.


I think what it comes back to is that it’s still pretty difficult to compare these two, based on position, era, and expectation.  Gun-to-head, I still take MJ, but the margin is smaller than many would care to admit.  MJ’s playoff numbers are a sight to behold, but a second look shows that his efficiency is actually a tad worse than during the regular season (which is the typical effect when raising usage rate).

I think the biggest thing I took out of this was that LBJ probably doesn’t get enough credit for being as good a scorer as he is, and that Jordan probably doesn’t get enough credit for being as good a defender as he was.