Sonics (13-17) at Chicago (12-18)
Wednesday, January 4, 5:30 p.m.
United Center TV: FSN Northwest Radio: KJR AM 950
Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM
The Chicago Bulls may not know the term "plexiglass principle," but they're living it this season. The term, coined in baseball by Bill James, refers to the tendency of teams that make a significant improvement one season to regress somewhat the next. Few teams have ever improved as much as the 2004-05 Bulls, who went from 23 wins to 47 and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. This year, they've gone the other direction.
Chicago entered the off-season without much opportunity for improvement, having traded its first-round pick to Phoenix and with little room to add outside free agents without jettisoning promising young guard Chris Duhon. Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson also re-signed Tyson Chandler to a lucrative deal and chose not to re-sign center Eddy Curry when he was unwilling to submit to genetic testing to assess his chances of having a serious heart condition after experiencing an irregular heartbeat that sidelined him late in the 2004-05 regular season and the playoffs. Paxson made a great save with Curry, dealing him to New York in a sign-and-trade deal that returned the underrated Mike Sweetney and the Knicks first-round pick.
The new mix was looking good on Dec. 2, when the Bulls were 8-6 despite a difficult schedule which included nine of 14 games on the road. Chicago was above .500 as late as Dec. 17, sitting 12-11. Since then, however, it's been a quick decline. The Bulls have lost seven straight games to fall six games blow .500, four of them at home, leading Coach Scott Skiles to make major lineup changes. The last two games, Skiles has started a backcourt of Duhon and Ben Gordon with 6-3 Kirk Hinrich at small forward. The lineup will change tonight because Chandler is sidelined by a sprained right ankle, and it's tough to imagine Skiles can start Hinrich against 6-10 Sonics forward Rashard Lewis.
A year ago, the Bulls were weak on offense (ranking 26th in the NBA in Offensive Rating), but overcame it with a stingy defense that ranked second in the NBA in Defensive Rating, allowing just 100.3 points per 100 possessions. The Chicago offense has been just as bad this year, but the defense has gotten worse, allowing 105.9 points per 100 possessions to rank a middle-of-the-pack 15th in Defensive Rating. Much of the decline can be traced to Chandler, an intimidating shot-blocking presence in the middle last year who has struggled this year. The Bulls don't have another 7-footer on the roster, using the 6-8 Sweetney and 6-9 Othella Harrington in the middle in Chandler's absence.
For the Seattle SuperSonics, tonight marks the debut of Coach Bob Hill on the sidelines. Hill has promised some major changes, and is expected to return Luke Ridnour to the starting lineup at point guard while promoting Vladimir Radmanovic and rookie Johan Petro to the opening five. That combination makes the Sonics a faster-paced team while Petro is better equipped to provide the help defense and presence in the middle the Sonics need to improve their defensive weaknesses. Teams often respond in their first game under a new coach, and Hill will be looking for that level of energy and intensity this evening.
G U A R D S
A defensive specialist as a rookie, Duhon has stepped up his scoring in year two. Duhon's True Shooting Percentage as a rookie was a substandard 47.1%, but he's boosted it all the way to 55.9% this year. More than half of Duhon's shot attempts come from downtown, and he's hitting a strong 39.1% of those attempts this year, up from 35.5% last year. In addition to his defense, Duhon has always been a steady ballhandler. He currently ranks sixth in the NBA with a 3.49 assist-to-turnover ratio. Hill's emphasis on a fast pace of play - but with a disciplined style nonetheless - should be a good fit for Ridnour, who has struggled at times this season on offense. He showed more confidence Monday in Indiana, scoring six points.
In 2004-05, the Bulls absolutely shut down Ray Allen, holding him to 9-of-34 shooting (26.5%). Most of the credit for that defensive lockdown goes to Hinrich, a feisty, versatile defender who has played both guard positions (and now small forward) during his Chicago career. But Allen was able to shake loose of Hinrich for 27 points on 9-for-19 shooting in the first matchup between these teams. Hinrich is probably better cast as a complementary offensive player than the go-to guy he's been forced to be at times the last two seasons. His scoring average has dropped 2.5 points per game from last year, and Hinrich scored just three points on 1-for-7 shooting in Monday's loss to Milwaukee.
F O R W A R D S
Versatile second-year forward Luol Deng has been starting out of position at power forward, but will likely move back to small forward this evening. Deng came into the NBA a fairly polished player despite spending only one year at Duke, and averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in making the got milk? All-Rookie First Team. Deng has boosted those averages to a team-high 14.2 points and 6.2 rebounds this year, improving his shooting percentage to 47.3%. Deng scored 16 points in 19 minutes against the Sonics in November, while Lewis countered with 27 points on 11-for-21 shooting. Hill may look to get Lewis more looks in the post in future games.
While Andres Nocioni would play the power forward if he started alongside Deng, which seems logical, he'd probably defend Lewis. Nocioni is a very aggressive, physical defender who frustrates opponents but also can be plagued by foul trouble. He had two fouls in the first eight minutes defending Lewis on Nov. 18. Like Duhon and Deng, Nocioni has taken a step forward on offense in his second season, becoming a dangerous 44.9% 3-point shooter. Hill is hoping that moving Radmanovic into the starting lineup will snap a recent slump that has seen him average just 4.2 points over his last five games.
C E N T E R
The Sonics best shot-blocking presence in the middle, Petro swatted a career-high four shots in 24 minutes as a starter earlier this season against Chicago. Then, Petro was defending Chandler, who's not a scoring threat. Tonight's matchups should be more difficult, as both Harrington and Sweetney are predominantly post scoring and Petro has struggled at times in the post. Foul trouble has also been an issue. Sweetney is nearly matching Curry's production thus far (11.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game vs. 13.8 and 6.8 for Curry in slightly more minutes), but foul trouble has really bothered Sweetney. He may also have trouble keeping up in a fast-paced game.
B E N C H
After winning Rookie of the Year, Gordon (right) is feeling the oft-cited "sophomore slump" this year, seeing his scoring average drop 1.3 points per game and his field-goal percentage down 2.2 percent. In his recent rare starts, Gordon has picked up his play, dropping 28 points on 13-for-24 shooting against Milwaukee. Darius Songaila opened the year as Chicago's starting power forward but was horrendous in that role, shooting 30% from the field. Off the bench, he's back to showing the soft touch he had in Sacramento, shooting 53.4%. Harrington (53.5%) is another accurate shooter in the paint who is averaging 20.9 points per 40 minutes. After three straight starts, Damien Wilkins (left) returns to the bench, but look for him to continue to play a key role thanks to his versatile play and defensive ability. Ronald "Flip" Murray may benefit from playing alongside Wilkins, a role which lets him focus on his forte, scoring. Up front, Nick Collison should see a larger role at both frontcourt positions, while Robert Swift is expected to get some run at center.
USELESS STAT OF THE DAY
The Sonics are 2-2 all-time when new coaches debut during the season.
The Sonics played two very different halves in their return on Nov. 18 after a six-game road trip, hosting the Bulls. Struggling against a quality Chicago defense in the first half, the Sonics posted just 12 points in the second quarter. They exploded after halftime to score 33 points in the third quarter and 32 in the fourth, rolling to a 98-84 win. Allen and Lewis scored 27 apiece - 20 of Allen's in the second half - to lead the Sonics attack.
Sonics - . Guard Rick Brunson (torn plantar fascia, left foot) is out.