Mission Impossibull: Beating the Bulls

Dateline: 04/24/97

Though the Bulls are the class of the league this year, tying what had been -- until their own record season last year -- the best record in history with a 69-13 mark, there are many saying that they can lose this year. The injuries to Kukoc and Rodman led to three losses in the last four (unimportant) games. Teams like Miami, New York, Utah, and Houston are all thinking seriously about ways to defeat the greatest team in history. If they don't watch out, however, they all could face stiff tests early in the playoffs.

Below I present the basic odds of each team winning their respective playoff series and their odds to win in three, four, or five games. Among the obvious things is that New York is in for a dogfight in their opening series, with the lowest chance among the favorites of winning their series.

Eastern Conference

Overall Three Games Four Games Five Games
1. Chicago 98% 63% 24% 12%
8. Washington 2% 0% 1% 1%
4. Atlanta 72% 20% 17% 35%
5. Detroit 28% 3% 16% 9%
2. Miami 84% 33% 33% 18%
7. Orlando 16% 3% 5% 8%
3. New York 61% 18% 20% 23%
6. Charlotte 39% 8% 17% 14%
Western Conference

Overall Three Games Four Games Five Games
1. Utah 98% 61% 24% 13%
8. LA Clippers 2% 0% 1% 1%
4. LA Lakers 71% 23% 21% 26%
5. Portland 29% 5% 14% 11%
2. Seattle 87% 38% 27% 22%
7. Phoenix 13% 2% 6% 5%
3. Houston 86% 38% 28% 21%
6. Minnesota 14% 2% 6% 6%

Since these odds were calculated based on season performance and not subject to my own whims, I feel I should introduce one. The Seattle-Phoenix series is the one whose odds I most disagree with. Phoenix, in particular, is not a club that is represented well by their record. The team is completely different from the one that started the season 0-13. Though I would not make Phoenix a favorite or even give them 40% odds of winning the series, I would subjectively raise their odds well above 13%.

Other interesting things in this table:

Overall, we should expect one or two first round upsets, just by random chance. Below, I go into the details on which series it might be.

Scouting Reports

Click for Team Ratings

I generally do not look at series position by position because I have found that it doesn't necessarily yield a representative picture of the way a series will play out. Rather, I choose to focus on offense and defense, perhaps looking at the individual matchups out of those sets.

Chicago vs. Washington

The key to this and all Bull series is whether Kukoc and Rodman play. Without them, Chicago stands a chance -- a small one against the erratic Bullets -- of losing any series.

Chicago's O vs. Washington's D: Washington has no stop for Jordan. Double-teaming him is their only chance, but there are too many other weapons on the Bulls for the Bullets to scramble around and chase. They can't double off Kerr or Kukoc or Pippen. They can leave Rodman, but no one on the Bullets is disciplined enough to block him off the boards, even though the Bullets are a pretty good defensive rebounding team.

Washington's O vs. Chicago's D: Washington is actually somewhat dangerous offensively, particularly if they can get Webber to go hard against the mildly weak Chicago inside defenders and if they can get Tracy Murray going from outside. Strickland is a tough cover because he is quick, but unless he does a tremendous job of freeing up Howard, Webber, Murray, and Muresan for shots, the Bulls rotate so well that Washington can get frustrated. That means players like Webber and Harvey Grant tossing up three pointers when they shouldn't be.

Outlook: Bulls in three if Kukoc plays. Bulls in four if he doesn't.

Atlanta vs. Detroit

Detroit took three out of four from Atlanta this season and matches up quite well against the Hawks.

Atlanta's O vs Detroit's D: Atlanta's offense is subject to serious slumps and fiery hot shooting streaks. There is no go-to guy on the team. Laettner likes to think he is, but can be shut down with adequate defense. Mutombo, despite his improved season, is still a goon offensively, just a better one. If I were Lenny Wilkens, I would think twice about calling a play for Mutombo at the end of a close game. Both Steve Smith and Mookie Blaylock can air it out from downtown, but can also cause a breeze with airballs. Detroit's overall defense is a fairly conservative one that doesn't make many mistakes and allows an opponent to make their own. Atlanta could do that.

Detroit's O vs. Atlanta's D: Despite the tremendous defenders Atlanta has in Blaylock and Mutombo, Detroit's offensive scheme may be less susceptible to their presence. Blaylock cannot play Grant Hill because of size problems and, thus, cannot terrorize the traditional ball-handling point guard. Hill can work inside and, when threatened by Mutombo, is a good enough passer to find Otis Thorpe or an outside shooter.

Outlook: I see Detroit winning one in Atlanta and desperately trying to finish the Hawks in Detroit. I think they will do it, but there is a chance that they will fall prey to their own youth and over-reliance upon the three-point shot.

Miami vs. Orlando

Miami is another of Pat Riley's brilliantly constructed teams that, despite its glaring weaknesses, has a will to win almost unrivaled. Orlando was throttled by Shaq's departure and by their 4-0 loss to Houston in '95; they have yet to recover.

Miami's O vs. Orlando's D: Miami's offense is really nothing special. Alonzo Mourning turns the ball over chronically, more often than most point guards in the league. Yet he commands respect because he is mobile and because his moves are decent. Tim Hardaway still has an ugly shot, but, like Dan Majerle, Voshon Lenard, and Jamal Mashburn, he can bury a 23 foot shot because defenses draw in on Mourning. By my last record, Miami shot the second most number of three pointers in the league and they made enough to win. In fact, Miami's offense looks a lot like Houston's of '94 and '95: send it in to the big guy who can swing it out to perimeter shooters sitting at the three point line. In that case and in this one, a straight-up defense on the center seems to be the best strategy. Orlando won't do that because they don't trust Rony Seikaly to handle Mourning. And they will see three pointers rain. Some will miss, but not enough.

Orlando's O vs. Miami's D: With the departure of Shaq, Orlando has become less predictable, but also less effective. Utah has been very predictable with their pick and roll for more than a decade, but also unstoppable. Orlando seems to think that their new-found unpredictability will help, but what it is doing is putting more of the load on less effective offensive players like Seikaly, Dennis Scott, and Nick Anderson. Penny Hardaway has been well off his game of the past few years, partially because of injuries, but also because Shaq left. Overall, the strength of the Orlando offense is its ability to bomb away, just like Miami. Miami, however, plays better perimeter defense and won't allow easy ones. Miami just plays stifling defense all the way around, enough to dishearten the Magic early.

Outlook: Orlando could easily win one by having a hot hand from outside. I think Riley is too smart and the Heat too determined to let that happen. It would not be a shock if Orlando won one or even two, but it would be a tremendous shock if Orlando won this series.

New York vs. Charlotte

Two teams with exactly opposite styles meet here. New York wins with defense and Charlotte wins with offense. They say defense wins in the playoffs. This is a good test of that theory.

New York's O vs. Charlotte's D: Ugly. That's what it's going to be at this end of the floor. New York rarely has any offensive flow. The guards often take their shots when they feel like it. The forwards do dirty work and Larry Johnson has never quite fit in. Patrick Ewing has not had, as Tiger Woods says, his "A Game" all year, being up and down with his jumper and his turn around. But Charlotte doesn't have the personnel that plays defense. Vlade Divac is a marginal defensive center who can turn it up. Glen Rice, Dell Curry, Ricky Pierce, Tony Delk, and Muggsy Bogues are defensive liabilities either because they don't work particularly hard or, in Bogues' case, because he is just short. Anthony Mason still plays D like a Knick, meaning he does it pretty well but fouls people a lot. Matt Geiger fouls people a lot, but isn't especially good defensively. This end of the floor is where the series will be lost.

Charlotte's O vs. New York's D: This end of the floor is where the series will be won. With shooters just about everywhere and Bogues and Mason to distribute the ball, Charlotte can score from a lot of places. They will force New York to rotate quickly. They will force New York to play John Starks over the weaker Allan Houston. Divac should be able (unless he gets in foul trouble on the other end) to take Ewing away from the basket, which neutralizes Ewing's exceptional defensive presence. This should be fun unless New York resorts to a lot of hard fouls and things get dirty.

Outlook: Charlotte has a lot going for it, including winning the season series 3-1, but the playoffs seem to favor more aggressive, even violent, teams like the Knicks. The Knicks also do know how to play defense, having one of the best in the league. Ultimately, that should pull it out for them, possibly in four games.

Utah vs. LA Clippers

There is probably no one who understands how the Clippers won as many games as they did this year. Without top line talent at any position -- some might say they have bad players at every position -- they have managed to make the playoffs...only to face the Western juggernaut.

Utah's O vs. LA's D: There is a principle of three that runs through basketball lore. If you have three players, you can set up a good offense. Utah still revolves around the quality play of Stockton, Malone, and Jeff Hornacek. Even though the Clipper defense is a pretty well-balanced group, they have no stop for these three.

LA's O vs. Utah's D: Loy Vaught, Rodney Rogers, and Charles Outlaw are the primary inside scorers, if they can be called that. Malik Sealy, Darrick Martin, and Lamond Murray are the primary shooters from outside, if they can be called that. Utah's interior defense is actually quite good and Malone, in particular, has never been fully recognized for his basic defense. Utah's perimeter defense has taken a bit of a pounding against better teams, but LA cannot be considered one of those.

Outlook: I don't see Utah taking the Clippers seriously enough, but I do see them sweeping the series on sheer talent.

LA Lakers vs. Portland

The final game of the regular season where Portland eked out a win against the Lakers seems to have people picking Portland in this series. But remember that the game was in Portland and that both teams had something to play for.

LA's O vs. Portland's D: In all the games between these two teams, O'Neal scored well. In the one game that LA won, Van Exel also broke loose. In the others, Eddie Jones played pretty well, Elden Campbell played pretty well, or no one played well. Portland seems to know how to prevent the Lakers from getting more than two players going. Part of this is that Sabonis can play O'Neal one on one without getting destroyed. Part of this is that Isaiah Rider and Kenny Anderson are good perimeter defenders. I don't see LA blowing Portland away with their offense.

Portland's O vs. LA's D: I really hate watching Rider's offense. He does so many things fundamentally wrong, but the ball can still go in. LA's Jones can play solid D or just watch because Rider often determines his own fate. Kenny Anderson has learned to be a very good distributor and, in my book, was one of the most improved players in the league without any of the publicity. Van Exel cannot handle him one-on-one. Clifford Robinson really isn't much at the three spot, so Horry's defense there seems wasted. Rasheed Wallace is inconsistent at the four, but so is the Laker's defensive four, Campbell.

Outlook: This is a very even series. The four games between these two teams during the regular season were decided by an average of three points. Offensively and defensively, the two teams are about even. In just about every facet of the game, I can see no clear distinguishing characteristic between the two teams. The series is such a toss-up that I find it hard to believe that the numbers above show the Lakers such a strong favorite. They must see something I don't, so I have to go with LA in five.

Seattle vs. Phoenix

Seattle is a long way from the team they were last season. Phoenix is a long way from the team they were at the start of this season. Which teams will show up?

Seattle's O vs. Phoenix's D: Phoenix still doesn't play a lot of defense, despite individual and team improvements. The key for Seattle is not Shawn Kemp, but Detlef Schrempf, whose injuries have been as great a cause as Kemp's malaise for Seattle's funk. Schempf's passing and shooting abilities cannot be stopped by anyone on the Phoenix team. Payton's penetration is solid, but he has a hard time against taller defenders, including someone like Jason Kidd, who stands 6'5". He has to hope for Kemp to play like he did last season and for Hawkins to be hitting well from the outside. Seattle has a good offense when all are healthy and happy. Phoenix has a poor defense at most times, so Seattle really should score pretty well.

Phoenix's O vs. Seattle's D: Seattle's scramble defense is not as effective against Phoenix as it is against other teams because Phoenix plays so many ball-handlers and two point guards. Yes, Phoenix turned the ball over a bit, but they also made Seattle pay for its pressure by finding a lot of easy shots, shooting well over 50% in the recent games. Don't expect Seattle to back off that base defense, so Phoenix should continue to get some easy shots.

Outlook: Phoenix won the two most recent games against Seattle, a scary point for the Sonics. In neither game did Schrempf play. As far as I know, he expects to play in this series. If he does, Seattle should pull through this because Phoenix just cannot stop him, Payton, Kemp, and Hawkins or Perkins. If not, Seattle may have to go five and still lose.

Houston vs. Minnesota

The Old Guys vs. The Young Kids.

Houston's O vs. Minnesota's D: Houston has four solid offensive threats in Barkley, Olajuwon, Drexler, and Mario Elie (I assume you know the other guys' first names). That is tough to stop no matter how well you play defense. Minnesota's forwards did a pretty good job against Elie and Barkley, but Drexler and Olajuwon had some pretty good games. Unless the T'Wolves centers and guards miraculously figure out how to stop these guys, Minnesota is going to have to shoot it out to stay with Houston. The only way Houston may have trouble is if they shoot themselves in the foot by shooting too many threes, something they did a lot of this year.

Minnesota's O vs. Houston's D: Houston turns up the defense when they have to, with the exception of Olajuwon and Elie, who seem to be naturally pretty good. They may not turn it up enough to shut Minnesota down. Minnesota will let Tom Gugliotta go on the inside or outside and he does get to the line a lot, but the fitful offense never gets a flow when he's doing this. Kevin Garnett, Dean Garrett, and Sam Mitchell do feed off the presence of Stephon Marbury, however. None of them are consistent enough to make a great drive and dish offense, plus Marbury still will take and miss too many from outside.

Outlook: Houston should sweep this series. At worst, they lose a game at the buzzer. Houston has made me look bad in the past; I hope they don't do it again.