DJ-Augustin-fantasy-basketball

The Toronto Raptors will finish off the 2013 calendar year with a visit to the United Center on Tuesday to take on the Chicago Bulls (8 p.m., TSN2).

The poor guys will then hop on a plane for Toronto and might even be in the air as the clock strikes midnight, though surely the OVO will be blasting and the Gatorade flowing like wine. From there, 2014 kicks off with the Indiana Pacers coming to town on Wednesday, so hopefully Indiana goes hard on New Year’s Eve.

Anyway, just a few weeks ago a trip to Chicago would have seemed daunting, with Derrick Rose expected to be rounding into form and the assumed three-seed in the Eastern Conference firing on all cylinders. Instead, Rose is done for the year, the Bulls sit in ninth at 11-17, and most Bulls talk centers around whether or not they’ll trade impending free agent Luol Deng rather than anything on the hardwood.

To help us set the stage, I hit up my pal and Bulls fan Rick Kraetsch, who has a very difficult last name to spell. You can find rich writing at Hickory High hosting The Bulls vs. Blazers Podcast there, and writing/editing/podcasting at Voices of Wrestling.

Blake: We came to be pseudo-internet friends over a very strange wrestling-and-advanced-stats bond. First of all, what? Second, if the Raptors were to trot out Jonas Valanciunas as an Ivan Drago-type European super-killing machine for a Wrestlemania match, who would the Bulls counter with?

Rich: It’s amazing we even see the light of day or emerge for even a brief moment from our mother’s basements but somehow, someway, we do it! Why is it always mom’s basement? What about a room upstairs? Why not my dad’s basement? Why are nerds parents always divorced… okay, sorry.

Seriously, I’d say have to say Carlos Boozer as the WrestleMania opponent for Jonas. The man is built like a ton of bricks, sometimes has fake hair and has tattoos everywhere. If you squint, he kind of looks like The Rock or Batista and is known to scream intensely.

Plus, he’s the only one even remotely healthy as I’d imagine the others would blow their quads within seconds of the bell. Taj Gibson would be the closest to the Rocky narrative — hard-working guy, always had knocks against him but has turned himself into a solid NBA player (who really should start) through a lot of practice and development of his game.

Things are bad in Chicago but the defense is actually still very good. They limit looks in the corner and keep teams away from the restricted area better than almost any other team in the league. What’s the key to scoring on this group?

Man, that’s one thing us Bulls fans can’t complain about this year, it may be a chore to watch but the Bulls are still playing suffocating D. Just taking a glance at opponent shot locations, it looks like the only shots they are giving up at an above-league average rate are 10-14 footers and 15-19, have fun with those.

As you mentioned they don’t let you take many shots from the restricted area or the corner and even when they do, teams aren’t making them at a high rate.

When you look at a few of guys who were able to get points on the Bulls (for example — Brandon Jennings from December 7 and Ryan Anderson from December 2), the common theme is above-the-break threes.

The Bulls are second best in the league at preventing them but when opponents do get them, they are shooting 37.6%. Anderson took 9 of his 11 threes from above-the-break and all 8 of Jennings’ attempts were above-the-break.

It’s never going to be easy to score on a Tom Thibodeau-coached team but if you have a chucker who isn’t afraid to launch off a top of the key early in the shot clock, you may have a chance.

The offense, however, is almost Milwaukee-level bad. They’re in the bottom half of the league in shooting percentage from every single area of the court. What can the Bulls do differently to get the offense going a bit, keeping in mind that the Raptors are deceptively decent on defense?

I don’t know if there’s anything the Bulls can intentionally do to make their offense better, it’s just a matter of not having the talent to do it. A few things stick out to me, for one, it’s giving the ball to Taj Gibson. Over the last give games, he’s averaging 15.6 while shooting 62.5% from the field. He’s also shooting well from mid-range (60%) during that time and I’ve noticed that’s an area where the Raptors seem to struggle defensively.

Perhaps working more pick-and-roll with D.J. Augustin and Taj? Carlos Boozer is also a knock-down mid-range shooter, so there’s potential there against Toronto.

I wish I could tell you there’s someone to knock down corner threes (another area your Raptors seem to struggle) but, well, there isn’t. Mike Dunleavy was supposed to be that guy but he’s only shot 19 corner threes this year, shooting 36.8% from there. It’s been a bad year from downtown, in only 8 games, Augustin is already the Bulls best outside shooter.

Jimmy Butler played 46 minutes in a blow-out loss just a few days removed from a sprained ankle. Do you think Tom Thibodeau will eventually try and play Butler or Luol Deng 50 minutes in a regulation game?

There aren’t many things to criticize Thibs about, but this is certainly one of them. There was talk in Chicago of management putting restrictions on guys to force Thibs to take them out, but that doesn’t seem to have trickled down to Butler yet (it may have gotten to Noah). I absolutely wouldn’t doubt he plays either Deng or Butler 50 minutes in a game. I’m not sure why he’s doing it, it could just be a total lack of depth on this team but we’ve seen even during their best bench days, he can’t help himself. I honestly don’t know what it is, why it happens or what can prevent it. It’s very frustrating for Bulls fans too. Maybe it’s a three-year backlash/grudge to moronic Bulls fans clamoring for Brian Scalabrine the entire fourth quarter.

How’s D.J. Augustin working out? Related, do you think the Bulls will look to add an appreciably better backup point guard this offseason as Derrick Rose insurance, or is the budget too tight for such a luxury?

Augustin has been solid. I don’t want to say “good” but he was replacing Marquis Teague, maybe the worst NBA point guard I’ve ever seen, so anything he does is gravy. He’s shot well so far and has re-energized the offense that looked zombified post-Derrick Rose.

The budget is an interesting issue going into next year. It depends where they think this team is going and how they want to build it. If they let Deng, Kirk Hinrich and their other expirings walk, they’ll have around $64 million in total commitments. Now, if they do what they absolutely should do and amnesty Boozer, that will free up another $16.8 million. That’s a lot of money to work with, they will likely bring over Nikola Mrotic, still need a secondary scorer/shooting guard and some big man depth.

Backup point guard may have to go by the wayside again, maybe it’s an Ish Smith-level, Steve Blake-type but someone like Mario Chalmers or even Shaun Livingston may be out of the price range. I think it’s something they absolutely recognize they need to have with Rose now but it’s all about where their money goes.

The Bulls’ holes are becoming increasingly apparent and glaring. A trip to the lottery this year could solve at least one of the aforementioned issues but I’m not totally confident they’ll be bad enough in the East this year.

Now, rather than breaking things down position by position – these teams have already played twice this season (the Raptors lost by 16 at home and won by 22 on the road, neither with Rose playing) – I thought I’d take a crack at just the “final breakdown” section of the preview from three different perspectives.

One: Me, pretty much any other season
The Bulls are banged up and can’t score, so naturally they’ll hang 110 on the Raptors. It’s New Year’s Eve and the team has been playing too well, so they’re probably going to look past this game and at their New Year’s plans and lay an egg. You can also expect Thibodeau to thoroughly out-coach Dwane Casey, with Casey failing to adjust if and when the Bulls’ schemes slow down the Raptor scorers. And of course, D.J. Augustin is going to score 20 with 10 dimes because the Raptors just cut him and this is the kind of thing that happens to the Raptors. This should probably be a win based on how these teams have been playing, but I’ll take the Bulls by seven because it’s always one step forward and two steps back with the Raptors.

Two: Me, probably, if the Raptors record were a few games worse
The Raptors will probably win this game for one key reason, and it’s the main reason they’re botching the tank – D.J. Augustin. Augustin would have been the perfect tank commander, and he could have split the point guard role with Greivis Vasquez after the team trades high on Kyle Lowry, like they should. Of course, the Raptors are waiting too long to tank and will probably end up winning this one and a few too many more games before realizing they’re nothing but an also-ran without a star.

Three: Actual breakdown
Believe it or not, the Raptors are better than the Bulls right now. Sure, you’d take a few of the Bulls over many of the Raptors, and Thibodeau is perhaps the best defensive coach in the entire league, but this team can’t score, period. As much as people sometimes fail to buy into it, the Raptors are pretty decent defensively and are at least disciplined enough to not let the Bulls run wild. Offensively, it will definitely be tough, and it’s difficult to see DeMar DeRozan having a strong game given the defensive focus he’ll draw. But you don’t have to score a ton, you just have to outscore the Bulls. That’s something the Raptors did just a couple weeks ago, in convincing fashion no less, and I think they’ll be able to do it again and keep the momentum going. It’s also worth noting that the Bulls will be on the second game of a travel back-to-back.

Vegas says: There’s no line as of this writing as the Bulls are currently in action against the Grizzlies.
Hollinger says: Raptors -3
The Rock says: Know your role, and shut your mouth
Blake says: Raptors by 11. Call me crazy, whatever.

A note
2013 has been a great year for Raptors Republic. I want to thank all of you for visiting the site, reading and commenting. Even if we don’t always agree, RR has one of the best and most engaging communities you can find online for any team, in any sport. I want to wish you all a safe and happy new year, and I hope 2014 brings nothing but good things for all of you and the Raptors.