LeBron James + Chicago Bulls = Contender?

| by David Berri

Jeff Van Gundy argued this weekend that adding LeBron to the Chicago Bulls wouldn’t be enough to transform the Bulls into a title contender.  Kevin Ferrigan – who was asked to respond to this story – disagrees. Kevin is a third year law student at William & Mary Law School.  He is originally from Maine, but has been a lifelong Bulls fan going back to the Jordan dynasty.

LeBron James and the Cavaliers were ousted from the playoffs just a few short days ago. Already, there has been a great deal of speculation about where the King will end up next season. In recent days, an increasing number of voices have pointed to my beloved Chicago Bulls as one of the best possible destinations for LeBron.  At least Chicago is a preferred destination if winning is — as he claims — his number one priority.  However, Jeff Van Gundy recently made some interesting comments about what LeBron could do for the Bulls. In short, Van Gundy claimed that LeBron alone would not make the Bulls a title contender. But is he right? Let’s take a look at the Bulls’ roster and the story told by Wins Produced.

The Bulls don’t have a full roster of players for next year. In fact, according to ShamSports.com’s Chicago salary page, the Bulls have just 6 players under contract for next year. Those players are Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson, and James Johnson. The Bulls will also have the 17th pick in this year’s draft (resulting from a pick swap with the Milwaukee Bucks). A mid-first round pick is unlikely to have much of an impact as a rookie. So, let’s take a look at the Wins Produced and WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of the other six players and see what they can offer the King next year (Wins Produced numbers courtesy of Andres Alvarez).

  • Joakim Noah: 10.9 Wins Produced, 0.272 WP48
  • Luol Deng: 7.7 Wins Produced, 0.139 WP48
  • Derrick Rose: 6.8 Wins Produced, 0.113 WP48
  • Taj Gibson: 5.7 Wins Produced, 0.124 WP48
  • Kirk Hinrich: 4.1 Wins Produced, 0.080 WP48
  • James Johnson: -1.0 Wins Produced, -0.066 WP48

An average player posts a WP48 above 0.099.  So of these six players, four are above average. It’s worth noting that the Bulls’ best player by WP48, Joakim Noah, was limited this year by injury trouble.  Despite this limitation, Noah was still able to produce nearly 11 wins. Next year, if he’s able to remain healthy for more of the year — and keep his production at the level we saw this year — he could produce 14 or 15 wins.

Together these six players accounted for 34.2 Wins Produced.  And that includes the negative production from James Johnson.  Chicago’s Wins Produced in 2009-10 was only about 36.8,  so the Bulls not under contract were generally unproductive.

Now let’s look at LeBron James’ MVP year. This year he produced a WP48 of .401 and produced 24.8 wins (if one thinks of LeBron as just a small forward, these numbers rise to 0.444 and 27.2). Adding 24.8 to the 34.2 Wins Produced from the six players listed above, and we see a team with 59 victories.  And that means if LeBron and the remaining Bulls on the roster are able to match their production from the last year, the Bulls would already be near 60 wins before we even consider the contribution of the players who must fill out the remaining roster spots.

All of that assumes performance doesn’t change.  Again, though, Noah should be healthier.  Furthermore, Derrick Rose is still young.  And that means Rose will probably get even better. 

There is a potential downside to the move.  The second most productive player on this team is Luol Deng, who happens to play the same position as LeBron. This suggests that Deng could be the odd man is LeBron comes to town. If Chicago is able to land an equally productive player at a position of need (like shooting guard where Hinrich is inadequate) for Deng via trade, this should not be an issue. However, if the Bulls trade Deng for an unproductive player simply to clear minutes for LeBron, they will have wasted an asset and hurt their chances at being a contender.

Despite the Deng issue, I think the numbers hint that Coach Van Gundy was probably incorrect in his assessment that the Bulls would not be a title contender if they added LeBron. They’d still need to fill out the roster, of course, but adding nearly 25 wins to a team that went to the playoffs this year would be a huge, huge upgrade.  And this should be enough to vault the Bulls back into the contender conversation; a conversation they have not been a part of since the days of the guy who made the number 23 famous.

- Kevin Ferrigan

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