The Case for Reggie Bullock

Carolina, the overwhelming preseason favorite to cut down the nets, has sputtered out of the gate to a 6-2 start. And, although one of the losses was on the road to fellow heavyweight Kentucky, that means the natives are getting restless in Chapel Hill. While it certainly wouldn’t solve all of the team’s problems (mediocre rebounding on both ends, inability to consistently finish in the paint, and poor free throw shooting, to name three), I’d like to propose one remedy for UNC’s tepid start: replacing Dexter Strickland in the starting line-up with Reggie Bullock.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Strickland. He’s made huge strides as a junior–namely as a ball-handler/back-up PG/facilitator of the offense and a mid-range shooter (hitting 45% (9-20) of his 10-20 footers through 8 games after connecting on just 27% last season). Strickland’s defense– his calling card– has also been better and more consistent as a junior. The logic for starting Dexter is compelling and straightforward: his strengths (attacking off the dribble in transition, defending ultra-quick point guards) help to offset the weaknesses of backcourt partner Kendall Marshall. He’s also Carolina’s best complementary ball-handler and play-maker– a trait Roy Williams covets from his 2-guard to maximize secondary break efficiency. Add all that to Strickland’s incumbency, and it’s easy to see why he remains in the starting line-up. From a purely basketball perspective, Strickland’s presence in the starting line-up makes far more sense than, say, Drew over Marshall last season. But, while Strickland’s strengths compensate for some of Marshall’s weaknesses, the two share a common flaw: the inability/reluctance to knock down 3-point jumpers. And in a system predicated on feeding the post as a primary option, this shared weakness has had deleterious effects on floor spacing/halfcourt offensive efficiency.

Like in ’06 when Wes Miller replaced Marcus Ginyard in the starting line-up, Carolina has a perimeter upgrade residing on its bench. In fact, the Heels have two this season: sophomore Reggie Bullock and freshman P.J. Hairston. As the title might suggest, I’m advocating that Bullock get the nod in the starting line-up. While it’s true that Hairston is the team’s deadliest shooter (and most prolific per-minute scorer), Bullock has the superior all-around game. He’s especially better than Hairston on the defensive end and as a complementary ball-handler/passer. With Marshall turning in strong defensive performances against Jordan Taylor and Marquis Teague in the past week, the dependence on pairing Marshall-Strickland (for defensive purposes) has been mitigated. And, if Marshall ever finds himself in over his head defensively, Strickland will still be available for extended duty as match-ups dictate. Jackie Manuel played 22 high-energy minutes per game for the ’05 champs. While his skills weren’t identical to Strickland’s (stronger defensively, weaker as a scorer/ball-handler), that seems like the right ballpark in terms of MPG for a perimeter defensive stopper with offensive limitations.

Let’s see what the numbers say. Table 1 presents the +/- data through the first eight games of this season. As seen, Marshall-Strickland is clearly the team’s worst offensive and overall backcourt combination among the four most frequently used (no other pairing has more than 10 minutes together). Of particular concern is Carolina’s reluctance to hoist 3-pointers with that combo on the floor– only 12.5% of all FGAs are from behind the arc with Marshall-Strickland on the court; with all other backcourts, UNC shoots at least 24% of its shots from deep. Shooting so few 3-pointers with the starting backcourt allows opposing defenses to sag in the paint and make life miserable for John Henson and (especially) Tyler Zeller.

In fact, as seen in Table 2, Carolina has actually performed significantly better with Strickland at PG than it has him at the 2. Because Strickland is always paired with two wing shooters (from among Barnes/Bullock/Hairston) when he’s running the point, the team is able to compensate for his lack of natural play-making ability. Also, Strickland himself has performed better offensively in his PG minutes. As a 1, he’s averaging 14.4 points/40 and 5.1 assists/40, with a TS% of 64.3 and an A:TO of 2.00. As a SG, those numbers are: 10.5, 3.3, 59.1%, 1.36.  This isn’t a question of Marshall vs. Strickland at PG, but rather one related to  one wing shooter vs. two wing shooters. When Marshall is paired with a tandem of wing shooters, the team’s offensive efficiency skyrockets. But to accomplish the objective of maximizing minutes with a pair of wing shooters on the floor, one strategy would be to give Strickland more of his minutes at the 1 (say, 10 per game). Keeping Marshall closer to 30 MPG would help him stay fresher for the stretch run, too.

Table 3 highlights two line-ups: the current starting line-up and the proposed starting 5 (with Bullock replacing Strickland). These are easily the two most-used line-ups by Roy Williams this season (no other quintet has more than 16.4 minutes), and the one with Bullock has played the majority of the team’s close-and-late minutes (against Wisconsin and Kentucky). As seen, the two units are nearly identical defensively, but the one with Bullock is vastly better on the offensive end. By allocating a big chunk of minutes from the current starting line-up (which is averaging 14.0 MPG) to the Bullock + Big 4 line-up (which is averaging 3.0 MPG), Carolina is likely to improve its overall efficiency (fueled by a spike in offensive efficiency).

While many UNC fans are clamoring for more minutes for P.J. Hairston, Table 4 provides some evidence of why his time is limited right now (and why I feel Bullock is a better candidate to move to the starting line-up). Like many freshmen in the Carolina system, he’s been badly overmatched on the defensive end. He’ll undoubtedly improve on that end (he’s a hard worker with good physical gifts and an appetite to defend), but has a long way to go to approach the level of Strickland and Bullock (who have both been tremendous defenders through eight games). With Hairston on the court, UNC has a defensive efficiency of 106.5– 16.7 points / 100 possessions worse than the 89.8 they boast with him on the bench. His Defensive Stop% (lowest among the regulars) supports his poor defensive +/- numbers. All that said, a shooter/scorer as dangerous of Hairston needs minutes. I’d consider allocating the wing minutes like this:

SG: Bullock (20)– many of which would be with the Big 4/starters, Strickland (12)– with another 10 at PG, Hairston (8)

SF: Barnes (25)– with another 4 at the 4, Hairston (10), Bullock (5)

If/when Hairston’s defense improves, his minutes might continue to climb even higher than 18 per game (provided his shooting stroke remains so lethal– maintaining a 3Pt% in the high 40s is tough for even the best shooters). Against teams with especially quick PGs, Strickland can be used more situationally alongside Marshall for defensive reasons. In his (slightly) reduced role off the bench, Strickland could play with reckless abandon and full-out effort (without worrying quite as much about foul trouble). Instead of providing a scoring spark off the bench, he’d provide a defensive/energy spark– hopefully kick-starting the tempo and forcing turnovers against tired starters and/or reserves. This isn’t a fantasy-league roster, of course. Chemistry matters, egos must be managed, and players need to buy into new (or reduced) roles. Roy Williams is in a unique position of understanding how possible changes might impact the team from that perspective. Due to the information asymmetries that exist, few (if any) fans have the knowledge to question the coaching staff on these types of issues. I’m certainly not one of them. But, from a solely basketball perspective, the move from Strickland to Bullock makes plenty of sense– especially if Kendall Marshall continues to hold his own defensively against talented opposing point guards.

Table 1: +/- by Backcourt Combination

Combo Minutes Off. Eff. Def. Eff. Net Eff. %3Pt. 3Pt.%
Marshall-Strickland 176.5 105.9 96.1 +9.8 12.5 42.4
Marshall-Bullock 47.7 123.2 89.8 +33.4 24.4 50.0
Strickland-Hairston 37.2 108.5 83.5 +25.0 29.8 41.2
Marshall-Hairston 28.9 136.5 111.1 +25.4 42.2 47.4

Table 2:Strickland as a PG?

Line-up Minutes Pace Off. Eff. Def. Eff. Net Eff.
Strickland at PG 47.1 74.5 107.2 89.5 +17.7
Strickland at SG 179.5 72.3 106.1 96.5 +9.6
Marshall at PG 253.1 72.1 112.8 96.0 +16.8
Marshall w/Strickland 176.5 71.8 105.9 96.1 +9.8
Marshall w/o Strickland 76.6 72.5 128.1 97.5 +30.6
2 shooters on wings 133.1 74.8 120.6 93.5 +27.1

Table 3: A Tale of Two Line-ups

Line-up Minutes Off. Eff. Def. Eff. Net Eff.
Marshall-Strickland-Barnes-Henson-Zeller 111.8 107.3 84.7 +22.6
Marshall-Bullock-Barnes-Henson-Zeller 24.2 142.9 83.3 +59.5

Table 4: Why Not P.J.?

Player Stop% On-Court Def. Eff. Def. On-Court/Off-Court Rating
Strickland 59.3% 94.5 +1.9
Bullock 70.5% 93.5 +2.6
Hairston 51.3% 106.5 -16.7

About Adrian

I'm the editor of Maple Street Press's Tar Heel Tip-off, and live in Raleigh with my wife and 2-year-old daughter. I grew up along the banks of the Allegheny River, and terrorized the WPIAL as a pass-first point guard. Follow me on Twitter @FreeportKid.
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2 Responses to The Case for Reggie Bullock

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  1. TrueBlue says: