The Chicago Bulls have a remarkable contributor for their 2014-15 season in Nikola Mirotic. Anticipation has been high since his acquisition back in 2010. Mirotic has played extremely well for Real Madrid the last few years and has finally brought his talents stateside.
It may be tough to envision an unproven European prospect cracking a stacked frontcourt rotation composed of Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson, but it’s going to be hard for head coach Tom Thibodeau to let such a versatile big man languish on the pine.
There is a great opportunity this season to have something really special with the Bulls’ second unit. The options for creating offense have never been so numerous, and the Montenegro native can be the player who galvanizes a new Bench Mob in the Windy City.
A loaded offensive arsenal
Thibodeau’s game strategy is a throwback to the hard-nosed style that dominated the 1980s and ’90s. His defense-first approach makes it clear that simply winning trumps winning pretty.
While this modus operandi has yielded some success, it’s important to note very little deviation has been made due more to necessity than just sticking to what works.
Even when Derrick Rose was healthy between 2010 and 2012, the offense was tepid at best. In Thibs’ inaugural season, the team ranked 19th in points scored with 98.6 per contest. The subsequent campaign saw them skyrocket to 18th overall despite production dropping a bit to an average of 96.3 points.
It was apparent that outside of Rose there was no one who could actually create their own scoring opportunities. Fortunately, Mirotic is not short on ability when it comes to putting the ball in the hoop.
Standing 6’10” will make him a power forward, and although he doesn’t have the muscle to bang in the post, he is a mismatch when facing up on the perimeter.
The beauty of his offensive repertoire is he can be an effective complement for whomever has the ball. He has step-on-the-court shooting range that will stretch any team’s defense. That will come in handy when he’s on the floor with Rose attacking the lane or Gasol posting up. He can also beat his man off the dribble which will take away the option of closing the distance to disrupt his mechanics.
This scoring resourcefulness will make Mirotic playable in almost any game situation. Despite what seems to be an aversion to playing rookies, the polish of the two-time Euroleague Rising Star’s game will earn him a legitimate chance to crack the rotation, of which he will take full advantage.
DraftExpress.com composed a thorough breakdown of Mirotic’s game. This video highlights all of the aforementioned aspects and much more. It is evident the team would benefit immediately from playing him.
Not just a cog
The Bulls 2014-15 group is arguably deeper than the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals cohort and definitely more balanced. There are legitimate post players, shooters and slashers; some guys can even do a little of everything.
Such is Mirotic.
David Blatt, the new head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers, is very familiar with the former Real Madrid standout. In an article written by KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Blatt shares his opinions about his former European foe, “Whenever they talk about guys coming over, I always say, ‘Can he step in a game right away and play?’ And I would say in his case, definitely yes…He’s an atypical rookie, no question. He has been in big games. He has a lot of experience.”
Finding playing time may seem like a challenge, but Gibson’s ability to play center should allow for Mirotic to get some time at power forward. His shooting and dribbling ability could even allow him to occasionally play small forward.
All in all, the young man is too talented to be a one-dimensional specialist. Mirotic will allow Thibodeau to test his coaching wits. The fifth-year sideline general has plenty of options at his disposal as he comes up with a game plan for his new addition.
Mirotic’s impact probably won’t be immediate, however. He still has to learn how to deal with a faster, more physical NBA game and grueling schedule. Playing behind Gasol will be great for his transition, though.
Given his basketball I.Q. and worth ethic, it should not take long for the 23-year-old to catch on and turn it up.
Once things start to pick up, Bulls fans are going to see the wait was well worth it. The terms of Mirotic’s acquisition will go down as one of the best steals in recent memory. Chicago’s basketball future is looking bright.
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The Chicago Bulls may be passing up on signing area product E’Twaun Moore and heading in a different direction. News out of Brazil is suggesting that the Bulls may be interested in signing NBA Journeyman Leandro Barbosa.
Barbosa has played for five NBA teams, most notably the Phoenix Suns, as well as teams in Brazil over the past few seasons. During Team USA’s game with Brazil during the FIBA World Cup friendlies, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau had meetings with both Brazil’s entrepreneurs and Barbosa himself.
While Thibs would like to have a veteran over a younger player, the Bulls may be nearing the salary cap. Barbosa would likely come at a one year deal for the veteran minimum of $1.5 million. The Miami Heat are also interested in the free agent as well.
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Chicago Bulls: 4 Free Agents To Consider Signing
By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…
The Bulls have just 12 players signed for next season, one being their 2nd round pick Cameron Bairstow who isn’t going to be playing much and could be in the D-League, so they can sign 3-4 more players and if he is in the D-League they have to sign 2 to get to the minimum 13 players. So they still have some work in filling the roster. There is still some strong talents that are free agents and there are some players that could help them, so here are 4 free agents they should consider signing.. However they would have to be minimum signings.
1. Emeka Okafor- C
- If Okafor was on this team, he would at best be their 4th big man, maybe 5th, but the Bulls still lack a 2nd center and he is the best free agent who isn’t Eric Bledsoe or Greg Monroe. It is doubtful that he would take a minimum to play a small role, but there is no harm in trying to sign a player that fits the team perfectly and …
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The Chicago Bulls are in an unfamiliar position this year. Faced with the conundrum of their deepest roster since Tom Thibodeau became head coach in 2010, they need to figure out how to get all these guys minutes.
Thibodeau has gained the infamous reputation of shortening his rotation and playing his most reliable defenders into the ground.
While a short hook for blown assignments has had something to do with that, it’s never been entirely fair to put all the blame for the heavy minutes on the coach.
The players most acquainted with their chairs were hardly elite talent. Consider this less-than-illustrious list of names: Louis Amundson, Jarvis Varnado, Tornike Shengelia, Cartier Martin, Jimmer Fredette, Erik Murphy, Mike James, Marquis Teague, Daequan Cook, Vladimir Radmanovic, Malcolm Thomas, Brian Scalabrine, Rasual Butler and James Johnson.
That’s everyone who logged fewer than 500 minutes with the Bulls since the 2010-11 season. From that list, the only one with a post-Bull career worth mentioning is Johnson’s. That’s the talent Thibodeau has been “wasting.”
As a result, players like Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have borne the brunt of the burden, playing excessive minutes. Deng led the league in playing time until last year. Then, Butler did so in his place.
Noah, who led centers in minutes last year, has been overly tasked, too.
But now the Bulls are suddenly boasting a roster that goes a legitimate 10 deep. And that’s a dilemma Thibodeau is not used to facing.
Who are all these guys, and how are they going to get playing time? Let’s break it down.
The Returning Players
Derrick Rose will be making his second return. He won the 2010-11 MVP award but has been struggling with injuries since then, missing all but 10 games the last two years. The Bulls will be happy if he can just finish the season.
Chicago is also bringing back the majority of the eight-man rotation that won 48 games last season. I won’t spend a lot of time discussing them because they are familiar faces already.
Kirk Hinrich served as the starting point guard the majority of the season. He’ll now back up Rose.
Butler will get the nod at shooting guard and was named to the All-Defensive second team. The Bulls are hoping his offense bounces back this year after his field-goal percentage dropped below 40 percent last year, but he’ll log minutes regardless because he’s one of the best wing stoppers in the league.
Mike Dunleavy Jr. stepped into Deng’s spot after he was traded on Jan. 7. There’s a good chance he moves back to the bench at some point in the season, if not to begin it.
Taj Gibson was expected to become the new starting power forward after Carlos Boozer was amnestied. Instead, he’ll be a significant bench player and favorite for Sixth Man of the Year.
Noah, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-NBA center, will maintain his starting status.
Tony Snell had an up-and-down rookie year but is hoping to build upon a standout performance in Summer League, where he was named to the All-NBA Summer League first team. He’s added bulk and is more familiar with the defense. An improvement by him could alleviate Butler of his extra burden.
The only key players Chicago lost are Boozer and D.J. Augustin.
That puts the Bulls at seven deep, just counting the returning players.
The New Players
The biggest acquisition for the Bulls was Boozer’s replacement, Pau Gasol. The 7’0″ Spaniard had a real plus-minus (rpm) of plus-1.04. Boozer’s was minus-4.13. Theoretically, that swap would result in a net difference of 5.17 points per game. While it’s doubtful it actually works out to be that dramatic, it’s indicative of a big improvement.
Chicago also added two rookies, and either could potentially compete for Rookie of the Year.
The reputation that Thibodeau has gained is that he redshirts rookies. The reality is he doesn’t give time to guys who can’t play, regardless of their experience. See the aforementioned list as evidence.
It’s true that rookies haven’t really logged heavy minutes, but drafting in the bottom third each year, the Bulls haven’t been landing NBA-ready guys.
This year’s pair of first-year candidates is an entirely different issue. Using past seasons to predict playing time for this year’s rookies is literally the same as comparing Marquis Teague to Nikola Mirotic or Doug McDermott. And doing that would be just silly.
McDermott is the Naismith Award winner and the NCAA’s fifth all-time leading scorer. Mirotic is reigning MVP of the second-fiercest basketball league in the world. They are far more ready to play than any rookie Thibodeau has ever had, including Butler.
Some, expecting defensive issues, will cite that as an alternate reason the rooks will ride pine. But Thibodeau has given time to bad defenders who offer scoring.
Augustin was horrendous when the Bulls didn’t have the ball, and he logged more than 30 minutes per game.
Boozer’s defensive woes are legendary, and he still played 28 minutes last season, even when he was averaging only 13.7 points.
Kyle Korver improved in Chicago, but he was never a stopper at the wings. He played more than 20 minutes both his seasons with the Bulls.
You could argue that Thibodeau has given more minutes to lopsided players who skew defensively, but it’s not like there have been great scoring talents wasting away on the bench in their place.
He just hasn’t had scorers. Fredette is the closest thing to a pure offensive threat who was wasted, but he was so awful when the other team had the ball that he got thrown out of Sacramento. Sacramento!!!
The Bulls are also more vested in McDermott and Mirotic than previous Thibodeau rookies.
They gave up the Nos. 16 and 19 picks and a 2015 second-rounder to land the rights to McDermott.
They traded the No. 29 pick (Norris Cole) and a second-round pick in 2011 just for the chance to gamble that Mirotic would eventually come over. When he finally did, they gave him a three-year, $17 million contract.
As a result, expect both rookies to log regular minutes.
Aaron Brooks will serve as security if Rose gets hurt again. He might break the rotation if Rose stays healthy, as he offers more scoring punch than Hinrich, but due to defense, Thibodeau will likely prefer to stick with the “Captain.”
Other newcomers (or potential ones) who aren’t likely to break the rotation are E’Twaun Moore (expected to sign, per Mary Stevens of Sports Talk Florida) and second-round pick Cameron Bairstow.
There are only 240 player minutes to distribute in a regulation game. Is that enough to give all 10 rotation players sufficient time?
To a degree, yes. Bear in mind that Thibodeau isn’t locked into positions, and many of the players on the Bulls can play and/or guard more than one spot.
Butler will always guard the opponent’s best wing, regardless of whether he’s the 2 or 3. Thibodeau’s schemes don’t really care about who is technically playing what position. And frankly, there aren’t a lot of teams with two potent scoring wings.
That means McDermott starting alongside Butler is a viable option. He’s not projected to be an elite defender, but he doesn’t need to be. In fact, he can survive as a below average one.
As a rookie, he will have a learning curve, but in this case that’s actually the reason it makes more sense to start him. And that’s also one of the keys to getting sufficient minutes to all the rotation players, counterintuitive as it may seem.
Thibodeau tends to play units, not just individuals. He prefers to keep at least three of his elite defenders together. He also likes to split the weaker ones so that they’re not on the court at the same time. That’s why, for example, Boozer and Augustin only shared the court for 647 minutes last year, per NBAWowy, and why almost all of them included Butler.
If both McDermott and Mirotic are coming off the bench together, it will be that much harder to hide them. Starting McDermott solves that problem.
It also resolves the biggest difficultly the Bulls have had on offense. While he’s not an elite shot-creator in the sense that Rose is, McDermott is a legitimate secondary threat to get shots on his own. His tremendous shooting range also dovetails nicely with the former MVP’s ability to drive and kick.
Furthermore, with McDermott starting, Dunleavy can return to the bench. He is not a great on-ball defender, but he’s an excellent team defender. In fact, he had the 10th-best DRPM of all small forwards last season at plus-1.91.
If Snell improves as expected, the Bulls will have two solid wings in the reserve unit and an on-ball defender beside Dunleavy. It would also have Dunleavy and Gibson to bookend Mirotic so that they can compensate for whatever mistakes he makes.
Offensively, it allows the new Bench Mob to be much more potent than previous versions. Hinrich, Snell, Dunleavy and Mirotic all have good to great range. The Bulls could run an effective four-out, one-in offense with that group.
And, just as importantly, both units would be able to maintain Thibodeau’s high defensive standard, with Butler and Noah anchoring the first unit and Dunleavy and Gibson securing the second.
Essentially, that allows all the rotation players steady minutes.
Additionally, because many of the Bulls can play multiple positions, Thibodeau can toy with the rotation. He can play Gasol and Gibson as either center or power forward if he wants to pound the rock inside. He can put Rose and Hinrich together when he needs two ball-handlers. Or, he can have Snell and Butler man the wings when two stoppers are required.
One of the overlooked aspects of their diversity is Mirotic, who has the skills to play both forward positions. Tony Kukoc—a former Bull Mirotic has been compared to—told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
“Obviously, you can use him at multiple positions. He can be a big (small forward). But he also can play as a (power forward) because he’s a solid rebounder. Whatever he plays, he can shoot the 3-pointer so he can stretch the floor.”
One lineup that isn‘t immediately obvious is playing Mirotic at the 3 with Gibson and Noah, who both have the ability to step out and guard the perimeter. Mirotic would be able to still defend the 4, thus removing the concerns on that end of the court.
That would allow Mirotic and Gibson to earn some extra minutes off the bench while also providing Gasol more rest.
With all of that in mind, the table below shows how the Bulls could roughly distribute the time, providing everyone sufficient minutes while also keeping them under 30.
The Bulls, more than in any year of the Thibodeau era, have a deep bench that can both defend and score the ball. There are 10 reliable players. And for once, some of them can actually score. Whether Thibodeau utilizes the exact schemes outlined above, it’s apparent that there are ways to get everyone in the game.
Regardless of how things end up working out, Bulls fans will happily take the new conundrum over the old one of wearing everyone down just in time for the playoffs.
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With Derrick Rose looking great this offseason and with a few huge free-agency and draft additions, the Bulls look primed to contend for a championship this season. This is a talented, deep roster.
Of course, there are still a lot of unknowns in Chicago. With so many new pieces and the ouster of power forward fixture Carlos Boozer, the Bulls have a few roles that are seemingly up in the air. Are there minutes to go around for everyone? Which players can play together?
Let’s take a look and predict the roles and impact for each one of Chicago’s newest offseason additions for the upcoming season.
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The Chicago Bulls roster includes talented guards and forwards, but let’s focus on the center position.
Three players—starter Joakim Noah, “super-sub” Taj Gibson and newcomer Pau Gasol—are expected to see time in the middle next season. And it doesn’t appear that Nazr Mohammed, who spent the past two seasons as a reserve center, will be re-signed. Sorry, Nazr fans.
Noah, Gibson and Gasol are all quality big men whom every team would want in their lineup. While Noah and Gibson are considered elite defenders, Gasol gets it done on the offensive end of the floor.
With a healthy Derrick Rose around as well as gifted shooters like rookies Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls are ready to contend for a title. However, the team isn’t going anywhere without strong contributions from Noah and Co.
Noah is set to enter his eighth season with the Bulls. The University of Florida product has come a long way, going from a solid role player earlier in his career to maybe the league’s best center not named Dwight Howard.
Although he isn’t capable of scoring 20 a night like Howard or DeMarcus Cousins, Noah is arguably the top all-around big man in the game today. His nickname really needs to be “Mr. Everything.”
He was truly remarkable last season, averaging 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and a team-leading 5.4 assists per game. A center leading a team in assists is absolutely mind-blowing.
Actually, he’s the first at the position to accomplish such a feat since Hall of Famer David Robinson during the 1993-94 season. Good grief, that was 20 years ago!
Also, Noah took home the Defensive Player of the Year Award, as he helped the Bulls shut down opponents each and every night.
Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal wrote a paragraph about Noah’s play on that end of the court:
There was no better defensive player during the 2013-14 season. No one in the NBA is perfect in all three aspects of the less-glamorous end of the court (on-ball defense, off-ball defense and rim protection), but Noah is pretty darn close. Only two things work against him: a non-elite percentage allowed at the rim—largely because he’s too busy doing other things—and occasional struggles against spot-up shooters.
Last season, after Rose suffered a torn meniscus and Luol Deng was traded, many believed the Bulls were done. There was no way they could reach the playoffs without two of their best players, right?
Never count out a Tom Thibodeau-coached team that possesses a healthy Noah. The two-time All-Star would transform into an MVP candidate and power his Chicago squad to the Eastern Conference’s fourth-best record.
Now that the Bulls roster is insanely deep, don’t look for another MVP-caliber season from Noah, as he won’t have to carry the team. But, of course, expect him to remain one of the club’s most important players.
Gibson was supposed to become Chicago’s starting power forward, replacing Carlos Boozer, who was waived via the amnesty provision. However, Gasol will likely get that job with Gibson staying on the bench as the sixth man.
Although he’ll see time at power forward, Gibson should also receive plenty of minutes at center backing up Noah.
Bulking up and improving his offensive game last summer, the Brooklyn native had a great 2013-14 campaign. He averaged a career-high 13 points per game and finished second to Jamal Crawford in voting for the Sixth Man of the Year Award.
And his 18.2 points per game led the Bulls during their disappointing playoff series with the Washington Wizards.
Standing at just 6’9″, Gibson isn’t a traditional NBA center by any stretch of the imagination. Yet he flourishes at the position because of his ability to put the clamps down on opponents with his outstanding defense.
Thibodeau made some kind remarks concerning Gibson’s game, via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:
The things that he does for us are all team-oriented. He plays great defense, challenges shots, guards everybody, runs the floor hard, sets great screens, does his job, gets deep post position. When the second guy comes, he makes the play. He has gotten comfortable in pick-and-roll situations.
Gibson’s name was mentioned in trade rumors earlier this offseason as part of a package to acquire Kevin Love. Good thing the Bulls wound up keeping him, as giving up such a valuable piece could’ve eventually haunted the team.
Okay, if Gasol is the Bulls’ starting power forward, why mention him in a “center position” article? Well, at times, he can slide over to the 5 when Noah is on the bench taking a breather. He may pick up a few minutes a night at center playing alongside a reserve power forward such as Gibson or Mirotic.
Failing to land Carmelo Anthony or Love, Gasol was an excellent Plan B signing for the Bulls this offseason. Like Noah, he’s an exceptional passer and should make his new teammates better.
Plus, he’s perhaps the team’s best low-post scoring threat since Elton Brand during the early 2000s. Now 34 years old, Gasol isn’t the big-time star that he used to be, but he can still help this new-look Bulls team, whether it’s by putting the ball in the hoop or finding open teammates.
Look for Thibodeau to use him at center for roughly eight minutes a night.
All stats are from Basketball-Reference.com.
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Over the offseason, the Cleveland Cavaliers improved more than any team in the NBA. As much as they did, though, they didn’t do enough to catch the Chicago Bulls, who did more than anyone other than Clevleand.
The Cavs have gotten the bulk of the headlines, but championships aren’t won in the media. They’re won on the court. If you look past the glossy exterior and into the underpinning basketball considerations, the Bulls should be expected to win the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
To explain why, let’s take a look at the two teams from various angles.
There’s no question that Cleveland did the most to improve. It didn’t just have the biggest addition, in LeBron James; it also had the second-biggest with Kevin Love (or will have him, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports), as well.
The Bulls’ starting point was different. They were already better than Cleveland, and they spent this offseason filling their holes, some of which were sizable. They added Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott.
Along with Rose’s return, you can argue that those four players are the best scorers the Bulls will have. They added help where they needed it most.
We’ll evaluate more specifics of those additions later, but right now let’s just look at the big picture. That requires viewing more than just what was added.
Logically, if you take a team’s wins from last year, subtract the “wins lost” due to departing players and add in “wins gained” due to incoming players, you should have a projected win total for next season.
Kevin Pelton of ESPN Insider (subscription required) did just that, determining the net difference of each team in the NBA, including both the losses and gains. He used a combination of his SCHOENE projections system and ESPN’s real plus-minus to do so, coming up with “wins against replacement player” or “WARP” for each free-agent arrival and departure.
However, there are two factors to bear in mind: First, the projections were done on July 30, prior to the hand-shake agreement on the Kevin Love trade or the acquisition of Shawn Marion. And second, the projections don’t include the contributions of rookies.
Here’s what Pelton said about Cleveland, which was projected to gain 9.9 wins:
They added the best player in the NBA. James alone is projected for 21.1 WARP next season, making it somewhat surprising Cleveland isn’t projected to improve more.
Blame gutting the bench to make room for James’ maximum salary. Officially signing Mike Miller (1.2 WARP) will help a little. Adding Kevin Love (14.6, fourth in the league) would help a lot, no matter the package the Cavaliers send in return.
The trade happened, and the only outgoing non-rookie was Anthony Bennett. We won’t subtract anything for dealing him because his rookie year was so abysmal it’s doubtful his WARP is relevant.
Marion’s a little trickier as his WARP isn’t available, and he is worth noting.
We do know that last year his wins against replacement (a similar stat) was 1.94, but that was while logging 31.7 minutes per game. In a bench role, his minutes are likely to drop. Assuming 25 a game, he would add about 1.5.
Adding in Marion and Love’s numbers, we get a net plus-26.0 wins for the Cavs, increasing Cleveland’s projected wins from 33 to 59.
As for the Bulls, Pelton had them with a plus-4.3 win differential, explaining:
Since Nikola Mirotic was a draft pick, this figure includes only Gasol (4.6 WARP) and Aaron Brooks (0.1). Yet the Bulls still rank third in terms of offseason improvement because they lost little of value. Augustin has the best projection of any player they gave up, and he’s still projected below 1 WARP because of his poor real plus-minus rating.
But, since we’re looking at the whole teams and not just free agency here, we have to factor in both rookies the Bulls gained.
ESPN Insider Bradford Doolittle reveals Mirotic’s WARP:
You want upside? Mirotic was MVP of a high-level European league at 22 years of age. He’s long, with inside-outside skills, a reputation for unselfishness and a skill set that is ideally suited to work off Rose.
His statistical translations are outstanding. Early SCHOENE has Mirotic at 5.2 WARP in just 25 forecasted minutes per game. That would make him the leading contender for Rookie of the Year.
Doolittle says of McDermott, the Naismith winner out of Creighton:
We just finished watching Bulls first-rounder Doug McDermott light up the Las Vegas Summer League, and second-year wing Tony Snell play like a guy poised for a breakout sophomore season in the same circuit.
In Mirotic and McDermott, the Bulls can feature two elite deep shooters who both have a number of value-added aspects to their arsenals. McDermott has the third-highest WARP projection among rookies, and that’s in just 20 MPG.
While he doesn’t specify the WARP for McDermott, prior to the draft, Pelton had the Creighton star at 1.8. Clearly that number has gone up since he was only projected to be the 12th-best rookie at the time and now he’s third. But we’ll still use 1.8 for our purposes.
Altogether then, the Bulls added a net-11.3 wins (4.3+5.2+1.8). Combined with last year’s 48 wins, that projects the Bulls to 59.3 victories, .3 more than Cleveland.
At the very least, it’s a neck-and-neck race.
Numbers Don’t Mean Everything
Almost any statistical argument is countered with the response, “But numbers don’t mean everything.” Of course they don’t. There are always things they don’t reveal.
However, that doesn’t mean that what the numbers aren’t saying works against what they are saying.
Actually, there are a legitimate reasons to think that these projections are oversampling the Cavs’ chances and undersampling those of the Bulls’.
The primary reason to believe the Cavs’ projection is too high is that our formula assumes Love adds the same number of wins as he would have in Minnesota.
SCHOENE is dependent on cumulative numbers, and history shows when stars combine, their numbers decline. It happened with both the recent trios: the Boston Celtics in 2007-08 and the Miami Heat in 2010-11:
Based on these numbers, when the “Big Threes” combined, they saw drops of 12.8 percent in rebounds, 15.8 percent in assists and 17.1 percent in scoring. For Love, that factors out to losing 3.3 boards, .7 dimes and 2.1 points—or a total production of 14.3 percent.
If we apply that reduction to his WARP, his value to Cleveland drops by 2.1, meaning the Cavaliers should actually be projected to 56.9.
Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight points out this tendency:
There’s also the issue of growing pains — and diminishing returns — when a new roster comes together. Love might be a perfect fit with James and the Cavs, but players joining unfamiliar teams tend to perform worse than their plus/minus ratings would predict.
This could especially be true because of the adjustment that will be required of Love, who used 28.6 percent of the Timberwolves’ possessions while on the floor last season. He’ll be joining forces with James (31.0 percent of possessions used with the Heat), plus Kyrie Irving (28.1 percent) and Dion Waiters (25.8 percent).
Some of the pro-Cleveland arguments and projections are too rosy because they ignore these principles. I find this ironic because Paine uses Irving and Love’s numbers to describe the current Cleveland cast as the best James has ever had, making no adjustments for the expected decline he cites.
He dismisses the very point he makes, even as he makes it. Paine has done the research to prove this. In 2010, he set aside that notion to predict the Heat would win 68 games or, “in the absolute worst case,” it would be 61.
He even speculated, “There’s a pretty decent chance they’d obliterate the ’96 Bulls’ record for most wins in a season.”
For the record, they won 58.
I’m not thrashing Paine here. He’s brilliant. But if he can get star-struck, anyone can.
Grantland’s Bill Simmons even argues that Love’s rebounding and passing numbers will go up, saying, “I see him becoming a legitimate threat to be a 22-15-5 guy and maybe even average 16 boards a game (which hasn’t happened since Rodman).”
The erroneous supposition is that you can squish three potent players together without affecting their production. And that’s not just flawed, it’s historically falsified. And it’s why some are projecting Cleveland’s win totals a little too high.
Accounting for Love’s slight drop in production, the Cavs should win 57—still a bulky 24-win jump over last season.
So why isn’t there a corresponding adjustment for Chicago?
The same laws don’t apply to lower-usage players.
Other than Rose, the Bulls’ returning starter with the highest usage percentage was Noah at just 18.7 percent. Gasol’s was 26.2, but he’s already projected for a sharp drop in production, presumably because Pelton already accounted for the new digs (as I assume he made accommodations for James’ transition and didn’t account for that or, for that matter, for Irving).
Mirotic and McDermott have no decline to predict since they are rookies.
What little declines there are have already been accounted for.
That’s the remarkable part of what the Bulls accomplished this offseason. Virtually everything they added was just stacked on top of what they already had.
And we haven’t even really hit the geyser yet. Are you ready to be shocked?
Some argue: “The Bulls can contend, but everything depends on the health of Rose.”
He has admittedly had a very bad three-year injury history, playing in only 49 games over that span and just 10 over the last two.
But—and this is the shocking part—the 59-win projection doesn’t even account for Rose’s return. It presumes he gives Chicago the exact same thing he contributed last year.
The 48 wins the Bulls achieved in 2013-14 only include Rose’s 10 poorly played games. Considering he contributed minus-.2 win shares over them, it’s hard to believe he can give even less this year. No adjustment has been made for his return, yet.
In other words, the Bulls could push 60, even without Rose, per SCHOENE projections.
Even without Rose, they are on par with Cleveland. That turns the “can Rose stay healthy” argument on its head. If the Bulls project to be that good without him, riddle this: “What happens if Rose does stay healthy?”
Last season, Pelton projected that his loss would cost the Bulls 11 games, although they ended up losing just four games fewer than the original predictions. Even assuming the lesser of those numbers is all Rose is worth, the Bulls’ projection bloats to a conservative 63 wins.
Remember, in 2010-11 the Bulls won 62 games with a weaker roster, rookie coach, a tougher Eastern Conference and with Boozer and Noah sustaining significant injuries. Winning 63 games this year is not an overly optimistic projection.
Some will point to Rose’s awful start last year and make too much of it. But Pelton explains:
Instead, the numbers show that players coming back from ACL injuries are at their worst in their first handful of games on the court before quickly improving back to near normal.
This shows up most dramatically in terms of shooting percentage, which was Rose’s biggest issue. During his first four seasons, Rose made 48.9 percent of his 2-point attempts. In the 10 games he played last season, he shot just 35.9 percent on 2s.
On average, as the chart (below) shows, players coming back from ACL injuries shoot 5.4 percent worse on 2-pointers over their first 10 games than their projection from my SCHOENE projection system, which uses performance over the previous three seasons adjusted for the development of similar players at the same age.
They shoot about as well as expected from beyond the arc, which is also consistent with Rose, who made a career-best 34 percent of his 3-pointers in 2013-14.
In other words, Rose’s horrid shooting was what would be expected from him in just 10 games. It’s normal coming back from a torn ACL.
And what he has this summer that he didn’t have last year is Team USA to help him get back into game shape.
He has already had one scrimmage against Brazil. He’ll have two more before heading to the World Cup where he’ll play about nine games. Then he’ll have another eight preseason contests with the Chicago Bulls.
Altogether, that’s 20 games at varying levels of competitiveness.
In addition, there are the numerous scrimmage games against elite NBA talent with nothing but pride on the line in USA practices. And that might be where he plays the hardest.
Real minutes in games that count should help immensely. Any chance to shake off rust is a plus.
Does that mean he’ll come out of the gate and be MVP Rose? No. But perhaps he’ll come out shooting 43.2 percent instead of 35.4 percent like he did in his brief stint last year.
What’s also compelling from Pelton’s data is what we never saw last year from Rose because we never got the chance. There’s a good possibility that by midseason he will be shooting better than he did before he got hurt. If that happens, look for Chicago to be rolling through its opponents after the All-Star break.
If we add four wins because of Rose, the Bulls should actually finish six games better than Cleveland, give or take.
Coaching, Chemistry and Continuity
The next thing to consider are the dynamics of coaching, chemistry and continuity. On this front the Cavs and Bulls are opposite ends of the spectrum.
Some want to just cavalierly (pun intended) say that having James automatically makes Cleveland the favorites to finish with the East’s best record.
However, that hardly assures a No. 1 seed. James has been on the conference’s top seed just three times, and it’s doubtful this year becomes the fourth. There are just too many hurdles Cleveland has to overcome at the outset of the season.
The Cavaliers are assembling their foundation. Love and James have some experience playing together for Team USA in the 2012 Olympics. That’s about it.
Apart from a few minutes in the All-Star Game, Irving and James have never worn the same uniform on the court, and Irving has never played with Love at all. James and Irving are both players whose success comes from handling the ball, so it’s going to take time for them to adjust.
That problem is amplified by the fact that David Blatt, the Cavs’ new head coach, has never been in the NBA. None of Cleveland’s players are familiar with his system.
Yes, he’s had considerable international success, and it’s reasonable to expect that success can transfer to the NBA. He has a brilliant mind, and I expect within a couple of years he’ll be among the most respected coaches.
However, it’s not likely that he’s going to step into a more challenging league with a core of players who have never played together, or for him, and institute a new system and immediately be successful.
Even being optimistic, it’s going to take a fifth of a season for everyone to adapt. The 2010-11 Heat were 9-8 in their first 17 games with their big three. A similar start wouldn’t be shocking from this year’s Cavs.
Contrarily, the Bulls should hit the ground running, and that’s because the Bulls are on the opposite end of the building process from Cleveland. While the Cavs are laying their foundation, the Bulls are putting in the finishing stones.
The core of their team and their coach have now been together for a while. Rose and Joakim Noah will be entering their eighth year as teammates. Taj Gibson will be joining them for his seventh. Kirk Hinrich has been Noah’s teammate almost five years and Rose’s for four. Jimmy Butler will be starting his fourth year with the team.
Tom Thibodeau will be coaching the Bulls for his fifth year.
Yes, they have some players to work into the system, but the balance is in favor of those who know it.
Cleveland will probably struggle to start but will figure things out and finish strong. Even if the Cavaliers do, though, it’s hard to see them closing in on Chicago, particularly since the Bulls traditionally finish even stronger than they start.
Using Basketball-Reference.com’s Game Finder, I determined that during the Thibodeau era, Chicago is 98-58 in the first half of the season and 107-50 over the second.
Even if someone still wants to conclude that the Cavaliers are going to have the better roster, that doesn’t mean they’ll have the better record. Coaching, chemistry and continuity aren’t come by overnight, and in that regard, the Bulls have a huge head start.
Balance Between Offense and Defense
Balance is a key to winning championships. Teams need a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense.
Based on original research, since the NBA merger in the 1976-77 season, only four teams have won the NBA title without a top-10 offensive rating, and only two have won without a top-10 defensive rating.
It’s not so much about “which” you need; both are clearly required. Only one of the two Central Division rivals is likely to have both, and that’s the Bulls.
The biggest doubt about the Cavaliers is whether they’ll be able to stop anyone from scoring.
The Cavs don’t just look to be bad on defense, they look to be awful. And the problems are too severe to be swept aside by just saying words like “effort” and “LeBron.” Defense isn’t cured by platitudes.
How bad does the Cavs defense look to be? Last year, it was 19th in defensive rating, and it might not even be that good this year. Cleveland added an elite defender in James, but it lost one in Luol Deng. Yes, James is better than Deng, but it’s not so significantly he can elevate the Cavs from 19th to 10th single-handedly.
In part, that’s because the Cavs’ defensive issues aren’t things he can do much about.
Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus used the SportVU information on rim protection to determine how many points players are saving or surrendering in the restricted area.
He ranked 169 power forwards and centers. Of those, the best (can we use that word?) big the Cavs had was Anderson Varejao, who ranked 116th. Love was 139th, and Tristan Thompson was 167th.
Meanwhile, out at the perimeter, things don’t get any better. Irving had the worst defense on the Cleveland roster last year and won San Jose Mercury News sports columnist Tim Kawakami’s “No-Defense Player of the Year.”
While Dion Waiters is better, it’s a bit like saying Lloyd is smarter than Harry. Waiters was the NBA’s 330th-ranked defender at minus-1.45.
James might be able to defend all five positions but not at the same time. Cleveland will have trouble stopping teams, and that’s going to bother the Cavaliers when they play elite defenses who can slow their vaunted offense down.
Chicago was the opposite. The Bulls had the league’s second-best defense. However, their offense was last in points and 23rd in efficiency.
But they did a lot to change that, and none of those improvements negatively impacted their defense. In fact, they might have even made it better, as Gasol saved about two points at the rim compared to Boozer.
Some would point to the loss of Luol Deng, but after he was traded on Jan. 7, the Bulls had the NBA’s best defense, per NBA.com/STATS.
As long as Thibodeau is the coach and Noah is manning the middle, the Bulls will be fine defensively. And yes, they were even fine defending the Heat, who averaged just 93 points against the Bulls in the Big Three era, including both regular and postseason games.
Miami’s defense, though, checked Chicago to the tune of 89.4 points. And that’s what makes Cleveland’s weakness and the Bulls’ improvements so significant. These Bulls can score. And those Cavs can’t stop them.
Rookies McDermott and Mirotic are both lights-out shooters. The less heralded signing of Aaron Brooks gives them another sniper who can run the offense when Rose sits or play off Rose if opponents trap him.
Gasol is an even bigger upgrade over Boozer offensively than he is on defense.
The most compelling thing about it all is how well all the parts should fit together, at least on paper.
The shooters should spread the court. Rose’s driving and kicking should give them open looks. Rose and Gasol orchestrating the pick-and-roll should be highly productive. Noah and Gasol’s interior passing should be a catalyst to make it all work together.
I’ve written more extensively about why the Bulls offense should be significantly improved if you want more details, but the fact that they’ve actually had a top-10 offense with Rose—and now have more talent around him—suggests they can do it again.
The Cavaliers will probably have the best offense in the league. The Bulls should have the best defense. But while Cleveland’s defense may not even be in the top half of the league, the Bulls’ offense should easily be in the top 10.
Some will say Chicago might win the regular season, but the postseason is what matters. Then they’ll point to the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals as evidence of their argument.
It’s true that no one gets a bye to the NBA Finals just because they have the best record in the conference. At the same time, let’s not conflate this year’s Cleveland team with that Miami team just because of James and “Big Threes.” And let’s not assume that this Bulls team is the same as it ever was.
Miami’s Big Three were all two-way players. Love and Irving aren’t.
Neither Love nor Irving has ever made it out of the regular season. Blatt has never coached an NBA game at any level. There are some new role players, such as Mike Miller and Marion with postseason experience, but the stars haven’t been there and need to learn.
Neither should we confuse this rendition of the Bulls with the earlier version.
In 2011, most of the team had never been past the first round, and Thibodeau was a rookie coach.
This year’s squad has been battle-tested. The players have passed through tremendous adversity together. They’ve won dramatic series and lost heartbreaking ones.
They’ve added the key pieces they need to put them over the top after their core has contended together, won together and come up short together. They’re near the mountain’s peak, not its base. In those ways, this year’s Bulls better resembles the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks more than their former selves.
And it was the Mavericks who upended the Heat in that trio’s first year together. Don’t be surprised if the Bulls do the same to the Cavaliers this year.
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As Derrick Rose gets closer and closer to his NBA return, the signs continue to show that the Chicago Bulls star might actually be better than he was on Nov. 22, 2013—the last time he played in a regular-season game.
Team USA played in its first exhibition contest Saturday night against Brazil, and Rose stood out as you’d expect in his own United Center. The point guard finished with seven points in 24 minutes of play, but his impact went beyond the box score.
Of course, it became apparent before the game even started that it would be a special night for Rose regardless. Not only was it his first competition since 2013 other than a Team USA intra-squad scrimmage, but it gave Bulls fans a firsthand glimpse of their star for the first time in a while.
The excitement was at a fever pitch, as SLAM Magazine captured:
Rose reacted accordingly. Although he failed to score until the end of the first half, his first basket came in spectacular fashion.
Gathering the ball underneath his own basket, Rose raced the length of the court and finished a runner off the glass to beat the buzzer. It was big at the time, pushing the Americans’ lead to eight just before the half.
Here’s a look at the pretty layup:
The 25-year-old continued to be in attack mode into the third quarter. He showcased his individual ability again late in the third, when he drove past two defenders only to rise up and finish over Anderson Varejao—a sign of many more future scores over the Cavaliers center, Bulls fans hope.
USA Basketball posted his finish in slow-mo:
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski rotated his guards, as expected, with the 12-man roster cuts looming, but Rose proved in his two dozen minutes what most in the building wanted to see. He was explosive, agile and smooth with that killer instinct that makes him one of the NBA’s most effective rim attackers.
It was a sight to behold for any basketball enthusiast following Rose’s recent career. After tearing his ACL and missing all of the 2012-13 campaign, he returned last season only to suffer a torn meniscus less than a month in.
And in his first true competition in over nine months, Coach K and his staff opted to give Rose some extra run and weren’t disappointed in what they found, per Chicago Tribune‘s K.C. Johnson:
With everything in perspective, the typically wise Rose tempered expectations, per Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears:
For anyone who has followed Team USA closely over its training in Las Vegas, Rose’s strong performance Saturday is far from surprising. The rave reviews on Rose’s health and overall game were coming in by the day, and he impressed in the team’s scrimmage at the end of camp.
Nothing can replicate true competition, and certainly Saturday’s game is just the next step in Rose re-familiarizing himself with the NBA game. Next up is the looming FIBA World Cup in Spain, and if his spot in the starting lineup Saturday is any indication, he’ll be getting plenty of minutes.
Rose has been surrounded by a contending Bulls squad throughout much of his time there, but now couldn’t be a better time for him to return to full health. Offseason acquisitions of Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and the signing of Nikola Mirotic have Chicago as one of the East favorites.
Of course, that’s assuming Derrick Rose is healthy, which has been a rarity in recent seasons. But considering how he’s performing alongside some of the world’s best with Team USA, his best is yet to come.
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All of this summer’s attention has been on Derrick Rose and the new additions to the Chicago Bulls: Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. But a large part of their success in 2014-15 will depend on the performance of two recently overlooked wingmen. Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell need to come through.
Butler’s offensive production took a deep dip in 2013-14, as the time he spent working tirelessly on his shot last summer seemed for naught. His percentage from beyond the arc dropped from 38 in 2012-13 to 28 this past year. It’s possible that Butler’s defensive intensity has taken enough energy away from his legs to worsen his touch—many have called for coach Tom Thibodeau to not work Butler so hard.
At 38.7 minutes a game, Butler was tied with Carmelo Anthony for most playing time in the league last season. And his defense was terrific over each of those minutes, as he earned All-Defensive second team honors for the year. With an emergence from the lengthy, hard-nosed Snell, however, Butler might be able to take many more minutes on the bench and save some of his energy for a more balanced game.
Butler is likely to start between Rose and Mike Dunleavy Jr. to begin the season, but his job status may depend on how far Snell can progress. A Summer League standout, Snell’s sophomore year as a pro, and his second in Thibodeau’s system, looks to be a coming-out party of sorts.
Snell could surge into a starter’s role by outplaying Butler—just as Butler did in 2012-13, outplaying a limping Richard Hamilton—but, alternately, he could end up starting next to Butler as opposed to in his place. Snell could certainly prove himself more valuable than Dunleavy at the small forward spot (especially as a defender), and he makes sense next to Butler. Thibodeau, alternately, may just move Dunleavy to the bench for more veteran solidity in his second unit. This could also put Snell into the starting spotlight.
Snell is mobile and long enough to challenge elite Eastern Conference wings like LeBron James, Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony physically. While he’s only listed at 6’7”, his wingspan is massive. The question will be whether he’s yet heady enough to keep up with the craft of such players. Defense comes first in Thibodeau’s world, so Snell’s minutes will depend upon his ability to do so. Butler’s Iron Man marks are a testament to that truth.
Rose’s presence will make life much easier for both players, as will Gasol’s. Rose and Gasol’s abilities to create for themselves and mis-direct defenses will give Snell and Butler breathing room they haven’t yet seen as Bulls. Open shots and open lanes are forthcoming for both, and nothing more than simple offensive execution (making jump shots and timely cuts and screens) will be asked from either.
There’s little doubt that both players will buy into Thibodeau’s vision, regardless of what role he designates for them. The Bulls’ front office, in tandem with its coach, makes sure only to draft players ready to sacrifice their egos in the name of the team’s goals. Recent comments made by Butler, reported by CSN Chicago’s Mark Strotman, reflect this:
“My role’s going to be to help win games, whether it’s on offense, on defense, on the bench cheering, whatever it may be. I think that’s all of our jobs, all of our role is help bring this city a championship.”
Snell and Butler are both soldiers in the Thibodeau mold. They’re sure to stay in tight defensive strings according to their leader’s league-permeating principles. But the Bulls, more than anything, may need something that depends more on touch and finesse than on ceaseless pressing from both: shooting. Whether either can consistently provide high marks from deep is a bit of a mystery until the season starts.
As such, both embody the crux of the Thibodeau-era Bulls. Although scoring is a huge question mark, the defense will always be there, because their coach—in tandem with the indomitable Joakim Noah—will always make sure of it. Grantland’s Zach Lowe had this to say about the team’s “quest for perfection”:
Scary news for the rest of the league: The Bulls are pretty close [to perfection]. Watch film of Chicago’s defense until your eyes bleed/your wife kills you — and I did — and the precision, so close to perfection, is overwhelming and almost beautiful. The Bulls, more than any team I’ve ever seen — including the Duncan-era Spurs and the 2007-08 Celtics, for whom Thibodeau was the defensive coordinator — just do not make mistakes.
The Bulls’ two young perimeter warriors will surely help cement their team’s untouchable status as defenders. But on offense, the Bulls are still just an inside-out team without dependable help in the middle, between Rose and Gasol. Chicago has a hole in the shape of either of these young studs at their best, so if Snell or Butler (or both) can add the less harvestable factor of scoring power into their games in 2014-15, it will help the Bulls reach new heights.
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The Cleveland Cavaliers were eliminated from the playoffs by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls five times during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Such one-sided affairs hardly qualify as rivalries, but this time the grappling between the two sides could be significantly more equitable.
We could have an iconic rivalry on our hands.
Had it not been for Derrick Rose‘s supremely unfortunate battle with repeated injury, the Miami Heat might have faced some legitimate competition over the last three seasons. Except for the Indiana Pacers, no team in the East posed a serious threat to the Heat, and even the Pacers seemed hardly up to the task at times.
This summer has radically altered the East’s balance of power, largely on account of two well-documented events.
LeBron James rerouted his talents from South Beach back to Northeastern Ohio, where he’s poised to elevate the Cavaliers to unprecedented heights.
Concurrently, former MVP Derrick Rose is returning and aiming to restore his Bulls to a title conversation that’s eluded them in his absence. While James has toured the planet with Nike, Rose is set to face off against said planet with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup.
Thus far, the two superstars haven’t shared much of a rivalry.
Though Rose snagged a lone MVP award in 2010-11, James has won four of them. And while Chicago has overachieved with or without its point guard, James’ Heat ventured to the NBA Finals four consecutive times, twice winning a title in the process.
By any metric, the Bulls still have much to prove.
And now, so too do the Cavaliers.
But in spite of the teams’ respective new beginnings, there’s already a very firm sense that they have the Eastern Conference market cornered. Depending on how the rest of the conference evolves in the seasons ahead, that hierarchy could remain the status quo for some time.
The Central Division foes are guaranteed to meet four times during the regular season, contests that could well be instrumental to establishing postseason seeding (and all the advantages entailed thereby). The increased familiarity could breed some contempt in its own right.
To be sure, the East is replete with up-and-comers awaiting their opportunities to shock the world.
The Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets possess youth and an upward trajectory. Even the Atlanta Hawks have somehow found a way to surpass expectations. And while neither the New York Knicks nor Brooklyn Nets are up-and-coming, both teams have the kind of well-established talent who could theoretically get hot at the right time.
Nevertheless, none of these teams have the same kind of resources as Chicago or Cleveland.
The Bulls—for starters—have one of the best coaches in the business. Even without Rose (and even after trading Luol Deng away for nothing last season), Chicago continued competing at a high level on account of Tom Thibodeau eliciting superior defense from his well-trained troops. Now that he has some talent at his disposal, the possibilities are endless.
Of that talent, Rose is the most notable. By all accounts, it hasn’t taken the 25-year-old long to find his groove.
“I think he’s exceptional in every way,” Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski raved to reporters after practices in Las Vegas. ”He went right at it. The first defensive exchange in the camp, he was all over the ball handler, moving his feet, attacking him. There was a buzz right away because it was basically his saying, ‘Look, I’m not just back. I’m back at a level that’s elite.’”
Krzyzewski added, “Derrick was sensational the whole week. He really did that every day, how fast and strong and decisive he was. He really created an air of excitement for the team because we all were anxious to see who he was right now.”
At top form, Rose is the kind of game-changing playmaker who can pose a challenge to James and Co. He averaged 25 points and 7.7 assists during his MVP campaign, establishing himself as one of the league’s few players who can carry his team almost single-handedly.
Fortunately, he’ll have some help.
The interior will be anchored by 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, and recently-signed big man Pau Gasol ensures a secondary scorer who can make things happen when games slow down to a half-court pace (as they’re oft to do when the Bulls are involved).
ESPN Insider’s Bradford Doolittle (subscription required) notes that—even in the wake of whiffing in its pursuit of Carmelo Anthony—the organization has restored the rotation to levels it reached the last time Chicago was pretty good:
The Bulls’ Plan B included Pau Gasol successfully being wooed from the Lakers, Nikola Mirotic arriving from Spain and Kirk Hinrich sticking around. Aaron Brooks was added to back up Rose. Chicago re-created the depth plan that worked well before. That approach wasn’t enough to overcome James in Miami, but there are compelling reasons to believe this time may be different.
Add returning contributors Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy (along with rookie Doug McDermott) to the puzzle, and this is suddenly a formidable lineup.
What it lacks in Cleveland’s newfound star power, it makes up for with a Spurs-like conglomeration of highly-qualified role players who fit together quite nicely.
Meanwhile, those Cavaliers have assembled arguably the best starting lineup in the world with the imminent addition of forward Kevin Love to an equation that already included James and point guard Kyrie Irving.
That means there will be a significant obstacle in the path of Chicago’s resurgence.
As Doolittle notes:
The problem is by going LeBron-plus-one, a true powerhouse is forming in Cleveland. James, Love and Kyrie Irving alone accumulated 50 WARP between them a season ago, meaning that even if the rest of the Cleveland roster is merely replacement level, the Cavs would project to win 60 games. And this will be just the first season of Cleveland’s new-found excellence. In effect, the vibe in the East could be the same as it’s been, with Cleveland and Chicago replacing Miami and Indiana.
Indiana might have remained a threat to join the East’s elite were it not for Paul George‘s season-ending broken leg. With the Pacers instead licking their wounds and also looking to compensate for the departure of free agent Lance Stephenson, the Bulls and Cavaliers are poised to share a stranglehold on the conference.
Though it may initially take some time for Chicago and Cleveland to develop on-court chemistry on the heels of so much change, both teams have more than enough talent to weather any early storms.
And they both have enough young talent to remain dominant for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, we could soon witness the birth of a protracted power struggle between two franchises that couldn’t be more contrasted.
Cleveland will rely on a triumvirate of superstars and a coach (the much-anticipated David Blatt) who’s yet to manage an NBA game. Chicago will count on a long-injured star and an otherwise ensemble effort helmed by a veteran and highly-respected head coach.
The Cavs will go as far as their offense takes them, while the Bulls will remain a defense-first enterprise.
Chicago looks to take the next step after three years of overachievement, hoping a healthier and deeper roster finally yields championship dividends. Cleveland looks to instantly extricate itself from a rebuilding process that precluded playoff appearances in each of the last four seasons.
One team is led by a model of humility who shuns media hype and the recruitment of fellow superstars.
The other is led by the heir to Kobe Bryant‘s global celebrity, having virtually patented the super-team concept and all the attention brought therewith.
And while both cities have workman-like reputations, there’s little doubt that the Bulls’ culture is far more consistent with that image. The Cavaliers have functionally replicated Miami’s glitz and glamour in the middle of the Rust Belt, banking on larger-than-life personalities to win titles while supplying plenty of highlights along the way.
Good as these teams are, it’s their starkly divergent narratives that virtually guarantee a compelling rivalry.
This isn’t just two basketball titans pitted against one another. It’s two radically different philosophies and the clashing personalities that characterize them.
In short, it’s one heck of a show—and it could be here to stay.
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