Why Chicago Bulls Remain Eastern Conference Favorites After Kevin Love Trade
The Chicago Bulls, unlike the Cleveland Cavaliers, do not boast the services of LeBron James. Once the agreed-upon trade for Kevin Love goes through in late August, they'll be short one Kevin Love as well, and there's really no viable substitute for the former (can we call him that now?) Minnesota Timberwolf.
Already, the proclamations that the new-look Cavs are the team to beat—at least in the Eastern Conference—have come flowing in.
First, let's turn to Pro Basketball Talk's Dan Feldman:
Love, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are going to rule the East. That's so much talent and production, and their dominance will likely begin immediately. If it takes a year for everyone to jell, as it did for LeBron in Miami, so be it. That core is young enough to contend for years – as long as Love follows through with staying.
ESPN's Summer Forecast has the Cavaliers winning 56 games and finishing with the No. 1 seed in the East, and that seems to be the majority opinion now that Love is aboard a ship that already included both LeBron and Kyrie Irving.
However, it's too soon to foretell that type of greatness for such a young squad. In time, the Cavs will surely earn that designation—just not yet.
Cleveland will indeed be a fantastic team and compete for the No. 1 seed throughout the 2014-15 campaign. However, there are too many factors working against them—and for the Bulls—for any team other than Chicago to enter the season as the Eastern Conference favorites.
Thibodeau Defense Is Always Elite
Tom Thibodeau's defensive system—one that emphasizes packing the paint with off-ball help and daring referees to whistle his Bulls for lane violations—has been copied by quite a few coaches throughout the Association. But they're all imitators, and none have perfected the defensive style Thibs made famous.
He took over as Chicago's head coach before the start of the 2010-11 season, and since then, there's been nothing but success:
|Season||Defensive Rating||DRtng Rank|
That's an impressive resume, especially when contrasted against the inexperience of David Blatt, who will be running the show in Cleveland this year. Blatt has enjoyed plenty of success overseas, but there's no guarantee that translates, even if many (myself included) are convinced he has what it takes to excel right off the bat.
It's also worth noting that during the 2009-10 season, Chicago allowed 105.3 points per 100 possessions under Vinny Del Negro, which ranked it No. 11 among the NBA's 30 teams. The year before that, the Bulls ranked No. 18 on the defensive rating leaderboard.
Thibodeau turned the defense around that quickly, and there's no reason to make major adjustments going forward. With the exception of Luol Deng, the Bulls retain most key pieces, and they'll be fitting Derrick Rose (a high-quality point guard defender) back into the equation, while losing the matador named Carlos Boozer.
Of the four sides of the ball that matter in this competition—offense and defense for both Cleveland and Chicago—none are as strong as the Bulls' point-preventing unit. The Cavaliers offense could get there after an adjustment period (more on that later), but Chicago is already established as an elite bunch.
Cleveland's Expected Defensive Woes
No one on the Cleveland roster can protect the rim, which is awfully problematic when so many teams do everything possible to create open looks around the basket. The Cavaliers struggled with this throughout the 2013-14 season, but now they might be even worse, given the heavy minutes that Love will inevitably play.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, there were 77 players who faced at least five shots per game at the rim during the regular season. If you sort those by the field-goal percentage allowed, a scary sight appears.
Well, it's scary if you're a part of the Cleveland organization or a supporter of the team. It's not so scary if you're rooting for or involved with a different contender in the Eastern Conference, like the Bulls.
Only 13 players allowed opponents to shoot more efficiently at the rim than Anderson Varejao, who checked in at No. 64 in the ranking. Two of those baker's dozen would be Love and Tristan Thompson. The former came in at No. 74, while the latter was at No. 76.
Now, this would be OK if the wing defenders and perimeter preventers were all standouts, but that's really not the case in Northeast Ohio. LeBron is a game-changer on the less glamorous end of the court, but no one else truly excels defensively.
Kyrie Irving—though he has the physical tools necessary to become a quality defender, so long as he develops the mentality and discipline necessary—is particularly bad, and he figures to play heavy minutes as well. As shown by 82games.com, he "held" opposing 1-guards to a 17.8 player efficiency rating, well above the league-average mark of 15.0.
Perimeter porosity and ineffective interior work? That's a deadly combination.
New Offensive Parts in Chicago
That Thibodeau defense always keeps the Bulls competitive; it's the offense that will allow them to assert themselves as the premier force in the Eastern Conference.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that Thibs can't coach a good offensive team. Doing so would be firmly denying history, as the 2010-11 Bulls finished No. 11 in offensive rating, one year after checking in at the antepenultimate spot in the rankings while VDN was pacing the sidelines. In 2011-12, Chicago scored the fifth-most points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
So yes, he can coach offense.
Things got shaky without Derrick Rose running the show, but he'll be back this season. And even if he re-injures himself or can't regain the pre-injury form he enjoyed a few years ago, the Bulls have put together a roster set to thrive offensively in his stead.
It's a different situation than anything the point guard has experienced in his entire career, as there's no need to rely on him for anything and everything offense.
Signing Pau Gasol, bringing Nikola Mirotic over from Real Madrid and drafting Doug McDermott all firmly point toward a desire for more offense, and each one is ready to compete right away. Gasol and Joakim Noah will form a potent frontcourt duo, while Mirotic and McDermott are coming off thriving in Europe and the summer league, respectively.
Rose himself has confidence in his team, per ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell:
I think this is the most talented team I've played on in my NBA career to tell you the truth. With all the players that I have, with the experience that everybody's bringing to the table. And the way that everybody's working out individually during the offseason and what I've been hearing.
I have that sense that they went for it. That they gave their all. We got who we could get and who wanted to come. And that's who we have to ride with. We have a lot of confidence in the players that we just signed and we know that the guys that's already there is working out very hard. So it's just a matter of getting in the gym, working out together, jelling very quickly, since we're not going overseas early.
But unlike in Cleveland, the jelling won't be taking too long in the Windy City. The new arrivals are largely complementary pieces, not ones who will require systematic changes, and that speeds along what can be a painful and painstaking process.
And if Rose is dominant, well, that virtually guarantees a stellar offense.
Year 1 Struggles
It isn't easy to win right after adding so many key pieces to the lineup.
Throwing Gasol, Mirotic and McDermott into the mix is far different than adding two top-10 players who will completely change how the game is played. LeBron, love him or hate him, is still in a tier of standouts occupied by only himself and Kevin Durant, while Love is capable of putting up statistics that haven't been seen in decades.
Comparing the new-look Cavs to the Miami Heat in the first year of the LeBron era is inevitable, and it's something that should teach everyone just how important patience will be while this team meshes and figures out how to thrive next to one another.
In late November 2010, the Heat dropped three games in a row, and their record fell to 8-7, well below the lofty preseason expectations that inevitably follow the teaming up of three superstars. Naturally, the sky caved in on them.
Here's Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, then writing for The Palm Beach Post, as relayed by Cleveland.com:
Has the Heat been humbled? In some ways, it seems so. The recalibration of expectations, at least for the short term, was more evident than ever in the aftermath of Wednesday's loss at Orlando.
After the morning shootaround, Wade acknowledged that the process of playing with two other stars in their prime, including another accustomed to dominating the ball, had 'been different than you'd expect' and 'tougher than you thought.'
Miami did manage to overcome the early-season struggles.
It won 58 games, finishing second in the Eastern Conference, behind only—you guessed it—the Bulls. After winning each of the first three playoff series in five games apiece to advance to the NBA Finals, the Heat fell to the Dallas Mavericks.
They were successful throughout the year—save that final series—but by no means dominant. And that was with two veteran superstars and a team laden with experienced role players.
Cleveland is now in a very different situation, what with a star who has never made the playoffs, a point guard struggling to assert himself as a truly elite floor general (who also hasn't been to the playoffs) and a bench without much experience either.
Most everything is different, but the adjustment period won't be.
Experience vs. Inexperience
Let's break down the experience factor a bit more.
The current Cleveland roster—not including potential veteran signings like Ray Allen—just doesn't feature too many players who have made deep run after deep run during the extracurricular portion of the NBA campaign.
Looking at the expected starters, Irving has never been to a playoff game. Neither has Dion Waiters or Kevin Love, leaving all the playoff appearances to LeBron and Varejao (who hasn't played in a postseason game since 2010, when LeBron was still on the roster for the first time).
Together, all five projected starters have 229 playoff games under their collective belt, 158 of which are credited to a certain four-time MVP and two-time champion.
How about the Bulls, assuming a starting five of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah?
Rose (29 games), Butler (20) and Dunleavy (14) don't have too many by themselves, and that number drops further if Mirotic or McDermott replace Dunleavy in the lineup. However, Gasol has 105 postseason games to his credit, and Noah can claim another 48.
Cleveland actually wins that competition but only based on the total. After a certain point, diminishing marginal returns kick in, and each additional playoff appearance matters less and less. It's more beneficial to have the games split between all players, as is the case for Chicago.
Plus, the seasoned nature of the Bulls bench—boasting Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and Nazr Mohammed—gives enough veteran presences off the pine to keep pace with the inevitably older second unit in The Q, even if that portion of the roster is young at the moment.
That's a lot of numbers, so think about it in a simpler way: Would you have more confidence in a bunch where all key contributors have big-game experience or in a squad where two of the three stars have never been out of the lottery?
It doesn't matter how many people and analysts are convinced the Bulls will be the superior team in 2014-15.
The Cavaliers will still be the ones with the bullseye.
They'll be the ones feeling all the pressure each and every time they take the court, namely because a certain player named LeBron will be on the floor. As the King once explained to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick when asked about when Kevin Durant will begin feeling pressure, "When I retire...When I retire. They're still talking about, am I going to win a third? You know..."
With LeBron on the roster, there's always pressure. And after the official arrival of Love, there's going to be even more.
NBA players are trained to deal with this weighing feeling, but this is also a youthful collection of players who haven't played with any semblance of high stakes in the past. It's a huge transition to go from being expected to earn a lottery berth to getting the best shot of each and every opponent while drawing a heavy focus from the media.
Meanwhile, Chicago will get to lurk outside the spotlight, at least as soon as the initial fervor surrounding Rose's return dies down.
Something tells me that's exactly how the Bulls would like it.