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 Northeast 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 has 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 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 superteam 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.