Chicago Bulls, Not Cleveland Cavs Are Eastern Conference Favorites

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Chicago Bulls, Not Cleveland Cavs Are Eastern Conference Favorites
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

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.

 

Offseason Improvement

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 Derrick 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 reported acquisition, per Sam Amick of USA Today, 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.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

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:

Big Threes, Before and After Joining Forces
Player Team REB BEF AST BEF PTS BEF REB AFT AST AFT PTS AFT TOTAL BEF TOTAL AFT TOT DIF
Chris Bosh MIA 10.8 2.4 24.0 8.3 1.9 18.7 37.2 28.9 -8.3
LeBron James MIA 7.3 8.6 29.7 7.5 7.0 26.7 45.6 41.2 -4.4
Dwyane Wade MIA 4.8 6.5 26.6 6.4 4.6 26.6 37.9 37.6 -0.3
Kevin Garnett BOS 12.8 4.1 22.4 9.2 3.4 18.8 39.3 31.4 -7.9
Ray Allen BOS 4.5 4.1 26.4 3.7 3.7 17.4 35.0 24.8 -10.2
Paul Pierce BOS 5.9 4.1 25.0 5.1 4.5 19.6 35.0 29.2 -5.8
AVERAGE N/A 7.7 5.0 25.7 6.7 4.2 21.3 38.3 32.2 -6.2

Basketball-Reference.com

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 in 2010-11 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.

M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

Other than Rose, the Bulls’ returning starter with the highest usage percentage was Joakim 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, per SportsCenter (via ABC News) 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 Carlos 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.

Field-Goal Percentage Returning from ACL Injuries
Games 2P% Exp. 2P% Diff%
1-10 0.423 0.477 -0.054
11-20 0.432 0.473 -0.041
21-30 0.462 0.478 -0.016
31-40 0.486 0.477 0.009

ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton

In other words, Rose’s horrid shooting was what would be expected from him in just 10 games. It’s normal when 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.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

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 in the game.

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 Noah will be entering their seventh year as teammates. Taj Gibson will be joining them for his sixth. 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 during 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.”

He was 416th in defensive RPM (DRPM) at minus-3.38. To put that in perspective, James Harden, whose defensive ineptitude has spawned a new kind of YouTube montage, was 396th at minus-2.84.

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 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.

Nick Laham/Getty Images

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.

And of course, Rose is returning. From 2011-2012—the two moderately healthy years he had with Thibodeau—the Bulls were the ninth-most efficient offense in the league.

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.

Miami’s Big Three had postseason experience. James had been to the Finals. Dwyane Wade had been a Finals MVP. Chris Bosh had at least played a playoff game.

RICHARD DREW/Associated Press

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 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.

 

Stats are are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.

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