Memorable Bulls-Cavaliers Rivalry Picks Up Right Where It Left Off

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Memorable Bulls-Cavaliers Rivalry Picks Up Right Where It Left Off
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

One of the NBA's least talked-about rivalries is set to begin a new chapter, one perhaps bigger than any that have come before it.

The heavyweight fight between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls has certainly had some entertaining rounds, even if they've been separated by some lengthy intermissions.

Starting with a seven-year battle in the late 1980s and mid-1990s, then again in the late 2000s, the Bulls and Cavs have once again risen to the top of the Eastern Conference.

Stars like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Mark Price, Scottie Pippen and Brad Daugherty have headlined 30 years of bad blood between the two franchises.

While each have had their periods of atrocious play, both Cleveland and Chicago now appear to be heading toward elite levels once again.

 

Round 1: 1980s-'90s, Jordan Bullies Cavs

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Before the late '80s, the Cavaliers had struggled through much of their nearly 20-year existence. With just four playoff appearances in 17 seasons, Cleveland was ready to support a winning basketball team.

Enter Lenny Wilkens, now a Hall of Fame coach and player, who guided the Cavs to the playoffs in just his second season on the sidelines (1987-88).

The roster was deep, talented and meshed extremely well. Six players averaged 10 points or more, led by Daugherty's 18.7 a game.

On Chicago's side, a 24-year-old Jordan was quickly rising to superstardom. He finished the 1987-88 season with 35 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game.

At that time, Pippen was just 22 and nothing more than a key contributor off the bench. Jordan was very much carrying the Bulls, then coached by Doug Collins.

The spring of '88 was the first time the Bulls and Cavs would have a postseason battle in their rivalry. This one, like so many others, went in Chicago's favor.

Despite an impressive lineup that featured Price, Daugherty, Larry Nance, Ron Harper and John "Hot Rod" Williams, the Cavs were no match for Jordan. The Bulls ended up taking the opening-round series 3-2 behind Jordan's whopping 45.2 points a night.

What followed was a good, old-fashioned behind-kicking for the next six years.

The Bulls and Cavs met in the postseason five times from 1988-94. The result of those series? Chicago five, Cleveland zero.

Lee Winningham of ChiBullsZone.com gives us more on the rivalry:

The atmosphere was heightened each time they played, but the playoff battles wrote this rivalry’s history. In 1988 the Bulls and Cavs went five games in a memorable playoff series that featured Michael Jordan’s back-to-back fifty point performances in Games 1 & 2. In Game 1 on April 28, 1988, Jordan, fought off a bad cold, scared the entire city of Chicago when he landed awkwardly on his knee, and scored fifty points in a 104-93 victory at Chicago Stadium. Craig Ehlo, who had the unfortunate job of guarding Jordan during many of his scoring outbursts, handled it pretty well after Game 1 by saying, 'I held him to 48 points or whatever he got. Pretty good huh?'

Now, the majority of those series were very competitive. When Jordan hit "The Shot" in Game 5 of 1989's first round, it broke a 2-2 tie and sent the Bulls on to the next round.

Had anything gone wrong on that possession, it could have easily been the Cavs advancing well into the playoffs instead.

Harper echoed these sentiments in a 1995 Chicago Tribune article by Melissa Isaacson:

The Cavs always felt if they could just get by the Bulls, they could have gotten to the finals. And to get beat by one key guy every year really hurt. ...

There was always hope. And everyone thought the Cavs had the best chance of bringing a championship home. The Browns, the Indians, they just didn't get the job done. But everyone was praying the basketball team had a chance.

Cleveland's championship window appeared to be open for the first time in over 20 years.

Jordan and the Bulls, after years of coming out on top, shut it for another 15.

 

Round 2: James, Cavs Fight Back

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

James and Rose were the No. 1 overall picks of the 2003 and 2008 drafts, respectively.

Both breathed new life into their franchises, lifting the cities of Cleveland and Chicago back to the postseason yet again.

This time, it was the Cavaliers who would exact some revenge on the now Jordan-less Bulls.

Cleveland enjoyed its most successful run in franchise history from 2005-10. Making the playoffs five straight seasons, the Cavs averaged over 54 wins and advanced to the 2007 NBA Finals.

James headlined a group of players that included Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Larry Hughes, Delonte West and Anderson Varejao.

While Cleveland had its established, successful core, the Bulls were just beginning to see theirs form around Rose. Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and John Salmons were all starting to click with Rose, leading to some low playoff seeding around the time of the Cavs' rise to power.

While it may not have been the same as their previous seven-year battle, Cleveland and Chicago definitely butted heads.

The two sides made no effort to hide their disdain for one another. James and Noah were especially involved, with Noah having some harsh words for the city of Cleveland itself.

Round 2 of the rivalry culminated in a 2010 first-round playoff matchup.

James and the Cavs made quick work of Rose's Bulls, defeating them 4-1 in the best-of-seven opening-round series.

Cleveland was dominant, averaging 106.2 points led by James' 31.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game.

Chicago, still very young, just wasn't ready for the veteran Cavaliers.

The Cavs' luck would change quickly, however, as James would leave two months later to join the Miami Heat, putting the rivalry at a standstill.

Until now...

 

Round 3: Present Matchup

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With James now back in Cleveland and a healthy Rose returning to Chicago, the Cavs and Bulls should easily be the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.

The order, however, will have to be decided on the court.

While both squads are still led by the same superstar, the supporting casts have changed for the better.

This time around, James has two proven All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love beside him, both having not yet entered their primes.

James recruited some veteran outside shooting help in Mike Miller and James Jones, while holdovers Varejao, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson round out an impressive core.

Rose may not have the star power beside him that James possesses, but it is nicely upgraded from the last time he did battle with the Cavs.

Pau Gasol (17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds in 2013-14) may be the best offensive frontcourt player Rose has ever teamed up with. Noah is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic bring a nice blend of defense and outside shooting as well.

Noah Graham/Getty Images
Love and Gasol join the Cavs-Bulls rivalry.

Here's how the two squads match up:

  Point Guard Shooting Guard Small Forward Power Forward Center Sixth Man
Cavs Kyrie Irving Mike Miller LeBron James Kevin Love Anderson Varejao Dion Waiters
Bulls Derrick Rose Jimmy Butler Mike Dunleavy Pau Gasol Joakim Noah Taj Gibson

Which side holds the advantage?

Right now, it's tough to say.

Cleveland is easily the better offensive squad. James, Love and Irving all ranked among the top 14 in points per game last season.

Chicago has the defensive edge. Noah was the top defender in the NBA a season ago, with Gibson and Butler emerging as some of the best at their positions as well.

One has to hope Rose stays healthy, as the former No. 1 pick has managed just 10 total games the past two seasons.

He and James have taken home five of the past six NBA MVP awards and are two of the most exciting players in the league today. Both have proven they can not only score but also lead teams while making others around them better.

So who comes out on top?

According to one recent projection, the Cavaliers.

ESPN's Bradford Doolittle simulated 100 games (subscription required) using the SCHOENE projection system, stating:

Cleveland won 61 of the 100 simulated games, which seems about right for a set of games decided by spreadsheets and random numbers. The difference in the big threes for the respective teams is just too great: James, Love and Irving are forecast for a 48 combined WAR; Rose, Noah and Jimmy Butler are at 32. Chicago wins roster spots 3 to 15, but not to the degree that comes close making up for that shortfall in star power.

Not surprisingly, the Cavs and Bulls were projected as the top offensive and defensive teams in the league. The article goes on to say:

Given the projected efficiency of both teams, you'd expect Cleveland to score about 111.4 points per 100 possessions when playing Chicago. This figure would have easily led the league last season. Presumably, with the three-headed monster of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, Cleveland would figure to be the league's best shooting team, while finishing in the top five in turnover rate, foul drawing and offensive rebounding.

The best part about Round 3 of Cavs and Bulls? It may be another sustained run.

Who will win Round 3 of Cavs-Bulls?

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James (29), Love (25) and Irving (22) are all in or yet to enter the primes of their careers. Irving is signed on for the next six seasons, with James and Love expected to ink their own extensions next summer.

Rose, Noah, Butler and Gibson are all still in their 20s and are signed through at least 2016.

Cleveland and Chicago are very much rivals again, with the winner likely representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

With all that's at stake, Round 3 could very well turn out to be the best one yet.

 

All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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