WHY THE CHICAGO BULLS ARE NOT INTIMIDATED BY THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
The Chicago Bulls are not impressed.
Going forward? Oh, best believe that Cleveland is going to be a huge problem. LeBron is the self-proclaimed “old head” of the core and he’s only 29. Kyrie Irving, Uncle Drew himself, is 21. Cleveland’s core is set to compete for several titles within the next half-decade or so.
Still, the Chicago Bulls are not impressed.
Why is that, you may ask. How could a team with their superstar coming off a major injury not be intimidated by such a loaded team? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Defense Actually Does Win Championships
There’s an old adage in sports that goes like this: “defense wins championships.” In two of the more popular sports, basketball and football, today’s game is more and more about scoring. Still, come playoff time, the teams that have at least an above average defense usually find themselves playing deeper in the postseason than those that don’t. Since this is a basketball article, I’ll only focus on, well, basketball.
In the last 15 years, the only team that has won a championship without being a top 10 defense (in terms of points given up) in the regular season was the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, who ranked 23rd in the league. They allowed 97.2 points per game, meaning they won most of their games by shootout (more on this later). Once they reached the postseason, however, they were the 3rd ranked defense, only allowing 90.6 points per game, almost 7 points less than they did in the regular season. So let’s disqualify the Lakers, based on how they turned it around in the playoffs.
We have to travel all the way back to the 1994-95 Houston Rockers to find a team outside the top 10 who won the Larry O’Brien trophy. The Rockets, led by Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, were ranked 14th in the league in defense. Considering that there were only 27 teams at the time, they were considered an average defense. Before them, you’d have to go back to the 1986-87 Lakers, who ranked 11th in the league.
Clearly, defense plays a huge factor in title chasing. It can’t be the only thing, as evidenced by the Bulls over the last few years. Chicago, who during the Tom Thibodeau era has been a top five defense all of one year (2012-13 when they ranked 6th), has been carried by their defense while their offense dragged along. So evidently, there needs to be balance on both sides of the ball to have a real shot at a title. This, at least as of now, is the one of the major advantages the Bulls enjoy. While the Bulls might not have the superstars Cleveland does, they have two way players.
Kyrie Irving doesn’t play defense. Dion Waiters doesn’t play defense. Tristian Thompson doesn’t play defense. The next time that Kevin Love plays defense will be the first. Anderson Varejao is an average defender, but he can’t stay healthy to save his life. Mike Miller and James Jones aren’t anything more than average defenders, and even then, they won’t see more than 25 minutes a night collectively. Shawn Marion is a good defender, but “The Matrix” is 36 and doesn’t move quite as well as he used to. If he’s playing 15-20 minutes a night, he can still be very effective. But looking around at Cleveland’s other options, it seems as if he’ll be playing more than that, wearing down his already battered body. Of course LeBron is an all-world defender, but he can’t defend five players at once.
Without defense, Cleveland isn’t going to go far. History shows that. Don’t believe me? How many championships did the “7 Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns win? Or the high powered Denver Nuggets teams from the 1980’s? The Charles Barkley led Phoenix Suns? There have been close to unstoppable offenses in past NBA history, but without defense, they never won anything.
Since he was drafted in 2008, Kevin Love has been the man for the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s what’s helped him post a career average of 19.2 points and 12.2 rebounds per game and turned him into one of the, if not the, best power forwards in the game today.
Since he was drafted in 2011, Kyrie Irving has been the man for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Although he’s had his struggles playing alongside guard Dion Waiters, Irving has posted career averages of 20.8 points per game and 5.8 assists and thusly has become one of the best point guards in the game today.
Since he was drafted in 2003, LeBron James has been the man for both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat. King James has averaged 27.5 points, 7.2 assists and 6.9 assists and is the undisputed best player in the game, and might be the best since His Airness retired.
Sensing a problem here?
It’s going to take time and a lot of ego checking before Cleveland becomes a cohesive unit. History shows that. Any time you have multiple guys that are used to having the offense run through them on the same team, it’s going to take a while before they fully learn how to play together. The 2011 Miami team looked like a totally different team than they did in 2012, and they were ridden with veterans who were willing to sacrifice. As a matter of fact, that was a team that consisted of nothing but veterans – outside of then rookie Dexter Pittman – and it took them a year to fully comprehend how to play together.
The Cavs have more potholes than a Chicago street in the spring, and LeBron can only fill so many of them.— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) August 9, 2014
The Bulls, for the most part, know how to play together. There may be an adjustment period for Gasol and Noah, determining who’s going to set up the offense, how to collapse on the boards, etc. McDermott will have to learn how to play off of Rose. Mirotic will have to adjust to the tempo of the NBA game. But their core of Rose, Noah, Butler and Gibson all know how to play together – there’s just a readjustment period with Derrick back in the fold. It might not be until playoff time that Cleveland learns how to cohesively play together.
And then there’s the 800 pound gorilla in the room that is the coaching situation.
David Blatt might be one of the best young coaches in the league and an offensive mastermind, but he’s never coached a single minute in the NBA. That doesn’t bode well for Cleveland.
One could argue that Tom Thibodeau had never coached before Chicago and was wildly successful, so why can’t Blatt? I’d counter argue with the fact the Thibodeau was an NBA assistant for 21 years before he became a head coach. That means he was game planning for NBA style of play for over two decades before he took the reins as a head coach.
Here's the thing. New coach, new system, stars learning to play together. Cavs will get off to a rocky start. History shows that.— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) August 9, 2014
He has to fit his offensive style of play around three stars trying to learn how to play together, Dion Waiters attempting to revise his offensive game and how to effectively use his three point shooters whilst still getting ample playing time for Marion and the core of the team.
Oh, and did I mention Cleveland has a ton of pressure to win now?
Worst case scenario, it takes Cleveland until the beginning of next season to play together – a year Kevin Love is a free agent, assuming he doesn’t sign an extension the minute he touches down in Cleveland. Best case scenario, it takes until playoff time until Cleveland learns how to cohesively play together.
Which brings me to my next point…
Deer in Headlights
Imagine this if you would: Game 7 at the United Center, right before tipoff. Joakim Noah is furiously trying to pump up an already raucous crowd. Pau Gasol finishes up his stretches and looks as if nothing fazes him. LeBron James paces like a big cat caged. Derrick Rose has a steely look of determination in his eyes.
This is the main and crucial difference between the Miami team LeBron joined four years ago and the Cleveland team he has now. Outside of himself, the team’s core – Irving, Love, Waiters – has as much playoff experience as you or I do. Complete 180 from Miami. Dwyane Wade was a Finals MVP. Chris Bosh had been to the playoffs multiple times.
We can sit here and debate how the team will play together during the regular season, but everyone can agree that the playoffs are an entirely different animal. Whether you believe that previous playoff experience plays a big factor – and I personally do – one can’t deny the fact that ¾ of Cleveland’s main contributors not having playoff experience bodes terribly for them.
LeBron's new team being overrated. Little playoff experience beyond him and broken-down Verajao. Love not clutch, no D. No rim protector.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) August 8, 2014
#TheReturn of #TheReturn
Derrick Rose looks to be back and with a vengeance. And more importantly, he has his swagger back.
Also, if we get a full season of the Derrick Rose we’ve seen w/USAB, along w/way Bulls defend and play under Thibs, CHI will be a problem.— Brett Pollakoff (@BrettEP) August 7, 2014
When Rose was at his MVP level, there was a legitimate argument for him as the best point guard in the game, wrestling the title out of Chris Paul’s grip. And that was before he got a jump shot and, as he put it, learned how to control his speed. We could be looking at Derrick Rose 2.0.
Let’s say Rose is on fire during a playoff game, while on the court with Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. That forces LeBron James to cover him, leaving Kyrie Irving on Jimmy, Shawn Marion on McDermott, Kevin Love on Gasol and Anderson Varejao on Joakim Noah. Now normally, LeBron on Rose would be the end of the offense for the Bulls. This is not the case anymore. Rose brings the ball up the court and gives it to Noah, who is stationed at the high post. Noah being at the high post draws Cleveland’s best defending big, Varejao, away from the rim. Gasol is in the low post with Love guarding him, a matchup he’ll win all day. Butler, who is not a scorer by any stretch of the imagination, now has one of the NBA’s worst defenders on him and is free to crash the basket. And McDermott is sent running around on baseline screens set by Gasol and Butler, wearing down Marion and getting open looks.
Cleveland simply can’t defend that. At all. And on defense, Chicago will be able to match up well enough to stop Cleveland from scoring.
In the end, we’re simply talking hypothetical until the season starts. Obviously Chicago’s success lies on the health of Rose’s knees. Cleveland’s success lies on a number of factors, most of which needs time to come together. But the way the teams are currently constructed and the coaches they have, Chicago is better set up to succeed this year.