For more than a month Kevin Love going to the Cavaliers has been a foregone conclusion, making Lebron’s great PR move of going back to Cleveland a great basketball move as well.
It also means the brief time that the Bulls were the unquestioned favorite in the East is now over.
Anytime a team acquires 2 of the top 10 players in the league which the Cavs unquestionably did (one could argue top 5 easily) they should become the favorite.
Whats more the Cavs aren’t as top heavy as any of the incarnations of the Heat we have seen the past 4 years. Players with upside like Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson will occupy the spots that washed up veterans had on the Heat.
You won’t see Mike Bibby and Joel Anthony types receiving large minutes.
Purely on the basis of having Lebron James and Kevin Love sharing the court together the Cavaliers should field a top offense.
In Love and James the Cavs are going to have at worst 2 of the top 5 offensive players in the league. Both are fantastic passers, good post up players, and excellent shooters.
With Irving, Waiters, and Varejao presumably filling out the rest of the starting unit they should be flanked by plenty of offensive talent as well.
Though the offense should be a top 2 unit in the league, I don’t think it is going to be as good as the sum of it parts.
Part of the reason is that in James, Love, Irving and Waiters the Cavaliers have 4 players who ranked in the top 25 in usage rate.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ranked 1-2 in usage rate last year so Love and James shouldn’t have a problem playing off one another and Waiters could easily morph into a JR Smith/ Ben Gordon type off the bench.
It is Irving who I question. Many have said the burden of not being the team’s primary scoring option would cause his game and efficiency to grow, but he is a player that is an incredibly potent with the ball in his hands.
While I am sure he would benefit from the open looks James draws, do you really want to turn such a great ball handler into a Mo Williams-esque spot up shooter.
Irving finds himself in the same place Chris Bosh did 4 years ago. Chris Bosh was a budding superstar, much like Irving, who all of a sudden became the 3rd best player on his team.
Bosh sacrificed his personal numbers(he had a PER of 25 his last year in Toronto but hasn’t had a PER over 20 since) by moving away from the basket on offense and reinventing himself as a invaluable piece for Miami’s fleet footed trapping defense.
Kyrie Irving, on the other hand, has been an indifferent defender throughout his career and his offensive game has been mostly an isolation based attack.
One could argue the defensive struggles are due in part to playing for a moribund Cavaliers team, but wouldn’t playing with Luol Deng and for a defensive coach in Mike Brown spur some kind of defensive growth?
By the same token his isolation based game could be attributed to a lack of quality teammates, but even playing for Team USA he has continued his ball dominate ways.
Irving doesn’t strike me as a player capable of making over his game and becoming the ideal 3rd banana that Chris Bosh was, and since he isn’t going to be the focal point of an offense I don’t see him becoming a scoring superstar who justifies his max extension either.
That being said, he is probably the only 3rd option in the NBA capable of dropping 25 points in a given quarter.
Even if every player on the roster doesn’t max out their offensive potential, the Cavaliers offense is going to be the envy of the league. Defensively, however, it is hard looking through the roster to see them becoming elite.
Even if Anderson Varejao (a good defensive player) can stay healthy the combination of he, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love combined for less than 2 blocks per game last season. So rim protection looks to be a serious defensive issue.
On the perimeter they aren’t much stronger. Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving are both below average. Mike Miller, and Shawn Marion don’t figure to contribute much on that end either.
The thinking is that Lebron James will be able to lift the entire defense on the strength of his defensive versatility, but if last season is an indication, that is an unreasonable expectation.
He ranked 29th defensively among small forwards using ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric. He also had his lowest defensive win share total since his rookie season.
Looking at things optimistically James’s, slimmed down figure leads to a renewed defensive intensity and Anderson Varejao stays relatively healthy. That would probably be enough to give the Cavs a top 12 defense.
But make no mistake, defense is a real vulnerability for the Cavaliers.
That is where hope for Bulls fans comes from. It is actually the Bulls who project to have the best blend of offense and defense in the Eastern conference.
Everybody knows about the Bulls defense, and it will again be anchored by 3 all world defenders in Butler, Noah, and Gibson. I would be surprised, given what has happened with the Pacers, if they didn’t rank first in defensive efficiency.
Offensively is where they are underrated going into the season. They added Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott to last year’s team.
Derrick Rose has been absent the better part of 2 years so it has been easy to forget what a game changer he is offensively. For those who have forgotten watch these highlights, look at where the Bulls ranked offensively his last somewhat healthy season, and check out the roster he had to work with the year this happened.
He is one of only a handful of players (Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul) in the league who are an offense unto themselves. Provided he stays healthy and is able to shake off the rust, the addition of Derrick Rose cannot be overstated.
The Bulls primary off-season addition was Pau Gasol. Here is a quick rundown of his stats from last year.
19.9 PPG-11.1 RPG-3.8 AST PER 36 MINUTES.
WIN SHARES: 3.0
USAGE RATE: 26.4
This was all while playing for a hopeless team and a coach whose fast pace style clashed with Gasol’s more post oriented game.
Playing limited minutes on a slow it down Bulls team should do wonders for his already above average offensive efficiency. His post up game and passing should mesh perfectly with the offense the Bulls run.
His age and questionable health are the only downsides to his acquisition. He should become a passable defender under Thibs, and even if he isn’t the Bulls will have no trouble covering for him.
Doug McDermott was the best scorer in college basketball last season, and among the best in the summer league too.
He has the pedigree of a truly great shooter. I don’t know if he will set records like Ray Allen, or Kyle Korver but he should be a plug in and play type player based on that alone.
As we have learned this type of a shooter is increasingly valuable.
The Bulls offense isn’t perfect (I would kill for Jason Terry type off the bench) but with these 4 players and the core pieces of last year’s team, the Bulls have an highly intriguing mix of passing, shooting, and off the dribble creativity.
The Cavaliers should be favored, they have 2 legitimate superstars who aren’t coming off significant injuries and a solid supporting cast.
The Bulls,however, have a deep (8-9 players deep) collection of talent, one of the top 5 coaches in the league, and in the Joakim Noah-Derrick Rose era have always been a team with great chemistry.
Don’t be terribly surprised if they are playing in June next year.
All stats courtesy of espn.com and basketball-reference.com