The season opener between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls will be the latest installment in the one-sided rivalry building between LeBron James and the boys from the Windy City. Dating back to the 2009-10 postseason, a James-led team has eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs four times in six years, including last season’s six-game defeat in the conference semi-finals.
Throughout his 12 years in the NBA, James routinely owns the Bulls. In 44 career regular season contests against Chicago, he owns an average stat line of 28.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and six assists. Only seven other teams (Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz) in the league have allowed LBJ to average more points during his career.
Despite James’ history of wreaking havoc, the Bulls appear confident they can overcome the King.
“I think we’ve got a good shot,” said forward Taj Gibson. “We’ve got a lot of depth. We just have to work out our kinks. That’s why the season’s so long. That’s why guys compete each and every night. I think we have the pieces. It’s all about guys just overcoming [things]. I think the biggest part for us is our mental [game]. We’ve been playing against LeBron for a number of years. Each year in the playoffs going deep, we always have the tools and the makeup of a good team. It’s just all mental, I think, nowadays.”
In addition to increased confidence, there are some other factors that should make the Cleveland nervous when they tangle with Chicago.
1. New Offensive Sheriff In Town
As seen in the chart below, the Bulls’ offense fluctuated in effectiveness during the five years former head coach Tom Thibodeau roamed the sidelines. The main reason for the inconsistency was Derrick Rose’s inability to stay healthy, but Thibs’ lack of creativity and tendency to wear his players down certainly didn’t help matters. Last season, Rose ranked fifth in usage rate during the regular season (31.7) and sixth in the playoffs (6th). That’s a bit excessive for both a player with a long injury history and a team with quality depth.
Now, Thibodeau is gone, and former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg is in. Hoiberg’s pro-style offense helped “The Mayor” achieve a 115-56 record in five seasons with the Cyclones. Under Hoiberg, the Bulls ranked 12th in scoring (101.4 points per game) and 11th in three-point percentage (35.7 percent) in the preseason. Chicago’s improvement on the offensive end could be problematic for a Cavaliers defense that ranked 20th in defensive efficiency last season and will be without top perimeter defender Iman Shumpert for possibly three months.
Making matters worse for Cleveland, Rose is expected to be ready for the opener after missing most of the preseason with an orbital fracture. While Rose admits to still experiencing some blurred vision, his presence on the court alongside Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol gives the Bulls a three-pronged attack that will be tough for the short-handed Cavs to stop.
2. Cavs’ Injury Woes
Chicago’s “Big Three” wouldn’t be as daunting of a task for Cleveland if the team wasn’t dealing with a slew of early-season injuries. Along with Shumpert, All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving is still sidelined following knee surgery with no timetable for his return. While both are expected back for Cleveland’s future clashes with Chicago (Jan. 23, Feb. 18 and Apr. 9), their absence means more weight on James’ shoulders at both ends of the court. With Shumpert out, James will need to put the clamps on one of the Bulls’ potential MVP candidates in the backcourt. The question is, which one?
Does he try to keep Rose out of the lane or close out on Butler on the perimeter? As if that choice isn’t tough enough, James is also dealing with a back issue that required an injection and forced the four-time MVP to miss the bulk of the preseason. James declared himself good to go for when the games actually matter, but head coach David Blatt will be keeping a close eye on his franchise player.
“We will be cautious and careful and not overplay.” Blatt said.
Blatt will also have to be mindful of his frontcourt, as well. Starting center and top rim protector Timofey Mozgov is still not 100 percent following offseason knee surgery and never played more than 25 minutes per game in a single season. Kevin Love has fully recovered from shoulder surgery, but he will need to shake off some rust after 35 minutes combined in the preseason. Tristan Thompson missed all of training camp and exhibition because of a contract dispute, while Anderson Varejao is working his way back from Achilles surgery.
3. The Bulls’ Stout Frontline
The Bulls may have the best frontcourt in basketball thanks to their sheer talent and depth. How deep are the Bulls up front? Former Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah is expected to come off the bench.
Beyond Noah, Chicago will combat Cleveland’s bigs with a group that consists of All-Star Pau Gasol, potential breakout star Nikola Mirotic, Sixth Man of the Year contender Taj Gibson and rookie sensation Bobby Portis. Last season, Gasol (101), Mirotic (101), Noah (102) and Gibson (104) all finished with a defensive rating of 104 or better. Gasol also finished fifth in the NBA in defensive win shares (4.4) and held opponents to 53.3 percent shooting from within six feet of the basket as opposed to 59.9 percent normally.
Additionally, the Bulls as a whole ranked third in contested rebounding percentage (35.6 percent) and pulled down 61 percent of the boards they had a chance at grabbing last season, which was eighth-best in the league. Even with Love healthy and Thompson back in the fold, the Cavs figure to have a tough time both finding offense inside and trying to bully Chicago on the glass. The Bulls’ ability to clog the lane also poses problems for James, who placed eighth in the NBA with 9.8 drives per game.
The opening night clash between the Bulls and Cavaliers will be a nice litmus test for both clubs. A win for Chicago would be proof it can stand toe-to-toe with a team who owned them in the past while Cleveland needs to pile up as many W’s as it can before returning to full strength.