It has been three years of bad injury luck for the Chicago Bulls. The team has looked the part of a contender for bits and pieces over the past few years, but injuries have robbed Chicago of any chance it had of truly contending.
So, it must be odd for those in Chicago to see the Bulls as the healthier team in the second straight postseason series.
Chicago obviously still wears the scars of some injuries. Derrick Rose is as up and down as you’d expect from a player returning from three knee surgeries. Joakim Noah has spent most of this year looking like a shell of his former self following offseason knee surgery. But Chicago will have a full roster heading into the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and the same cannot be said of its opponent.
The Cleveland Cavaliers will be without star forward Kevin Love for the duration of the playoffs, and without starting shooting guard J.R. Smith for two games following his suspension. (I know, I’m shocked J.R. lost his mind in a playoff game again, too.)
Much has been made of Love’s struggles this year, but the Cavaliers were simply a much better team with Love on the floor. Since acquiring Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, the Cavaliers had a +13.5 net rating with Love and a +1.6 rating without him, per my esteemed colleague Kelly Scaletta. The Cavaliers looked the part of a title contender with Love on the floor, whether he has looked great or not.
LeBron James was a much better player with Love this year because of the spacing Love provided. James had an eFG% of 55.3 with Love on the floor this season and just 49.4 with Love off it, per nbawowy.com. With Love, James got to the basket with more regularity. 36.9 percent of his shots came from within three feet with Love on the floor, but that number drops to 30.7 percent with Love not in the game.
Even though the Cavaliers didn’t use Love creatively enough this season, playing Love still allowed them the look of a small ball lineup on offense while not sacrificing size on the other end. Love is a bad defender, but he could have helped clean the glass against a Chicago team that goes hard after its own misses.
With Mozgov rolling to the rim, the Celtics have no good place to send help on the drive, because James is so adept at finding the open man.
The Cavaliers love running a four-out system, meaning only one player is inside near the rim on offense (via YouTube):
On this James isolation, the Celtics are spread out and have to scramble when Evan Turner gets beat. Tyler Zeller has to step up to defend James, so Bass rotates down to cover Tristan Thompson. This leaves Love all alone for an open three.
This system is going to be a lot harder to play with Love out. The Cavaliers’ best replacement for Love talent-wise is Thompson, but playing Thompson and Mozgov together would kill the spacing for the Cavaliers. Cleveland can only play four-out with a shooter in Love’s space, and Smith’s absence will exacerbate spacing problems. Smith is one of the best three-point shooters on the Cavaliers and has a quick release, making it really hard to send the man defending him for help.
Without Smith and Love, there aren’t any great answers for Cleveland. James Jones got a lot of run when Love couldn’t play earlier in the season against the Bulls, but he’s just a standstill shooter who doesn’t offer anything else. Matthew Dellavedova had a good year shooting from distance, but was woefully incompetent at everything else offensively. Mike Miller and Shawn Marion figure to get some playing time, but expecting a lot out of either of them is extreme optimism.
Chicago knows the Cavaliers’ dilemma and does a good job game planning against non-shooters. The Bulls refuse to help off elite shooters, but bend defensive principles against players whose shooting is a question mark. Any time James drives with two non-shooters on the floor, Chicago will send help. The Cavaliers will be forced to get creative when playing Mozgov and Thompson together, and live with the defensive consequences when Jones or Miller are in the game.
The Bulls’ struggles against James are well-chronicled, but one thing the team does well against him is turn him into a jump shooter, particularly when he has to play with non-shooters on the floor. Look at the shot chart James had when he played the Bulls earlier this season without Love (via ESPN):
James was a monster when he got inside, not missing a single shot at the rim. But only six of his 26 shots came there, as the Bulls made him settle for contested threes and mid-range jumpers. Without Love, the Bulls clogged up the lane and dared players other than Kyrie Irving and James to beat them. Chicago consistently had bigs help on James and gave him a ton of attention when he got to the rim. This helped result in a game where James had just four assists and committed eight turnovers. Even though he had 31 points, it took him 26 shots to get there. Combine that with the assist-to-turnover ratio, and Chicago will definitely live with that kind of efficiency from James.
James is still an amazing talent and will certainly be ready for what the Bulls throw at him. But Chicago can devote more resources to containing him with Love out, and that makes the Cavaliers’ margin of error on offense much smaller.