4 Things We Learned From the Bulls vs. Cavs Series
*Photo via USA Today
What We Learned from the Bulls vs. Cavs Series
1. LeBron James is still the king of the NBA
James has enjoyed a long run as the top basketball player in the world. In the past seven seasons James has four first place finishes, one second place finish, and two third place finishes in the MVP voting. Not including this season (the results have not been announced yet), James has made first team All-NBA and first or second team All-Defense in each of those seven years. James will now be playing in his fifth straight Eastern Conference Finals after helping lead a depleted Cleveland Cavaliers team to victory over the Chicago Bulls. If Cleveland beats the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, it will also be the fifth straight NBA finals appearance for King James. As all of these facts prove, James is an extraordinary basketball player.
Whether you like him or not, all fans should be able to agree upon James’ greatness as a basketball player. Despite his continued dominance, this year was the first time in a long while that some fans questioned whether James still held the title as the league’s undisputed best player. He has finally entered his 30s in his 12th season in the league, and it appears as if some
young stars on the rise are ready to challenge him.
In a few years fans will be debating between players like Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis as the top player in the NBA as James ages. While the end of James’ rule in the NBA may finally be in sight, he has continued to prove that it is not here yet. He is still a unique and dominant physical force, and his skills and basketball IQ continue to improve.
Cleveland limped into the Chicago series and appeared unlikely to advance. Anderson Varejao was already out, Kevin Love separated his shoulder, and J.R. Smith was suspended the first two games of the series. In addition, Kyrie Irving kept suffering nagging injuries throughout the series that prevented him from playing at 100%. Nonetheless, James willed his undermanned
Cavalier team to victory like no other player can.
One player can have a huge affect on a team in basketball, more so than other sports like baseball and football. Nevertheless, one player can’t carry a team alone. A superstar can be enough to carry an underwhelming supporting cast to a playoff berth, but success in the playoffs requires a team effort. The only player that may be able to carry a team on his own is James. The fact that he has carried this Cleveland team this far is truly mindboggling.
James is not exactly playing with the most intimidating supporting cast, especially without Love and Varejao. He is playing with a limping sidekick in Irving, two players a 17-win New York Knick team traded for essentially nothing in Smith and Iman Shumpert, and a power forward who does not know what hand to shoot with in Tristan Thompson. “Key” off-season acquisitions Shawn Marion and Mike Miller have provided little to nothing in these playoffs, and the same can be said for recently signed Kendrick Perkins. Lebron’s 2014-15 supporting cast may be just as poor as the one he carried to his first NBA finals in 2006-07. At age 30, James is already a clear top ten player to ever step on an NBA court. A third NBA title, and first in Cleveland, with this supporting cast could cement his legacy as an unquestioned top 5 player ever.
2. Jimmy Butler is more than worth a max contract-
Many of Chicago’s players were underwhelming in the playoffs. Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic were key bench contributors in the regular season, but their playoff performances were lackluster. Players like Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, and Mike Dunleavy were too inconsistent.
Perhaps the most disappointing player for the Bulls was Joakim Noah. In 2013-14 Noah finished 4th in the MVP voting, won defensive player of the year, and was named the first team All-NBA center. This year he was a liability in the playoffs. Noah’s defense was not at his usual level and opponents hid their worst defender on him. He has never been known as a scorer, but in the past teams at least respected him on offense.
The only player that didn’t disappoint for Chicago in the playoffs was budding star Jimmy Butler. The NBA’s Most Improved Player has shown that he is the Bulls’ future. He is arguably the league’s best perimeter defender and has now become a proven 20-point scorer. Butler is heading into restricted free agency, which means that the Bulls will have three days to match any offer sheet Butler signs with another team. The Bulls should sign Butler to a max contract the second free agency begins. They should not risk upsetting their best player at any circumstances and must lock him up for the long term.
3. There is still a place in the league for players like Tristan Thompson-
Thompson is part of a breed of NBA players that appear to be phasing out of the league. Many teams see no place on their roster for big men that can't provide at least one of the two of long-range shooting on offense or rim protection on defense. Thompson is an undersized power forward that provides no spacing on offense and limited rim protection on defense. Despite these disadvantages, Thompson has played a huge role in Cleveland’s success and is proving his worth just before he enters restricted free agency. Thompson has spent his entire career in Cleveland since being drafted by the Cavs in 2011. After selecting Irving with the first pick of the 2011 draft, the Cavs drafted Thompson with the fourth pick in the same draft. After his rookie season Thompson made the unheard of decision to change his shooting hand.
Through his rookie season in the league Thompson had always shot with his left hand. Thompson decided to change his shooting hand for his free throws and jump shots to his right hand, a switch he has since maintained. Thompson has been an important bench cog for the Cavs all season, completing his third straight year in which he appeared in all 82 games for the Cavs. Now that Love has joined fellow big man Varejao on the IR, Thompson has been inserted into the starting lineup.
Thompson’s most important attribute for the Cavs is his offensive rebounding prowess. Thompson finished fifth in total offensive rebounds this season despite coming off the bench, as well as fourth in offensive rebound percentage. In Cleveland’s 10 playoff games from rounds one and two, Thompson is averaging 3.9 offensive rebounds (9.4 total rebounds) per game in 32.4 minutes of action.
In order to continue their playoff success, the Cavs need Thompson to continue his strong play and to keep out-hustling opponents for rebounds. If Thompson keeps it up, Cleveland or some other team will reward him handsomely in free agency.
4. This Bulls team is not good enough-
Chicago’s loss to Cleveland concludes yet another disappointing season in the Rose era. The Eastern Conference looked as weak as ever and the Bulls finally had a relatively healthy roster come playoff time. There are absolutely no excuses for losing to this Cavalier team.
On paper the Bulls have the best team in the conference. Unfortunately for the Bulls, the game is not played on paper, and now the Bulls head into the offseason with many questions. The Bulls will not have any cap space once they sign Butler to a new contract (a near certainty). Other than Butler, the only rotation players heading into free agency are reserve point guard Aaron Brooks and starting small forward Mike Dunleavy.
The Bulls will have their first round pick (pick #22) and the mid-level exception to find replacements for Brooks and Dunleavy, or to re-sign them. With Kirk Hinirch aging and Rose’s injury history, the Bulls must either re-sign Brooks or sign/draft his replacement. If the Bulls are unable to re-sign Dunleavy, they may not feel the need to add a replacement. Dunleavy’s successor may already be on Chicago’s roster in the form of Tony Snell or Doug McDermott. The Bulls will need to draft wisely, make good use of their midlevel exception, and hope for internal improvement from players like Snell, Butler, McDermott and Mirotic if they are going to improve next season