Leading up to Bulls media day on Sept. 28, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze which team will come out of the Western Conference.
Vincent Goodwill: Ahh, so it’s the first week of June. The pretenders have been eliminated and only two teams stand, battling for Larry O’Brien’s gold trophy and the right to have William Felton Russell award some deserving player NBA Finals MVP. But before they’re revealed, how did we get there?
In the West, the Houston Rockets looked quite formidable, but couldn’t make it past the first round, bringing up another round of “playoff re-alignment” catcalls from the peanut gallery. The Clippers took the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the semifinals, but as the Miami Heat learned in 2014, Old Man Riverwalk (Tim Duncan), Kawhi Leonard and new addition LaMarcus Aldridge helps propel the Spurs past the in-turmoil Clippers.
On the other side, the champion Golden State Warriors do everything they can to force Russell Westbrook to ignore Kevin Durant in the final minute of games, including holding up #35 jerseys in front of the other Thunder players to get him to forgo passing to anybody on his own team. Eventually, it only works until Game 5, and Durant finishes the champs off with two 40-point performances in Games 6 and 7 to go to the conference finals.
From there, Westbrook takes over in the conference finals, torching Tony Parker so much it forces Leonard to slide over to defend the Tasmanian Devil, which leaves Durant open for the final wing of his Western revenge tour. The MVP gives Danny Green every bit of 50 in the clinching Game 6, taking the Thunder back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2012.
Mark Strotman: Five years ago Dirk Nowitzki was beginning to plateau as a player. Granted, that plateau still put him among one of the game's best players, but it was apparent as he hit 30 years old he had peaked as a player and needed to shift his focus toward cementing his legacy with an NBA championship. No doubt, we'd still be talking about Nowitzki as one of the game's all-time greats - he'll pass Shaq for sixth on the scoring list this season - but having an NBA championship to his name puts him in another prestigious category.
Fast forward and it's where Chris Paul finds himself. The game's best true point guard enters his 11th NBA season with 65 playoff games to his name, and none in the Western Conference Finals. Paul, 30, is no doubt in the prime of his career much like Nowitzki was, and it also seems like he's reached that peak. The personal accolades have piled in for eight-time All-Star, 2006 Rookie of the Year, 2013 All-Star Game MVP, and so on and so on. You get the point.
It's time for Paul to win. And it almost felt like DeAndre Jordan's 180 back to the Clippers this offseason was a sign that he's got another real chance this year. Remember, the Clips were up 3-1 on the Rockets in the semifinals before James Harden went berserk and, admittedly, Los Angeles choked in a big way.
I'm not into the whole "motivation" cliche with players and teams, but if I were this Clippers team would be the epitome of it. It was easy to see what adding Paul Pierce did to the Wizards in the postseason, and him joining Doc Rivers and the Clippers will have a similar effect. Wes Johnson was quietly a nice signing, and though it took bringing on Head Case of the Century Lance Stephenson, they found a way to get rid of Spencer Hawes.
The bench scares the crap out of me, but Pierce (or Johnson, depending on who starts) will certainly help it. Just as you feel like this could be the Year of KD, it wouldn't surprise me to see Paul have his "Dirk Year" and wind up going toe-to-toe with Stephen Curry in the Western Conference Finals. It's then that Rivers will buck the small-ball trend, utilizing Jordan and Blake Griffin against Steve Kerr's Draymond-Green-at-center lineup, ultimately winning in seven games and getting Paul to the game's biggest stage. It's time to win for Paul, and this is his best chance.
VG: Now in the East, the Milwaukee Bucks emerge as second-round darlings, while the Miami Heat return to some form of prominence, as many sportswriters rejoice over being able to hit South Beach in between games (No word on whether commissioner Adam Silver ruled on all ECF games to be played in Miami, even if the Heat weren’t playing).
But yes, the Bulls and Cavs are back again, albeit on different sides of the East bracket. The Bulls were taken to seven games by the Bucks in the I-94 series, as Greg Monroe makes Pau Gasol appear twice his age by running slight circles around him on the block. Derrick Rose rebounds from an up-up-down-up-down season to put the Bucks away in a Game 7 in Chicago, while Jimmy Butler put the clamps on Chicago native Jabari Parker in the fourth quarter, leaving the locals befuddled as whether to cheer or boo.
The Heat and Cavs don’t quite go the distance, as LeBron James got major satisfaction from putting his old mates away on their home floor, after getting a 3-pointer negated in Cleveland in Game 5 thanks to David Blatt calling an unfortunate timeout, fearing James would miss and he’d get blamed for it.
Setting the stage for the Bulls to stare their tormentors in the eyes yet again, as the Bulls stole Game 2 in Cleveland but gave it right back in Game 3 before losing in six. Thankfully, the Bulls didn’t quit on their home floor, instead going cold in a Thibodeau-like offensive freeze in the last five minutes to thwart yet another chance to get to the Finals.
MS: How did I know after all these previews you'd find a way at the end to properly convey your feelings on David Blatt? Anyway, I'd really love to give a prediction where the Cavaliers don't wind up underachieving early in the year, go on an incredible run after the All-Star break and coast through the Eastern Conference but, well, that's probably going to happen. The reality is it happens every year with a James-led team, and 2016 will be no different. We'll hear the stories about how Kevin Love, despite his nightly 16 and 10, is the wrong fit in Cleveland. We'll hear about Kyrie Irving's "low" assist totals, we'll hear about Iman Shumpert's and Tristan Thompson's salaries and how they aren't worth the money. We'll hear about LeBron's tarnished legacy because the Cavaliers are 12-8 in early December....and then Cleveland will coast to the Finals, four wins away from the ultimate prize.
It's like clockwork. The reality is LeBron wanted to go back to Cleveland to finish career. The reality is also that he wasn't going anywhere near the Western Conference in free agency. The Bulls have a new coach but their roster remains unchanged, the Hawks don't have the personnel to win a serious seven-game series and the Bucks are a few seasons away from becoming the East's version of the Thunder. Pick a storyline, any storyline, and the end result will be the Cavaliers headed back to the Finals.
If I needed an alternate storyline, it's that Jimmy Butler makes the jump to super-stardom, Joakim Noah turns back the clock (to 2013) and Pau Gasol proves he has one more year left in the tank. Derrick Rose becomes the top-5 point he was pre-knee fiasco and Fred Hoiberg changes the culture in a matter of one season. That's the only scenario standing between LeBron James and a sixth - sixth! - straight Finals appearance. In actuality, the preparation the Cavaliers are doing this offseason is to get ready for the NBA Finals. It's not as easy as one sentence, but this team more or less walked to the Finals without Love and a one-footed Irving. Bulls fans won't like it, but they also remember an MJ-led Bulls team in the 90s doing the same.
Cleveland is headed to the Finals. LeBron gets his matchup against close friend Chris Paul and we get LeBron vs. Paul Pierce, CP3 vs. Kyrie and Blake vs. Love.
Vinnie, we've got a lot of work ahead of us before that happens, but I couldn't be more excited to get it going.