Bulls

Bulls-Cavaliers: Who's got the edge?

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Bulls-Cavaliers: Who's got the edge?

We're just hours away from the start of Bulls vs. LeBron IV.

And before the second round playoff series begins, we're taking a look at each area of the game to see which team has the edge.

Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill has the Bulls analysis, with Bulls Talk producer Mark Strotman handling Cleveland.

Backcourt

Cavaliers: Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I don't believe Kyrie Irving's playoff inexperience is much of an issue. This is a star who has been in the national spotlight all year long and performed admirably. He was the MVP of the FIBA championships this summer, he has an All-Star Game MVP to his name and had a target on his back all year. There isn't going to be a stage too big for the 23-year-old, including a semifinals series against the Bulls that's going to feel more like a 12-round boxing match. The issue, of course, is he'll have to hold the fort down without J.R. Smith for two games. Iman Shumpert will see an uptick in minutes, and he showed some glimpses in Game 4 against the Celtics, going for 15 points and 10 rebounds after Smith was ejected and Kelly Olynyk went Ronda Rousey on Kevin Love's arm. When Smith returns, the Cavs backcourt will comprise two starters who combined to make better than 40 percent of their 3s this season. And while Smith won't be directly paired up with Jimmy Butler (can't wait for the LeBron-Jimmy showdown) he and Irving have the firepower to match the Bulls backcourt, even if they aren't relied on as much as the Chicago guards. This could be the series that propels Irving to super stardom.

Bulls: It depends on which Bulls backcourt shows up in the series, although the Bulls feel pretty confident in having an edge—if LeBron James doesn’t decide to play point guard. But if Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler combine to shoot 10-for-41 like they did in Game 5 against the Bucks, it doesn’t matter what they do in any other facet of the game because the Bulls will be going home. But one suspects they’ll have their share of shots and opportunities because the Cavs don’t have two perimeter stoppers. Rose’s 26 turnovers in the first round are a bit of a concern, but the fact he’s only played 10 games means the longer the first-round stretched out the better it was for him to shake the rust off. Rose and Butler’s versatility can twist the Cavaliers’ team defense into a pretzel, and force Cleveland to making matchup adjustments it doesn’t want. Aaron Brooks has a place in this series, unlike the first round. They have to find a way to get him on the floor with Rose and possibly Butler at the same time. That opens things more up for Butler to roam on the perimeter off the ball, getting him to score in different ways without having to stress himself as a ball handler—if he isn’t burning himself out guarding LeBron.

Edge: Bulls. Even if Irving goes off, the Cavs don't have enough perimeter defense to slow down the tandem of Rose and Butler.

[MORE BULLS: NBA Executives predict the Bulls-Cavs series]

Frontcourt

Cavaliers: With Love sidelined, the x-factor in this series becomes Tristan Thompson. In 15 games as a starter he averaged 12.6 points on 55 percent shooting, 9.7 rebounds and nearly a block in nearly 37 minutes per game. Further, he averaged 9.3 rebounds per game, including 22 offensive rebounds, in four games against the Bulls. He'll be relied upon heavily on the glass, with Joakim Noah sure to make him work for every board. Timofey Mozgov absolutely bullied Pau Gasol in three games (13.3 points, 11.3 rebounds), but after a quiet first round I have a feeling Gasol wants to remind people he was an All-Star starter and has two rings in his trophy case. Then there's LeBron James. It almost feels like whatever advantage the Bulls have in this series, one could rebut, "but Cleveland has LeBron" and have a solid point. Make no mistake: the two-time NBA champ gets up just a little bit more for these series against Noah and the Bulls. 2015 will be no different. The difference this time around may be that James sees additional time at the 4, much like he did later in his tenure with Miami. Whether he's able to sustain that physicality inside for seven games remains to be seen, but I wouldn't bet against him.

Bulls: The name I keep hearing from league executives concerning this series is Taj Gibson. If he’s healthy and active, he’ll be depended on to do everything, from guarding LeBron James to trying to keep Thompson away from the offensive glass. Milwaukee revealed the blueprint for possibly taking Pau Gasol out of the offensive plan with hard double teams, although its unique personnel makes it a bit difficult to duplicate. This series will test whether Gasol can sustain a high level of play after carrying the Bulls for stretches to close the regular season. Joakim Noah has to make the Cavaliers at least think about him on offense, and he may find himself unwillingly chasing around perimeter players when Cleveland goes small. One has to wonder if the Cavaliers’ small ball takes Nikola Mirotic out of this series because he would struggle covering their wings, but he’s too valuable to keep on the bench, assuming he’s completely recovered from his knee injury. Mike Dunleavy is the one shooter the Bulls can rely on, hitting nearly 55 percent from 3 against the Bucks and he’ll likely get a similar number of open shots this go around. Tony Snell will possibly see some time guarding James if Thibs wants to give Butler a rest on defense, but he’ll have to make the perimeter jumper to stay on the floor. Hitting 35 percent, as he did in inconsistent run against the Bucks, won’t cut it.

Edge: Cavaliers. Though they'll be shorthanded in the department, James won a pair of championships playing power forward. But watch out for Gibson in Round 2.

[MORE BULLS: Bulls get another 'best chance' to beat LeBron James]

Bench

Cavaliers: With two starters on the sidelines, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert are expected to enter the starting lineup. That's not a terrible drop-off with the starting unit, but it makes a woefully thin bench that ranked last in the NBA in points per game even thinner. One of Mike Miller, James Jones and Shawn Marion will need to step up, while Kendrick Perkins must provide some stability after he returns from a Game 1 suspension. Shumpert is going to loom large all series. With his ability to defend both guard positions he could log major minutes, especially if the Cavs go small ball with James at the 4. In the regular season the Cavaliers defense was nearly 7 points per 100 possessions better with Shumpert on the floor. That Cavs bench isn't going to score with the Bulls second unit, but if they can lock down defensively and play even it'll give them a chance while James and Irving get some rest.

Bulls: The Bulls are deeper here and more dependable, while the Cavaliers are a top-heavy bunch. Mirotic, Gibson and Brooks have to receive the opportunities to have an effect on this series, although benches traditionally shorten during the playoffs. Brooks will be absolutely crucial here and it cannot be stated enough, as he can run circles around Kyrie Irving and anyone who takes up a few extra minutes at point guard. That’s the one way the Bulls can force the Cavaliers to switch their personnel when they go small, because he can stretch their defense in the same ways they plan to stress Chicago’s. If they can maintain health, it could be the very reason they emerge in Games 3 and 4 back at home

Edge: Bulls. Even before the injuries and suspensions this was the Bulls' category to lose. Now? It's not close.

[MORE BULLS: Jimmy Butler faced with task of slowing down LeBron James]

Coaching

Cavaliers: David Blatt faced a talented Brad Stevens in the first round and swept the series, but we'll simply chalk that up to player personnel being in Cleveland's massive favor. Now, not only does Blatt face an uphill battle against one of the league's most experienced playoff coaches, he'll have to do so without his third best player. How Blatt manages his rotations and who he decides to plug in without Love in the fold could make all the difference in the series. I do expect James to see most of his time at the 4, but then Blatt will have to figure out who to plug in at the 3. He's got to find a way to get productive minutes out of Perkins, and get some sort of production from the aforementioned wings (Miller, Jones, Marion) who haven't been asked to do much of anything significant all year. One advantage, as always, is Blatt has the game's smartest player on side. Still, he's got plenty of decisions to make.

Bulls: Here’s where Tom Thibodeau can shake the “stubborn” label, because the Cavaliers’ ever-changing lineups will have to force Thibs to be flexible. Perhaps the Bucks weren’t talented enough to force Thibs to truly switch it up, but moving LeBron James to power forward for long stretches will test Thibodeau’s ability to match up with an opponent by going small when his advantage is playing big. Going against a novice in Blatt will give him an assumed edge he’ll be expected to exploit. Finding a place for Noah and Gasol in the lineup, let alone Mirotic, when the Cavaliers go small, could turn Thibs into Houdini because it’s looking like a high-stakes game of chicken. Will he go exotic and put Gibson on James, or Snell, to give Jimmy Butler a breather every now and then? If he can create some combinations that places extra pressure on a team that’s already adjusting on the fly, especially in the first two games on the road…?

Edge: Bulls. Blatt's going to earn his money this series, while Thibodeau has perfected his rotation for just about every conceivable scenario.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Intangibles

Cavaliers: Your team is always the favorite in the playoffs when LeBron James is leading the way, as the four-time MVP seemingly always elevates his play on the game's biggest stage. And while this group hasn't done it, James has knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs each of the three times they've met. That intangible alone - as well as having home-court advantage - must have the Cavaliers feeling good about their chances. Everything has broken the Bulls' way leading up to Game 1, but until the Bulls find a way to knock off James' team they should feel good about the series. Plus, with Love and Smith sidelined it almost feels like the Cavs are now the underdogs in a way, which could help relieve some of the pressure they'll feel when the series begins.

Bulls: If not now, when? At some point, you have to get tired of seeing the same man knock you out of the playoffs year after year. The Cavaliers are presumably still figuring themselves out, and most feel they’re a juggernaut in the making. But if they’re still learning, the Bulls have to figure they’re the best teachers for a hard playoff lesson. How long will Gibson stay healthy? Can you count on Gasol to play at this level for years to come? And Rose’s long-term health is always a question mark, although one can see how much this run means to him. If they feel it’s their last best chance at something significant, they’d better throw everything into it. And they’re healthy, unlike the Cavs. Again, if not now, when?

Edge: Cavaliers. Just a kid from Akron > Just a kid from Chicago. James has sent the Bulls home packing three of the last five seasons. Until he's on his couch watching, having the best player in the world on your side is an advantage.

Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need

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USA TODAY

Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need

The Bulls are in need of talent. That much is clear after a 27-win campaign in which they finished ranked 28th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’ll add a pair of prospects next month, with two selections in the first round, and presumably take the next step in their rebuild. Talent is important, that can’t be overstated. The Bulls should stick to their board and take the best player available nine out of 10 times.

But as much as the Bulls need an influx of talent, versatility in the backcourt might be a close second. And while there isn’t really any player at No. 7 that would fit that bill – they could reach for Collin Sexton – there are a number of versatile guards, in a class dominated at the top by bigs, who could be there when the Bulls are on the clock at No. 22.

Meet Wichita State guard Landry Shamet. That classic NBA buzzword “versatile” is thrown around more often than ever before. The idea that a player can play multiple positions, can defend 1-3 or has the potential to learn two spots at the next level. Then there’s Shamet. He’s actually done it.

He arrived in Wichita as a shooting guard, the Shockers’ highest-rated recruit in nine years. A broken foot cost him all but three games of his freshman season, but he returned in 2016 and made an immediate impact, including a shift to point guard midway through the season; the move went seamlessly, as he led the Shockers in assists (3.3) and was 14th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.00). He matched Kentucky freshman point guard DeAaron Fox in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 20 points on 7 of 14 shooting in a loss.

He remained at point guard in his sophomore season and dominated, earning an honorable mention All-American nod while leading the team in points (14.9) assists (5.2), and 3-pointers (2.6) per game for a Shockers team ranked in the top 25 all year, and as high as No. 3 in December.

He had the ball in his hands plenty at Wichita State, but his shooting hardly suffered. A point guard in name, his shooting may be his best attribute. In his final two seasons Shamet shot 44.1 percent from deep on 354 attempts. He was the nation’s best spot-up shooter when Greg Marshall used him off the ball, and made multiple 3-pointers in 23 of 32 games.

His versatility can best be explained as such: He was the only player in the country – and just the 13th since 1992 – to average at least five assists, 2.5 3-pointers per game and shoot 44 percent from deep. The 6-foot-5 guard brings shooting, facilitating and length defensively to the table. It’s no cliché.

“I feel like I can step in and do whatever a coach needs me to do, whether it’s playing on the ball being a facilitator/playmaker/initiating offense, or a guy you’ve got to honor off the ball (as) a spot-up shooter,” Shamet said Friday at the NBA Draft Combine.

He struggled shooting in the 5-on-5 scrimmages over the two-day span, but also noted that he accomplished his main goal of defending well. His 6-foot-7 wingspan will be looked down upon in an era where measurements mean more than ever, but he also had a 39-inch max vertical (12th best) and a 3.11 three-quarters court sprint (10th best).

He admitted he’s more athletic than some give him credit for – as his vertical would suggest – but that his game is more “cerebral” and making the right decisions.

“I feel like I have a high IQ, a cerebral player,” he said. “I’m not going to wow you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. I feel like I’m a solid player, pretty steady across the board.”

It’s a skill set the Bulls could use. His numbers and measurements look similar to Denzel Valentine, who has drawn mixed reviews in two NBA seasons and is really the closest thing the Bulls have to a “versatile” guard; Valentine was one of 21 players with 140+ 3-pointers and 240+ assists, 12 of whom were All-Stars.

Shamet also has seven inches of vertical leap and a quicker sprint as far as Combine times are concerned, and he’s a more natural fit as a point guard than Valentine. Shamet said two players whose games he studies include Malcolm Brogdon, a less-than-flashy guard who won 2017 Rookie of the Year making just about every correct play. Brogdon possesses the same sneaky athleticism – ask LeBron James – has shot 40 percent from deep in two NBA seasons and has a 2.62 A/TO ratio.

“You don’t want to step out of your comfort zone and be somebody you’re not, so out here I’m trying to be me, be solid, (and) make the right play all the time,” he said. “I don’t rely on my athleticism, I like to think the game. So I try to just be myself.”

Kris Dunn is cemented as a point guard for the Bulls’ future, and the front office sang Cameron Payne’s praises at season’s end, though he’ll be a free agent after next season. But Dunn, Payne and Jerian Grant combined to shoot 33.6 percent from deep, and even Payne’s 38.5 percent shooting came in a limited, 25-game span.

Shamet wouldn’t be a home-run pick, and certainly not a sexy one. Those picks have burned the Bulls in the past with players like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and even Valentine. Shamet is 21 years old and has had two major foot surgeries. But the skill set is one the Bulls have needed for some time. And in a draft where the Bulls will be searching for talent, adding a player who fits the bill as a team need as well makes sense.

Versatility is Wendell Carter Jr's calling card

Versatility is Wendell Carter Jr's calling card

Wendell Carter Jr. didn’t come to the NBA Draft Combine with the boastful statements made by his peers, refusing to declare himself the best player in a loaded draft.

But it doesn’t mean he lacks for confidence.

Carter Jr. is one of the more intriguing prospects in next month’s draft, even though he doesn’t come with the heavy fanfare of what many expect to be the top three picks.

One of those top three players was Carter Jr’s teammate at Duke, Marvin Bagley III, relegating Carter Jr. to a supporting role of sorts in his lone collegiate season. He couldn’t turn college basketball upside down as a freshman; He didn’t have the opportunity to, still averaging 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 29.1 minutes last season.

“Bagley's a phenomenal player. He came into college basketball, did what he was supposed to do,” Carter Jr. said. “My role changed a little bit but like I said, I'm a winner and I'll do what it takes to win.”

Like he said, considering it was the fifth time he patted himself on the back, describing his positive attributes. It didn’t come across as obnoxious, but more an affirmation, a reminder that his willingness to sacrifice personal glory shouldn’t overshadow his ability.

“I'm pretty versatile as a player,” Carter Jr. said. “I'd just find a way to fit into the team, buy into the system. I'm a winner. Do whatever it takes to win.”

When asked about his strengths, he didn’t hesitate to say he’s “exceptional” at rebounding and defending, certainly things teams would love to see come to fruition if he’s in their uniform next season.

Playing next to Bagley and not being the first option—or even the second when one considers Grayson Allen being on the perimeter—forced him to mature more in the little things.

“It was (an adjustment) at first,” Carter Jr. said. “I knew what I could do without scoring the ball. I did those things. I did them very exceptional. I found a way to stand out from others without having to put the ball in the basket.”

“I think it did do wonders for me. It definitely helped me out, allowed me to show I can play with great players but still maintain my own.”

If he’s around at the seventh slot, the Bulls will likely take a hard look at how he could potentially fit next to Lauri Markkanen and in the Bulls’ meeting with Carter Jr., the subject was broached.

“Great process. I was just thinking, me and him together playing on the court together would be a killer,” he said with a smile.

“I know they wanna get up and down the court more. The NBA game is changing, there's no more true centers anymore. They wanna have people who can shoot from the outside, it's something I'll have to work on through this draft process.”

An executive from a franchise in the lottery said Carter Jr’s game is more complete than Bagley’s, and that Carter Jr. could be the safer pick even if he isn’t more talented than his teammate.

It’s no surprise Carter Jr. has been told his game reminds them of Celtics big man Al Horford. Horford has helped the Celtics to a commanding 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals over the Cleveland Cavaliers, in no small part due to his inside-outside game and ability to ably defend guards and wings on the perimeter.

Horford doesn’t jump off the screen, but he’s matured into a star in his role after coming into the NBA with a pretty grown game as is. Carter Jr. has shown flashes to validate those comparisons.

“Whatever system I come to, I buy in,” Carter Jr. said. “Coaches just want to win. I want to win too. Whatever they ask me to do. If it's rebounding, blocking shots, setting picks, I'm willing to do that just to win.”

He was also told he compares to Draymond Green and LaMarcus Aldridge, two disparate players but players the Bulls have had a history with in the draft. The Bulls passed on Green in the first round of the 2012 draft to take Marquis Teague, and in Aldridge’s case, picked him second in 2007 before trading him to Portland for Tyrus Thomas.

As one can imagine, neither scenario has been suitable for framing in the Bulls’ front office, but whether they see Carter Jr. as a the next versatile big in an increasingly positionless NBA remains to be seen.

“I definitely buy into that (positionless basketball). I'm a competitor,” Carter Jr. said. “Especially on the defensive end. Working on my lateral quickness, just so I could guard guards on pick and roll actions. Offensively I didn't show much of it at Duke but I'm pretty versatile. I can bring it up the court. Can shoot it from deep, all three levels.”

His versatility has come into play off the floor as well, deftly answering questions about his mother comparing the NCAA’s lack of compensation for athletes to slavery.

Carter Jr’s mother, Kylia Carter, spoke at the Knight Comission on Intercollegiate Athletics recently and made the claim.

“The only system I have ever seen where the laborers are the only people that are not being compensated for the work that they do, while those in charge receive mighty compensation … The only two systems where I’ve known that to be in place is slavery and the prison system, and now I see the NCAA as overseers of a system that is identical to that.”

As if he needed to add context to the statement, Carter Jr. indulged the media members who asked his opinion on the matter—or at least, his opinion of his mother’s opinion.

“A lot of people thought she was saying players were slaves and coaches were slave owners,” Carter Jr. said. “Just the fact, we do go to college, we're not paid for working for someone above us and the person above us is making all the money.”

As sensible as his comment was, as direct as his mother’s statements were, he still finds himself in a position where he has to defend his mother. In some cases, teams asked him about her—but that’s not to say they disagreed with her premise.

“My mom is my mom,” Carter Jr. said. “She has her opinions and doesn't mind sharing them. In some aspects I do agree with her. In others...you'll have to ask her if you want to know more information.”

“I never thought my mom is ever wrong. But I think people do perceive her in the wrong way. Some things she does say...that's my mom. You have to ask her.”

The versatility to handle things out of his control, as well as understanding how his season at Duke prepared him for walking into an NBA locker room should be noted.

There’s no delusions of grandeur, despite his unwavering confidence.

“I'd come in and try to outwork whoever's in front of me,” Carter Jr. said. “That's the beauty of the beast. You come into a system, There's players in front of you 3-4-5 years and know what it takes.”

“I would learn those things and let the best man win.”