Goodwill: The inevitable clash of NBA titans will live up to its billing

Goodwill: The inevitable clash of NBA titans will live up to its billing

The NBA has resisted the notion of it being a two-team league but the NBA Finals features the two teams who have lapped the field so many times over, 28 franchises got seasick.

But the expected seven-game marathon between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers makes the winter trek and spring slumber well worth it, should it live up to its billing.

And if we’re all honest, as much as a compelling playoff would’ve been welcomed, seeing a classic Finals will be the perfect bleach to a season where we spent most of the time going, “Blech!”

It’s the reward of believing the regular season is meaningless and seeing the playoffs as a meaningless exercise, the possibility of this Finals being the best in recent NBA history.

Two champions facing each other isn’t a rarity, as the Pistons and Spurs faced off in 2005, the Lakers and Celtics met up in 2010 and the Spurs and Heat matched wits in 2013 and 2014. But this version has more spice, intrigue and more long-term ramifications all around.

LeBron James is admittedly chasing the ghost of history as opposed to having a true peer, although the Warriors’ ascension was something he didn’t see coming when leaving Miami for Cleveland after the 2014 season.

Somehow, all roads, all conversations seem to begin and end with him, as he’s made the Michael Jordan comparisons almost seem realistic, even though he should stand alone on accomplishments that have actually exceeded the hype he entered the league with in 2003.

If there’s one way James can be compared favorably with Jordan, it’s this: If there isn’t a considerable gap in quality between the two teams, it’s nearly unfathomable to see a James team lose four times in the next two weeks.

That’s a testament to his will, focus and downright greatness at his age and experience more than it is some perceived race with Jordan. That alone should send a shiver down Golden State’s steeled spine, one that was admittedly hardened by James leading the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit this time last year.

Cleveland’s team was built on the back of the man whose birth essentially guarantees a berth into June in James, reaching his seventh straight Finals, a feat unheard of in the modern NBA. The Cavaliers’ ineptitude in James’ four-year absence—along with some curious bounces in the draft lottery—gave them enough assets to turn into drafting Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson then trading for Kevin Love.

The rest of the roster was compiled by shrewd trades from the bargain bin along with an unspoken pressure from James to ensure ownership spared no expense when it came to contracts, luxury tax penalties be damned.

For Golden State, is it revenge or validation? Well, for the members of the 73-win team that let a 3-1 lead slip away it could be the former, as they’ve been on the end of some not-so-subliminal shots from James and the Cavaliers since last Father’s Day.

For Kevin Durant, it would be the latter considering the criticism he’s taken in the name of competitive balance for joining a 73-win team—after squandering a 3-1 lead of his own last May as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

His transition to the Warriors has made them more than a team whose sum was greater than the individual parts, but now an unstoppable juggernaut with very few weaknesses, if any.

Before his late February knee injury, it could be argued Durant was a top-three MVP candidate with his improved defense combined with an efficient offensive repertoire that was already unfair and impossible to defend.

But perhaps the brightest light besides the one that follows James everywhere he goes and even the places he resides in should belong to Stephen Curry. Having a lackluster Finals in 2016 where it could be argued he unraveled along with getting a front-row seat to Kyrie Irving hitting a winning triple in his face on his home floor could harken some back to Magic Johnson being called “Tragic” after the 1984 Finals.

Whether that label was fair to Johnson or not didn’t matter; It stuck until he redeemed himself from choking away that series to the Boston Celtics. He already had the greatest game a rookie could have with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in 1980 against the 76ers in The Finals, and followed it up with another Finals MVP in 1982.

Curry doesn’t yet have those showings on this stage, and his worse-than-reported knee injury from last June isn’t a problem this time around. He’s yet to produce a moment on this stage worthy of his resume.

He needs this as much as Durant apparently “needs” to show the public he made the right decision by leaving Oklahoma City, as if that matters. As if Durant himself didn’t put up a 30-6 line in the 2012 Finals while shooting 55 percent and 39 from the 3-point line.

But it’s not just the stars. It’s the shuffling of rotations, as the Warriors can go to their Death Lineup with Draymond Green at center, with length and shooting all around.

It’s Tristan Thompson being able to win a game on his own just by dominating the offensive glass. It’s Klay Thompson being able to detonate in a quarter for 30 points, winning a game on his perfectly-formed shooting motion.

It’s Kevin Love being a more confident and better fitting player this year, as a perfect stretch-shooting complement to James’ pinpoint passing. It’s the Cavaliers defense being terrible during the regular season but serviceable during the playoffs.

It’s Golden State having the fortune of Kawhi Leonard’s ankles landing on Zaza Pachulia’s foot, along with the fortune of a league flushing new salary cap money and being able to land Durant while having Curry on the biggest value contract in NBA history.

It’s Golden State’s defense being able to morph into a switching monster of length while hiding Curry’s flaws. It’s Golden State figuring out if Mike Brown will coach for seven games or if Steve Kerr will ride in on his white horse from his painful back ailment to lead his team to a second title in three years.

But who are we kidding here? It’s always about LeBron, right?

Still, though, Warriors will get their revenge, with Curry serving it with cold jumpers to validate his place in NBA history.

Take a deep breath: The injured, rebuilding Bulls are exactly where they’re supposed to be


Take a deep breath: The injured, rebuilding Bulls are exactly where they’re supposed to be

There wasn’t a snowball’s chance that Saturday night was going to be anything other than abysmal. Already shorthanded, the Bulls were without leading scorer Zach LaVine on the second night of a back-to-back facing the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors. Even without Kawhi Leonard and on its own tail end of a back-to-back, Toronto’s roster made the end result feel inevitable. And it was.

The Bulls offense was invisible without LaVine, tallying just 55 points through three quarters and finishing with 22 turnovers and 21 assists. They shot 35 percent from the field while the Raptors scored at will; the 122-83 loss was the fourth worst home loss in Bulls history, and the Raptors largest road win in their history. It was even uglier than the final score.

In a vacuum the Bulls are 4-13, the fourth worst record in the NBA, with the league’s third worst offense and seventh worst defense. The season is exactly one month old and the Bulls already have two four-game losing streaks, another three-game skid and only wins against four sub-.500 teams with a combined record of 16-45. Its best win came against a 7-8 Hornets team that was finishing a four-game-in-six-nights road trip. “Let’s go Raptors” chants breaking out at home while trailing by 38 is probably a new low in a season that’s quickly getting away from the Bulls.

"We have to find a way to stick together through this tough stretch that we've had, and we've got to find a way to build on the good things that we do and start to limit the bad stretches that we have, which are way too many right now," Hoiberg said. "Got to find a way."

It’s been ugly. But in context, the 4-13 Bulls are playing exactly like a team that a) is missing three of its top players, including its best, and b) is in Year 2 of a bare bones rebuild. The Bulls are one year removed from a 27-win season, the franchise’s worst in 14 years. They’re the youngest team in the NBA and on Saturday night played seven players with three years of NBA experience or less.

VP John Paxson told reporters after last season that the tanking Bulls “don’t ever want to be in this position again.” It was an uplifting quote at the time, a sign that Year 2 of the rebuild wouldn’t be as bumpy as Year 1. The reality was that, even when healthy, this rebuild is barely in the simmering stages of fully cooking.

Perhaps Paxson meant he didn’t want to be playing Cris Felicio 30 minutes a night and be actively benching healthy veterans (to the point that the NBA stepped in). But it certainly didn’t mean more wins than losses. Trying to win is different than expecting to win. Las Vegas projected a healthy Bulls team to win 28.5 games for a reason, even in a weak Eastern Conference.

The 2018-19 season’s most important goal was assessing five players: To that point, Zach LaVine is averaging 25 points per game and outplaying the contract some believed he didn’t deserve. Wendell Carter Jr. is on pace to be the first rookie since Joel Embiid to average 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. The other three – Markkanen, Dunn and Portis – are on the shelf and may not be fully up and running until late December or early January.

Only the Denver Nuggets have had more games missed to injury than the Bulls. Denver knew Isaiah Thomas would miss time when they signed him in July as he rehabbed from hip surgery and that rookie Michael Porter Jr. would miss time with a back injury. The Bulls’ four injuries were sprung on them after media day and training camp began.

The result is them changing lineups, rotations, responsibilities and roles on the absolute fly. Cameron Payne hadn’t played significant minutes in 10 days and had 4 points in 22 minutes as a starter on Saturday. Robin Lopez and Felicio remain in a coin flip each night for backup duties behind Carter.

The truth is it’s really not important from a long-term perspective, which is entirely what the Bulls are focused on. Maybe Justin Holiday plays well enough to be traded. That isn’t going to move the needle on the rebuild. Don’t focus on the micro during a macro rebuild.

Markkanen’s magical rookie season, Carter’s impressive start and LaVine hitting everything in sight seems to have increased team expectations. The reality is the roster is still far from competing, even when healthy. The core pieces appear to be there. They’re also 23, 21 and 19 years old.

Rebuilds take time.

The goals will change when Hoiberg’s coaching with a full deck. LaVine and Markkanen must develop a two-man game on the perimeter that punishes defense with a pick-your-poison effect. Dunn and Carter’s pick-and-roll progression will be something to watch, as will Dunn’s perimeter shooting. Bobby Portis is playing for millions of dollars, either on the open market or in Chicago.

The rest is fluff. They’re supposed to look bad right now. The roster wasn’t exactly built to withstand injuries to three major contributors. How many in the league are?

That’s not to say there haven’t been negatives. Jabari Parker has been a bust. There’s no denying the Bulls swung and missed on paying the Chicago native $20 million only to take low-percentage shots, jog back on defense and own up to very little of either. Cameron Payne had an opportunity to showcase his ability as a former Lottery pick and cement his status as the backup behind Dunn. It didn’t happen. Chandler Hutchison to this point has been underwhelming, but like the core pieces he should have a larger role when the calendar flips to 2019.

They’ll have another Lottery pick in a draft class that looks absolutely star-studded. Maybe it won’t be Zion Williamson. But after drafting Markkanen and Carter seventh overall in consecutive drafts, there’s optimism they can find another gem regardless of where they draft. They’ll also have a boatload of money in free agency. Maybe it won’t be Kevin Durant. But Chicago looks liked a much more desired destination than it did 12 months ago.

It certainly can be frustrating to watch given the future seems so far away. But this is what the front office signed up for. The time to evaluate the roster – and even Hoiberg – won’t come for another few months. If you’re truly upset with how the Bulls are playing down three of their top players, you’ve either wagered on them to win 29 games or are Jabari Parker’s agent.

For now, it’s about withstanding the lows and searching for the progression that ultimately will lead to the highs.  Take a deep breath, Bulls fans: the rebuild is where it’s supposed to be.

Lauri, Kris and Bobby are on his way to begin the next chapter.

Justin Holiday continues to string together solid efforts amid tough Bulls losses


Justin Holiday continues to string together solid efforts amid tough Bulls losses

The Bulls came out on fire against the Bucks, putting up 40 points in an explosive first quarter. Unfortunately they followed that up by scoring 41 points in the second half. But the offense of Jabari Parker and Justin Holiday was pretty much the only thing working for Chicago on Friday night.

Holiday’s effectiveness as an aggressive, dependable floor-spacer continues to showcase what makes him such a valuable NBA player. Unfortunately, that value has been mostly squandered on a Bulls team that lacks a diverse offensive attack.

Holiday contributed 9 points on 3-3 shooting from the 3-point line in the first quarter. He kept this momentum rolling in the second, and ended up not missing a single shot in the first half. Holiday ended the first half 6-6 from the 3-point line but went on to only score once more in the second half. He ended the game with 20 points, the second-leading scorer on the night for Chicago.

On a night where Zach LaVine was clearly gassed from the burden of carrying the offense all season (6-20 from the field), only Parker could provide a solid secondary option. Parker’s effectiveness also tapered off dramatically in the second half, as he stopped taking 3-pointers and didn’t get to the free throw line at all. Early season struggles were to be expected from Parker, as he is on a new team with a roster full of young players. But his shot selection is what has been so frustrating to watch. 

Results do not have to be immediate, but seeing as Parker is taking a greater percentage of his shots from long 2-point range than last season, it is clear he hasn’t fully bought in to the idea of getting all the way to the basket or shooting the 3-pointer without hesitation. And that is why players like Holiday—one of Hoiberg’s loyal soldiers from his first year as Bulls coach—are so crucial.

It is clear that Hoiberg’s preferred playing style has stuck with Holiday and hopefully, that it can rub off on the other players.

We have discussed before how his 3-point attempt rate (72 percent) is the perfect indicator of how often he is hunting the 3-point shot. But the problem is that this current Bulls roster needs more players who create 3-point looks for others, rather than knock them down.

Heading into Friday night’s game, Holiday had been assisted on 72 percent of his 2-point shots and 95 percent of his 3-point shots. This season, he has been assisted on 57 percent of his 2-point shots and 90 percent of his 3-point shots. This is an alarming sign for the Holiday, as he has never been a player known for creating his own shot and the decline in assisted baskets means he is being forced outside of his comfort zone on offense.

It is no coincidence that Holiday’s 3-point percentage in November (35 percent) is lower than his 3-point percentage in October (40 percent). He played 34 minutes per game in October before that number got increased to 37 minutes per game in November. Holiday has been in the top 10 in minutes all year and there is no end in sight for his tremendous minutes load with the Bulls being so thin on the wing.

The 2019 NBA offseason for Chicago will likely be about finding players they can comfortably play at the small forward spot. But Bulls fans should appreciate Holiday’s play while he’s here, as he has been one of the team’s more consistent players. Holiday has done a decent amount of leading by example—especially when it comes to playing the way Hoiberg wants to—and continues to show why he can continue to be a valuable piece on this Bulls team.