Bulls

NBA Finals: Cavs-Dubs should deliver after lackluster playoffs

stephlebron060415.png

NBA Finals: Cavs-Dubs should deliver after lackluster playoffs

Let’s be honest, the NBA Playoffs have failed to deliver the excitement we all expected back in April. Outside of the San Antonio-Clippers & Clippers-Houston matchups, most of the series have been one-sided, with the top two seeds advancing to each conference finals.

Atlanta won 60 games during the regular season to finish with the best record in the East, but like many of us predicted the Hawks’ jump-shooting offense was no match for LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Sure, the Hawks were weakened by injuries to DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver early in the series, but that’s still no excuse for getting swept by a Cleveland team that was playing without Kevin Love, and only had a limited Kyrie Irving for two games.

The story wasn’t much better out West, with Stephen Curry and the Warriors dominating Houston in five games. Curry suffered a head contusion after a scary fall in Game 4, and his fellow Splash Brother, Klay Thompson suffered a concussion after taking a knee to the head from Trevor Ariza in Game 5. Fortunately, both players had over a week to recuperate, so we should see the Warriors at full strength in the Finals.

So, which team has the edge? Golden State steamrolled through the regular season with an NBA-best 67 wins, while Cleveland had to go through a feeling-out period with James, Irving and Love playing together for the first time under rookie head coach David Blatt. The Cavs started out 19-20, but finished strong to earn the No. 2 seed in the East. A season-ending injury to Love in Round 1 of the playoffs against Boston could have derailed Cleveland’s title hopes, but they bounced back to beat the Bulls in six and then sweep Atlanta, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of Knicks’ castoffs, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.

[MORE: Bulls enter a new era under Fred Hoiberg]

The key for Golden State in the Finals will be finding a way to keep James from getting into the paint to score on his own or kick the ball out to wide open 3-point shooters. Smith has been on his best behavior and burying the triple during these playoffs, including 47 percent from beyond the arc against Atlanta, and outside of James, he’ll be the main focus of the Warriors’ defense in this series.

Golden State is known for its offensive firepower under Steve Kerr and top assistant Alvin Gentry, who was recently hired as the new head coach in New Orleans. But the Warriors are also among the league’s top ranked defensive teams, and they’ll be able to throw a series of long-armed, active defenders at LeBron in Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. Big Ten fans know all about Green’s defensive tenacity and leadership skills from his days at Michigan State, and he finished second to the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler for Most Improved Player honors while being voted to the All-Defensive first team this past season. Barnes is extremely quick with good leaping ability, while Iguodala is a known commodity as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and is coming off a great performance against James Harden in the Conference Finals, helping to force him into 12 turnovers in the decisive Game 5.

Outside of James’ playmaking ability and brute strength, and the 3-point shooting of Smith, Shumpert and Irving, the Warriors biggest concern defensively will be keeping Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov off the offensive boards. Thompson was a terror on the boards against the Bulls and Hawks, and he’s averaging four offensive rebounds per game in the playoffs. His size and relentless energy could pose problems for a Golden State team that’s lacking in size behind starting center Andrew Bogut.

The Warriors will get frontcourt reserve Marreese Speights back from a calf injury for the Finals, and his size and outside shooting ability should be a nice addition to Kerr’s bench. But keeping Bogut out of foul trouble will be important to Golden State’s success in the series, since he’s been one of the best rim protectors so far in the playoffs.

From the Cavs’ perspective, they’ll have to find the best defensive matchups against the Splash Brothers. It will be next impossible for James to guard Thompson or Curry for 40-plus minutes, while also initiating the offense and being the primary scorer. James seems almost super-human when it comes to his strength and endurance, but he is in his 12th season in the league and has shown more signs of fatigue in these playoffs than we’ve seen in the past.

Chicago area native Shumpert will probably be asked to chase Curry around multiple screens, with Irving drawing Barnes and James on Thompson. But as mentioned, James won’t be asked to guard Thompson for the entire game, and the Cavs might have a tough time hiding Irving on the defensive end, especially when Smith is in the game.

[MORE: Hoiberg's personal touch will bring smiles back to Bulls]

Cleveland has to figure Curry and Thompson are good for about 45 points in every game, and make sure none of the Warriors supporting players have big scoring nights. The Cavs are saying Irving still isn’t fully recovered from the foot and knee injuries that slowed him in the previous two series, but I get the sense there might be some serious sand-bagging going on, and Irving will be back to his All-Star form for the Finals.

Most of the national experts are predicting a Golden State win based on the Cavs’ injury situation and the way the Warriors dominated a much stronger conference. But Cleveland’s defense has been operating at an exceptionally high level in these playoffs, and you can never underestimate the ability of the world’s best player to find a way to carry his team to four more victories.

After all the mismatches we’ve seen earlier in these playoffs, basketball fans should be entertained by a fast-paced, entertaining Finals.

I’m going to call it Golden State in 7, thanks to the Warriors’ 3-point shooting, superior depth and underrated defense. And that would mean Steve Kerr can start sizing up rings for a second hand after winning five as a player with the Bulls and Spurs.

Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago

jabari.jpg
USA TODAY

Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago

Jabari Parker is looking forward to what will surely be an intriguing season for he and the Chicago Bulls.


Parker signed a two-year, $40 million contract, that essentially acts as a tryout for the Bulls. The second year of the contract is a team option, meaning should things not go well, the organization can cut ties with him. But after 183 career games with the Bucks over four seasons, it was clear that Parker was in need of a fresh start. In Chicago, he will slide in as the day one starting small forward, and is already paid like a player who is definitely appreciated by his organization.


But with all of the off the court stuff taken care of for now, Parker's main focus is getting in to the best shape of his life, as he prepares for a full season as a wing player. 


Part of Parker's preparation was a great pickup game in downtown Chicago organized by the Chicago Basketball Club.

 

For Bulls fans itching to get a look at Parker on the court, the video shows off some flashy passing ability, impressive handles and a flurry of pull-up jumpers from the 23-year old forward. He also finishes well in transition in the video, though that is to be taken with a grain of salt as Parker was easily the biggest player on the court. 


Other players in the pickup game included former Simeon teammate of Parker's, Kendrick Nunn; and NBA free agent and former Marion Catholic star Tyler Ulis (a possible Bulls target?). If Parker looks as dynamic against NBA competition as he did in the pickup game below, the Bulls are going to have one of the more valuable contracts in the league in 2020, and would be likely to lock up Parker to a long-term deal. 

Bulls need to develop a secondary playmaker

playmaking.jpg
USA TODAY

Bulls need to develop a secondary playmaker

These are the career points per 36 minutes numbers for the three players who figure to get majority of the field goal attempts on the 2018-19 Bulls:

Zach LaVine: 17.6 
Lauri Markkanen: 18.4 
Jabari Parker: 17.9

There is no debating that this current Bulls roster has multiple players who can flat-out put the ball in the basket. The the biggest questions come into play when you try to imagine how these players will keep each other involved, assuming they take the lion's share of the field goal attempts.

Kris Dunn finished just outside the top 10 in the league in assist percentage (33.3 percent), a higer mark than Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry or Stephen Curry. And though he is a talented passer, what this figure really shows is that the Bulls severely lack a secondary playmaker to take pressure off of Dunn to create shots for others.

Per Ben Falk's site Cleaning The Glass, Markkanen was not able to create for others with his offense, but shockingly, Parker and LaVine did an OK job in the play-making department, considering their reputation as shoot-first players.

Assist rate is a great way to see how much a player is distributing when they are on the floor. And usage rate is perhaps the best way to get an idea of how many possessions a player uses on offense. So naturally, assist to usage ratio is one of the best tools to use to assess a player's ability and willingness to create opportunities for others on offense. What the statistic boils down to is: how often did a player get an assist given how much they had the ball. 

Parker finished last season in the 67th percentile in assist to usage ratio, and LaVine finished in the 58th percentile. These numbers show that both players are capable passers and clearly have the potential to be great setup men.

This is crucial because Markkanen’s development will heavily depend on if he can expand his scoring repertoire, something that looks increasingly difficult with Parker and LaVine, who have averaged a combined 29.5 field goal attempts per 36 minutes for their careers. 

Many times throughout the offseason you likely heard about how the Bulls have many mouths to feed in the locker room. But this doesn’t pertain to just shots, ball-control will be a major concern as well. With incumbent point guard Kris Dunn still a relatively weak floor-spacer (32 percent from 3-point range last season), Fred Hoiberg will need to get creative with his rotations to keep the offense running efficiently. Backup point guard Cam Payne shot 38 percent from the 3-point line last season, and when inserting him into the game for Dunn, Parker would flourish as a point-forward (possibly) surrounded by four competent shooters. Parker could derail the Bulls offense because he is not an elite 3-point shooter, but that issue is mitigated when you put the ball in his hands to let him create.


Parker was fourth in the pecking order in Milwaukee last season, and so it comes as no surprise that his free throw attempts, points and field goal percentage dropped from his 2017 numbers. If you look at the 2017 season (Parker’s breakout season) you see that Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo pretty much split the No. 1 options duties on offense. They each took about 16 shots apiece and combined for 8.2 assists per game. This is a best case scenario for the Parker-LaVine wing duo. 


LaVine has the benefit of coming into the league as a point guard, and he has still retained the ability to make the right pass when it presents itself. And last season, he had an impressive turnover percentage that was just below 10 percent. However, the reason for this was that he averaged 4.34 seconds per touch, a very long time in an NBA possession, usually looking to score and nothing else. It’s easy to avoid turnovers when you aren’t looking to pass.


LaVine usually makes the obvious play if it is one pass away, but he does not move the ball around to prevent the offense from becoming stagnant.


Both LaVine and Parker will have their struggles on defense (understatement of the year), but much more important to their development is understanding that if you give the ball up on offense, it will find its way back to you. This is perhaps the only way a Bulls team that ranked 28th last season in offensive rating, can make a big enough leap in scoring efficiency to make their way back to the postseason.