Bulls

The NBA Finals Sequel: A series neither Golden State nor Cleveland can afford to lose

The NBA Finals Sequel: A series neither Golden State nor Cleveland can afford to lose

With the exception of “The Godfather”, the sequel is rarely more compelling than the original, but the NBA Finals could challenge that conventional theory as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will make history with a win or become dubious with a loss.

The rematch many anticipated tips off Thursday night in the Bay Area, with each team coming in equally motivated in what is likely the most hyped matchup since 2010 when the Lakers and Celtics squared off in a rematch of the 2008 series, with the Lakers avenging an embarrassing six-game loss with a seven-game triumph.

The Warriors have embraced the challenge of going after history all season long, and are now four wins away from completing the task of not only repeating as champions but finishing off a 73-win season, breaking the record of the 1996 Chicago Bulls by one game.

The defending champions have emerged weary but emboldened after being the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Conference Finals to the Oklahoma City Thunder, while the Cavaliers have gone through the East, largely untested and healthy.

A loss for the Warriors awakens the doubters who say jump-shooting teams can’t win championships, despite the resounding evidence from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s displays over the last week and last two seasons as a whole.

Curry, the NBA’s first unanimous MVP, is battling knee and ankle injuries he suffered in earlier rounds, but looks healthier with his lateral movement, as evidenced by his ball-handling dancing in Game 7 of the Conference Finals Sunday night, freeing him up for jumpers against Oklahoma City’s big men who had been able to stay with him earlier in the series.

A loss for Curry perhaps stops the coronation to crown him as one of the best in this era, although one could say he’s proven plenty at 27 years old.

A loss for Golden State sullies a transcendent season, particularly those in Chicago who are clutching their Michael Jordan beads, believing that somehow the Bulls will be erased or lessened by Golden State’s greatness.

For Cleveland, a loss would merely add to the list of championship failures for a city that hasn’t won anything in over 50 years, adding to LeBron James’ record in NBA Finals’ series, already at 2-4 — which overshadows the fact James has become the face of June basketball, reaching the NBA Finals for the sixth straight time, a mark that hasn’t been attained since members of the great Celtics teams of the 1960s.

Last season, James carried the Cavaliers with historic performances in the absences of co-stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the Cavaliers’ six-game loss to Golden State, a series in which they led 2-1 before dropping the final three.

This year, James has acquiesced a bit, aiding Irving and Love but Irving in particular, as Irving was leading the Cavaliers in scoring before the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals when James took over.

But the turning point could have occurred months ago in Cleveland, when Golden State strutted back into Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, the building where they clinched last year’s title, and trounced Cleveland on national TV, leading by as many as 43 points.

It led to David Blatt being fired days later in favor of Tyronn Lue and the reconstruction of the Cavaliers’ style began shortly thereafter. They added long range shooter Channing Frye and seemingly, began preparing for a rematch with Golden State by playing Warriors-like basketball.

They play smaller, with shooters around the floor and in the second round, combated Atlanta’s trapping defense with a record amount of 3-pointers in the four-game sweep.

But it’s dangerous to try to beat Golden State at its own game, even if James is on the roster, even if the team is healthier this season. Finals rematches in the last 30 years or so usually favors the scorned team, but with the narratives surrounding both and considering Golden State’s quest for validation, it’s hard to see which team is more motivated to win.

Either way, it’s a series neither can afford to lose and will go to the limit.

Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago

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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

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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.