Bulls

NBA preseason primer: NBA Finals predictions

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NBA preseason primer: NBA Finals predictions

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.

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

We all know what Zach LaVine is capable of doing on the offensive side of things. But what about his defense?

It's no secret that LaVine has had his fair share of struggles on defense, but Kris Dunn thinks highly of his 23-year-old teammate and what his potential is at the other end.

"On the defensive end I just told him, 'You're as fast as me. You're more athletic than me. There's no way you shouldn't be a good defender in this league. You could be one of those guys who could be dynamic in the passing lanes because you're so athletic and fast.'" Dunn said of LaVine. "And personally, I like to score. If you get in a passing lane, that's a dunk for yourself and because you've got so much bounce that's when you get the crowd on their feet — maybe do a windmill, a 360, something.

"But I think he's been going a good job on the defensive end. It's not going to be easy. We all got to learn and I think we're all trying."

Improving his defense would obviously be a big step forward for LaVine (and the Bulls), and he knows it. 

“I think I had a lot better focus on the defensive end,” LaVine said when assessing his preseason. “I had some mistakes too, but I wanted to go out there and just really hone in on being more focused down there. I felt like I did OK with that. Still some areas I want to get better at, definitely off-the-ball I think I did a lot better than I had before.’’

LaVine and the Bulls travel to Philadelphia to face the 76ers on Thursday night in their season opener. You can watch Bulls Pre- and Postgame Live on NBC Sports Chicago before and after the game for highlights and analysis.

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

In a five-game span Wendell Carter Jr. saw preseason action against Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Myles Turner. The 19-year-old rookie had his share of expected ups and downs but performed well enough that Fred Hoiberg officially announced him a starter for the team’s season opener tomorrow night.

His reward for all that hard work? A matchup against All-Pro center Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’ll be an eye-opening experience for the Duke product, who just a year ago was readying himself for his first season of college basketball and a season-opening matchup against Elon. It’s safe to assume Embiid will pose a few more problems than did Phoenix center Tyler Seibring.

“Joel Embiid was one of my role models growing up,” Embiid said before practice Wednesday. “He was someone I always wanted to pattern my game after. Just to go up against him is a remarkable feeling. He’s a very physical player. He’s a very talented player. I’m going to be able to stack up and see what all I need to work on to last in this league.”

While it’s no easy task against a talent like Embiid, who was named All-NBA Second Team last season, Carter’s most important job will be staying out of foul trouble. Carter piggy-backed an impressive Summer League with a preseason that included averages of 7.0 points and 5.6 rebounds in 21.1 minutes. But those numbers also included 7.7 fouls per 48 minutes. He racked up 17 fouls in five games, and had at least three in each.

Embiid only went to the line five times in Tuesday’s season-opening loss to the Celtics, but that was primarily against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Al Horford. Embiid won’t face as much resistance against Carter, putting the pressure on the rookie to stay on the floor.

“He’s going to have to navigate that without using his hands,” Fred Hoiberg said. “We have to be all five aware. It’s just not a one-man problem with Embiid. We have to have great awareness of him and try and mix up coverages and hopefully make him take tough shots, knowing that he’s going to hit some of those. You just can’t get deflated when he does.’’

The decision was a mere formality – Bobby Portis will start at power forward – after the frontcourt combination played considerably better in the Bulls’ final two preseason games. Though Jabari Parker was initially slotted in at power forward following Lauri Markkanen’s elbow sprain, Portis’ impressive preseason forced Hoiberg’s hand. Portis averaged 17.0 points and 5.8 rebounds and shot 55 percent from the field in just 22.4 minutes.

“It’s all about combinations out there and we felt like Bobby gave us a great start with the way he was playing,” Hoiberg said. “And then we kind of changed things up with that second unit and put the ball in Jabari’s hands, so it was more that in trying to get guys out there with the right combinations.”

Lopez may have an expanded role if Carter gets into foul trouble early, while Parker will be the facilitator on a second unit that doesn’t have much in the way of a point guard. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the frontcourt will play out once Markkanen returns in roughly a month; if Portis and Carter continue playing well, Hoiberg could opt to keep them together on the second unit and put Lopez back in the starting lineup.

But for at least Opening Night – the Bulls also get Andre Drummond and the Pistons on Saturday – it’ll be the seventh overall pick getting his NBA feet wet with a matchup against arguably the best center in basketball. But’s it a role he’s earned, and on a Bulls defense looking for any sort of improvement, Carter is the player who can anchor it.

“His defense is always going to be important for us. He’s the guy that’s the anchor in that starting unit at the rim,” Hoiberg said, “and he’s done a really solid job of making perimeter guys taking contested shots when he gets switched off, or staying vertical at the rim and trying to make a big finish over the top of him, so yeah, again it’s a great challenge, great opportunity for Wendell.”