Four Score: NBA Finals Preview

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For a few fleeting moments, the fourth Finals meeting between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed in peril. Both teams went down 3-2 in their respective Conference Finals and neither had home court advantage when each series went to a decisive Game 7. But, as has been said for the past three calendar years in the modern NBA, none of those things mattered.

We are getting a fourth installment of the Cavs and Warriors in the Finals, whether we want it or not. Frankly, most everyone knows how this will end. The Warriors are a lot better than Cleveland and just eliminated a 65-win team despite only playing to their potential for one quarter per game, at most.

Nonetheless, let’s do a little Finals preview, shall we?

Iso What?

When Kevin Durant left the Thunder to sign with the Warriors in 2016, he left one of the most stagnant and isolation-dependent offenses in the league to join one of the most free-flowing offenses in the history of the sport. It worked out that way last season, but it hasn’t been the same this year.

In last year’s playoffs, Golden State ran just 6.8% of their possessions in isolation; this would typically come in the form of a favorable one-on-one matchup with either Durant or Steph Curry. This would happen towards the end of the game if Golden State really needed a bucket or at any other time they did. Over their first three Finals runs, ball movement and player movement were the staples of one of the best offenses in NBA history, and that didn’t initially change when Durant entered the fold.

Now, however, it has.

In these playoffs, the percentage of possessions that Golden State uses in isolation action has risen to 11.2%, up nearly 65% from last season.  That’s perfectly fine when you have Durant and Curry, but at some point, your offense stagnates and other players aren’t involved in the action. Of course, this is an uptown problem for one of the most talented rosters in NBA history; the Cavaliers have had higher isolation percentages the past two playoffs and they aren’t nearly as skilled as Golden State. But the Warriors destroyed Cleveland in the Finals last season averaging 29 assists and 121 points per game in just over 100 possessions per game. Against the Rockets, Golden State averaged 21 assists per game and just over 107 points per contest on an average of slightly under 94 possessions. When Cleveland beat Golden State in 2016, each game of the Finals averaged 92 possessions.

The only way the Cavaliers win this series is if they don’t get snookered into playing the Warriors’ style of basketball. The problem is that the Warriors are struggling to play like that themselves.

Worst Supporting Actor(s)

The Cleveland Cavaliers have always been a one-man show. This year, however, the gap in talent between LeBron James and his teammates is more frightening and stark.

In these playoffs, James is averaging 34 points per game and shooting just over 54% from the field. The rest of the Cavaliers are not faring as well; the supporting cast is averaging just 67 points per game and they have been bailed out in these playoffs by seven 40-point games from James. The problem for Cleveland, then, is this: how much more can LeBron do and how difficult will it really be for the Warriors to shut down the Cavs’ offense?

The fact of the matter is that the Cavaliers role players need to be better. While Jeff Green chipped in 19 and J.R. Smith had 12 in Game 7 against Boston, these performances were more of an anomaly than the rule in these playoffs. Kevin Love missed Game 7 with a concussion suffered in the previous game, and even though he provides perimeter shooting and quality rebounding, he will have a very difficult time trailing the likes of even Draymond Green on the perimeter. If the Warriors look to get Cleveland into switching action, he would likely have to defend either Curry, Durant, or Klay Thompson. If that happens (and it will, if/when Love returns), advantage: Warriors, particularly if Andre Iguodala is in the starting lineup (more on him later).

Honestly, the Cavaliers’ supporting cast has never been talented enough to win a championship, whether that was before or after the team nuked its own roster at the trade deadline. Sure, GM Koby Altman did the best he could at that point because the Cavaliers, at the time, were a directionless car moving aimlessly towards the chaotic intersection that is the NBA Playoffs. But even though Cleveland got younger and faster in February, that does not mean they necessarily got better.

LeBron James will have to carry the load once more for the Cavaliers if they want to advance to the NBA Finals. It may be too much for him to handle, not because he isn’t capable, but because the Warriors are too good and his supporting cast is too bad.

Andre Iguodala

This one pretty much explains itself. Iguodala missed Golden State’s last four games of the Western Conference Finals with a knee injury. In the three games with him in the lineup against Houston, the Warriors averaged 116.7 points per contest. Without him, they averaged 100.5. The difference with and without him on the floor is drastic, as Iggy has a +11.1 rating per 100 possessions when he is on the floor in these playoffs.

It seems strange to say this about a team that has four of the 15 or 20 best players in the game right now, but Andre Iguodala is the adhesive that keeps the Warriors clicking on both ends. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said today that the Warriors would have beaten the Rockets in five games with the former Finals MVP healthy, and I have to say that I can’t disagree with him. Golden State likely wins the knock-down, drag-out, 90s-esque battles in Games 4 and 5 with him on the floor, and the fact that the Warriors were able to overcome a 3-2 deficit against a 65-win team without him is a testament to just how much talent is on their roster.

The talent disparity between them and the Cavaliers would become even greater if he finds a way to play in these Finals.

I will admit that I’ve done more comprehensive previews for these series in the past, and apologies if comprehensive is what you were looking for here. The fact of the matter is, though, that the Warriors are at least ten times more talented than the Cavs and, even though it’s a far worse fate than he deserves, LeBron James will get bounced in short order by a team he can’t single-handedly take down for the second straight year.

I’ll give the Cavaliers one win out of respect for the greatest player of all time being on their roster. But I can’t fathom a way in which they win this series, unless the Warriors fall back on the same bad habits that nearly got them knocked out of the Playoffs by a shorthanded Rockets team.

Pick: Warriors in 5

Cleveland Rocks: This Title Is LeBron James’ Greatest Achievement

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates in the final moments of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ten days ago, the Cavaliers were dead.  Today, they’re NBA champions.

How and why we got here has everything to do with the savior of Cleveland and one of the best players to ever play this game: LeBron James.

In our country, we like to have debates about James’ greatness and whether or not he’s one of the best players of all-time.  We also question his ability to come up big in clutch situations; after all, he was just one game away from going to 2-5 in the Finals.

But frankly, these discourses are ridiculous.  They have become outlets for Twitter eggs LeBron haters to vent their frustrations about the best player in the game’s supposed “flaws”.  These people come in all shapes and sizes, and, as last night showed, from many different walks of life:

This is absurd.  Anyone who makes a sincere argument about James’ legacy compared to Jordan’s clearly doesn’t understand just how much basketball has changed over the past 20 years. These people also don’t understand that the two men are completely different players who do completely different things on the court.  LeBron has always been aware of this, thankfully.

He is LJ, one of the best individual talents the league has ever seen.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Let’s stop having preposterous debates about whether or not he’s better than Michael Jordan.  It really does not matter and I could not care less.

What does matter, though, is what he just accomplished with these Cavaliers: winning an NBA championship, the first for the city of Cleveland since 1964.

Moreover, it was the way they did it, coming back despite seemingly impossible odds to defeat the greatest regular season team in NBA history, that makes this so remarkable.  The Cavs demonstrated Cleveland resiliency with a flare for the dramatic, both during the playoffs and over the course of the regular season.

Let me put it to you this way: in mid-January, did you think there was any way this Cavs team could beat the Warriors?  On January 25th and in the wake of the firing of former head coach David Blatt, I wrote this about Cleveland’s prospects of winning a championship:

This is not a question about whether or not the Cavs can come out of the East. That question has been answered. However, Cleveland will have serious issues if they are matched up with the Spurs or Warriors in the Finals, and they may get beaten handily by either team.

Which is a fact that neither David Blatt, David Griffin nor Tyronn Lue can do anything about.

Okay, needless to say, I was wrong.  But I wasn’t alone; the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers by 34 the week before, and James’ team lacked any semblance of chemistry or connectivity; many saw this as a red flag for Cleveland’s title hopes.  Blatt was out as the head coach by that Friday and GM David Griffin immediately hired Tyronn Lue as the team’s permanent coach. Lue’s previous claim to fame was as the guy who got stepped over by Allen Iverson in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals.

The move paid dividends; Lue constructed his lineups to the team could play small.  Playing small is what allowed Cleveland to compete with the Warriors for seven games.

Another thing Lue did was take control of the locker room.  He did this by holding his star players, including James, accountable for their actions, something that Blatt always struggled with.  For example, in a huddle in the middle of a regular season game, Lue told LeBron to, well, you know.

Nevertheless, in spite of Lue’s control over the team and their new style of play, the Cavs would still need players to make individual sacrifices.  In some cases, these concessions came from their best players.  For example, Kevin Love missed Game 3 of the Finals with his concussion.  Prior to Game 4, he told Lue that if he was cleared, he would do whatever was necessary to win the game.  That included coming off the bench, which is exactly what he did in favor of a smaller lineup with Richard Jefferson.  The Cavs lost Game 4, but Love’s individual sacrifice of minutes and his usual starting role set the tone for the rest of the team.

With all of this being said, Cleveland still found itself down 3-1 in the Finals.  This deficit, exacerbated by the fact that Game 5 was at Oracle Arena, left the Cavs in a tough position; no team before this year had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.  James and sidekick Kyrie Irving would need to step up to keep the team’s season alive.

That’s exactly what they did, combining for 82 points in a 112-97 victory to force a Game 6 at Quicken Loans Arena.  Each player scored 41 points, marking the first time in NBA history that two teammates scored 40 or more points in a Finals game.

James continued his domination in Game 6, with a 41-point, 11-rebound, 8-assist performance to take the series to a deciding seventh game.  That game, and the NBA season, would come down to the wire in a fitting end to the Cavaliers’ year.

Game 7 was tight throughout, as the largest lead for either team was seven points.  A Klay Thompson layup with 4:39 to go in the fourth quarter tied the game at 89, and it would stay there for almost four minutes.  The Warriors’ best chance to score during this period came on a fast break with just under two minutes left.  As Andre Iguodala went up for the lay-in, James made what is likely the best block of his career and maybe one of the best in NBA history:

Roughly a minute later and with the game still tied at 89, Irving got a mismatch against Steph Curry.  The rest is history:

A Curry miss on the next possession gave the ball back to Cleveland.  James was fouled on a violent dunk attempt over Draymond Green and, in spite of hurting his wrist on the play, was able to sink one of two free throws to put the Cavs up four.

The Warriors missed two shots on the next possession, ending the game, the season, and Cleveland’s suffering.  After the game ended, many Cavalier players collapsed to the floor, overcome by the emotion of the moment and the enormity of the victory.

And after all that, the Cavs are, albeit improbably, champions today.

To conclude, the Cavs were a team of adversity this season. They faced issues with chemistry, coaching, and injuries to do something that’s never been done before: come back to win the NBA Finals after being down 3-1.  James was the unanimous Finals MVP; he averaged nearly 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists… for the entire series.  Yeah, not bad.  Not bad at all.

He may not be the best player of all-time, or even in the NBA today.  That doesn’t matter.  LeBron James just pulled off the greatest accomplishment of his career: bringing a championship back to The Land.

Let’s applaud him for that.

The NBA Finals Is Upside Down, So Let’s Just Enjoy It

lebron james game 6 stats nba finals 2016 points rebounds assists steals
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Nothing easy… we’re going to Game Seven baby!  Game Seven! GAME SEVENNNNNNNN! – Zaza Pachulia

I’m going to say something I never thought I’d say.  It took a long time to get to this point, but since we’re here, I might as well tell the truth.

I give up trying to figure out these NBA Finals.  The twists, the turns, the mouthpiece tosses.  I really don’t know how Game 7 will go and I’m still trying to figure out how we got here.  It’s not worth it to sort out the particulars of the first six games of this series because the Finals actually makes less sense to me when I do.

But we can at least try to decipher the first six games and look ahead to Sunday night’s Game 7.  The key word: try.

For one thing, we’ve found our Finals MVP.  Ironically, it’s the same person that should’ve won the award last year: LeBron James.  He’s actually leading every statistical category in this series, as noted by ESPN Stats and Info:

James has so clearly been the best player on the floor in this series.  Moreover, no player on the Warriors has distinguished himself nearly enough to wrest the award away from him, and that holds true even if Golden State wins Game 7.  If you’re only watching the Finals and didn’t follow the regular season, you would think that LeBron was the unanimous MVP and not Steph Curry.  That’s saying something.

And there’s more bad news for the Warriors.  Andre Iguodala, last year’s Finals MVP and primary LeBron defender, suffered a back injury in last night’s game.  While he’s definitely going to play on Sunday, his health may be the difference in the game. There’s another thing I never thought I’d say.

And Iguodala’s injury has other ramifications, too.  The Warriors are already thin in the frontcourt, with Andrew Bogut out for the Finals with a knee injury.  Without his minutes and the normal services of Iguodala, players like Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes would likely have to spend more time guarding James.

Green may be able to hold his own, but the bigger question mark is Barnes.  After I wrote about how Barnes would need to play better for the Warriors to win a championship, he promptly had the worst game of his life in Game 6.  Barnes went for 0 offensive rebounds, 0 assists, and 0 points last night.  This is hard to do (especially as a starter), but the legitimately did nothing on the offensive end of the floor.  So who knows where his mind is right now.

Yet another issue for the Warriors comes from an unlikely source: Steph Curry.  The back-to-back MVP struggled with foul trouble in Game 6, fouling out for the first time this season. After his sixth foul, he had this memorable reaction.  He would assuredly like to forget it:

Soon after Steph fouled out, his wife, Ayesha, tweeted out this thought.  I don’t even know what to say about it that would correctly encapsulate its stupidity:

Ayesha Curry puts out a theory (via Twitter).

Ironically, after saying she “won’t be silent”, she deleted the tweet.  It was a good move, as the tweet only received at least 28,758 retweets.  It’s not like the whole world saw it or anything.

But, regardless of his wife’s thoughts, Steph needs to stay out of foul trouble in Game 7.  The Warriors need his offense on the floor to win their second straight championship.  Even though he’s been outplayed by Kyrie Irving in this series, he is still capable of going off at any particular time.  His chances of doing so are exponentially greater if he doesn’t have to go to the bench with early foul woes.

And then there’s the issue of the Warriors’ “death lineup”.  While it had flourished earlier in the series, it was outscored 27-9 in Game 6.  Part of that is the injury to Iguodala, but the Cavs deserve a great deal of credit here.  On multiple occasions, the team used pick and roll action to switch Curry or Klay Thompson on James.  Curry’s foul trouble, combined with LeBron’s massive height and strength advantage over both players, led to several easy baskets for Cleveland.

The other problem is that without Bogut’s rim protection, the Warriors have no way of stopping these switches.  If Green (who plays center in the death lineup) helps on LeBron, he leaves Tristan Thompson open.  Because Bron is such a good passer and Thompson is so good at cutting toward the basket, the result often ends in an alley-oop dunk, as it did several times in Game 6.

Golden State has several issues.  These issues are so significant that they may make the difference in this series.  But this is about more than the Warriors; it’s also about LeBron.

We’ll never know why James was so much less assertive in the first four games as compared to his last two.  However, since he and Kyrie Irving decided to take things into their own hands the last two games, the Cavaliers have been a totally different team.

There is one Cavalier player, though, who could seriously step things up in Game 7: Kevin Love.  Last night, Love only played 12 minutes, plagued by foul trouble and ineffectiveness.  At this point, Tyronn Lue may want to bring Love off the bench outright, as he’s only getting role player minutes in his current capacity.  Richard Jefferson once again stepped into his role and outplayed him, and he may be worthy of the Game 7 nod.  Then again, the Cavs got here with Love, so their allegiance to him in their starting lineup is very understandable.

At this point, I’m about out of ways to figure out this series.  I don’t know how we’re here, with the greatest regular season team in NBA history on the verge of the worst collapse the league has ever seen.  But this series really is even; both teams have scored 610 points over the course of the last six games.  In spite of the fact that none of the games have been within single digits, the NBA Finals is as even as it could be.

I have a feeling Game 7 is going to be epic.  It will pit the league’s two biggest stars against one another in a winner-take-all bout to determine legacies and history.  I’ve given up trying to figure out this series, so I’m going to enjoy Sunday night’s game as the culmination of a fascinating NBA season.

You should too.

The Cavaliers Are Not a Better Team Without Kevin Love*

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 17: Kevin Love #0 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate during the second quarter of the NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena on April 17, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Pistons 106-101. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images

*But his absence helps Cleveland stack up against the Warriors.

When Kevin Love suffered a concussion in the first half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, opinion was split on his impact to a Cavs team facing a 2-0 deficit against the Golden State Warriors. Some thought Love’s injury and, later, his inability to play in Game 3 would spell doom for Cleveland; others felt his absence would actually help the team.  Still others believed that the series was already over regardless of Love’s presence.

Sure enough, the Cavaliers rocked the Warriors by 30 in Game 3, inserting themselves back into the series.  They did so without Kevin Love.

So it was no surprise that after the game, many pundits pointed to Love’s absence as a case of addition by subtraction rather than a crippling loss.  Here are just some headlines from the postgame reaction:

The Cavaliers Should Trade Kevin Love This Summer, But Where? (SB Nation)

Let’s Face the Facts: The Cavs Are Better Against the Warriors Without Kevin Love (CBS Sports)

It’s Time for Cavs, Kevin Love to Decide If They Fit in or Fit Out Together (Bleacher Report)

It looks like some are already jumping ahead to this summer, one that should see the salary cap rapidly approach $100 million.  Whether or not the Cavaliers wish to keep Love may be impacted by the fact that the team is almost $24 million over the league’s $84.7 million luxury tax for this season; Love’s contract calls for a cap hit of over $20 million every year until 2020. While Dan Gilbert has exhibited the willingness to win no matter the cost, financials could play into the Cavs’ ultimate decision on Love.

But there really isn’t time to worry about this now.  What we can pay attention to is the Cavaliers’ NBA Finals matchup with the defending champions and single-season wins record holders, the Golden State Warriors.

And the fact is, Cleveland is probably better, at least in this series, without him.

In Game 1, Love shot 7-17 and scored 17 points.  However, he only shot 3-10 from inside the paint and 2-5 from inside three feet.  The Cavs’ offense was off all night, resulting in a 38% shooting performance which included a 23-60 showing from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Love.  The Warriors took Game 1 104-89, a win that saw Golden State’s bench score 45 points.  By contrast, Cleveland’s bench scored a paltry 10.

Both teams would move on to Game 2.  In that game, Love went up for a rebound against the Warriors’ Harrison Barnes.  Barnes drilled Love with an elbow to the back of the head, leaving him down in a heap as play continued.


Why the game proceeded as Love was down in such a dangerous area of the floor is beyond me.  Luckily, Draymond Green was able to jump to his side and avoid landing on him as he elevated for the subsequent layup, avoiding more serious injury for the Cavs’ big man.  The game should have been stopped to give Love time to get out of the way before grown men of his size (and bigger) came flying at his twisted body.  But I digress….

The Warriors would follow up on the injury by pulling away and taking Game 2 by 33 for a 2-0 lead and undisputed control of the series.  Love would enter the NBA’s concussion protocol after re-entering the game in the second half as a dizzied, compromised version of himself.  Some thought the Cavaliers would be a compromised version of themselves in Game 3.  As it turns out, they were just the opposite.

With Love’s inability to start Game 3, the team would turn to soon-to-be 36-year-old Richard Jefferson to start in his place. While many (including myself) called for Tyronn Lue to start Timofey Mozgov, the team’s only true center, the move to Jefferson wound up paying dividends.  The team shot 52.7% from the field, including 12-25 from three, en route to a 120-90 drubbing of the Warriors.

While there are other factors at play (namely the struggles of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson), what the Cavaliers did on Wednesday night was nothing short of remarkable.  Jefferson’s insertion into the starting lineup made a big difference in several ways.

For one, the Cavs’ offense was run much more simply with Jefferson.  Kyrie Irving and LeBron James handled the ball on almost every possession.  Decisions were made far more quickly.  The ball movement was far sharper than it was in Games 1 and 2; 17 and 15 assists in the first two games, respectively, became 23 assists in Game 3.

Nonetheless, we do need to look beyond the numbers for a full explanation of the Cavs’ stunning turnaround.  For as simple as this sounds, James, Irving, and the rest of the offense executed in ways they didn’t in the Bay Area.  For example, look at J.R. Smith.  Smith, the alwaysenigmatic sharpshooter who has found a way to revitalize his career in Cleveland’s winning environment, struggled to patch together any offense in the first two games.  Lo and behold, Game 3 rolls around and Smith puts up 20 points on the strength of five threes.

That leads us to another theory: do the role players for each team play better at home?  In watching the Cavaliers in this series, the answer would have to be yes.  Role players such as Smith and Tristan Thompson, who struggled in Oakland, pieced together outstanding performances in Game 3, doing their part to turn the tide of the Finals.

That being said, the Cavs need to sustain their performance in Game 4 and beyond.  Curry and Klay Thompson will figure out their perimeter woes sooner or later, and when they do, the Warriors will be difficult to contain.

But while sustainability may be an issue, the Cavaliers are better equipped to win this series with Jefferson in the starting lineup. In Game 3, Jefferson’s offensive rating (140) and defensive rating (94) were just two figures of how his presence improved the rest of his team.  As I alluded to before, the Cavs just played faster with him in the starting lineup; that applies to both ends of the floor.  All of a sudden, defensive switches were far quicker.  The Dubs’ pick-and-roll wasn’t as deadly as it was in the first two games.  And, last but not least, the Cavs were able to run their offense through James and Irving, which greatly simplified Cleveland’s offensive sets and put less impetus on role players to create baskets.

And I’ll say this since we seem to like talking about this year’s Finals in the context of last year’s: is Richard Jefferson the 2016 version of Andre Iguodala?  Unlike Iguodala, Jefferson did start five games in the regular season, but the similarities between the two players and their teams’ circumstances from last year to this are interesting, to say the least.  Iguodala was undoubtedly asked to do more a year ago, from defending LeBron to helping the slumping offense go small; Jefferson’s main role is to knock down threes and defend the Warriors’ wings (Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Green).  Golden State’s primary offense does not come from those players, so RJ’s assignment becomes much easier.

But Jefferson’s role in the Cavs’ (at least temporary) turnaround is nothing short of impressive.  The offense and defense run far more smoothly with him on the floor, something that can’t be said about Love.  Love is a better player than Jefferson at this point in their respective careers and in most matchups, the former helps the team win.

However, the best starting lineup for the Cavaliers to combat the Warriors is one that includes Richard Jefferson, not one with Kevin Love.  And after seeing how well Jefferson played on Wednesday, why shouldn’t he start again in Game 4?  It is a tough quandary for Lue (who, all told, is only 58 games into his NBA head coaching career), but how could you break up a starting lineup that went a combined +113 in Game 3?  I would think that Love has to come off the bench, wouldn’t you?

If he does, the Cavaliers would probably be better for it.  That’s not something that is usually said about Love, but his style of play and slow-footed defense is incompatible for this series and this opponent.

But the player who can hold his own against the Warriors and help his team succeed is Richard Jefferson.

And that’s why he should get the start in Game 4.

The Five Most Important NBA Free Agents This Summer

July 1, tomorrow, marks the beginning of free agency in the NBA.  Free agency is typically the signing period that provides the most intrigue during the league year, and it also provides teams the chance to improve on last year’s showing and build a title contender. This year is no different, as there are plenty of key free agents that could be changing teams. This list will be the five most important free agents this year, not necessarily the best ones.  So let’s get started, with the five most important NBA free agents this summer.

5. Jimmy Butler


Current team: Chicago Bulls

If you don’t think Butler is important to the Bulls’ future, take from Jordan Campbell of the Fansided blog Da Windy City:

Last season for the Bulls, player 1 averaged 17.7 points per game while shooting 40.5% from the field. Player 1 shot 28% percent from three-point range while also averaging 3.2 rebounds per game and 4.9 assists per game. In the playoffs, player 1 averaged 20.3 points per game while shooting 39% from the field to go along with shooting 34.8 percent from three-point range with 4.8 rebounds per game and 6.5 assists per game.

Player 2, last season for the Bulls, averaged 20 points per game while shooting 46.2% from the field. Player 2 shot 37.8% from three-point range last season while averaging 5.8 rebounds per game and 3.3 assists per game. In the playoffs, player 2 averaged 22.9 points per game while shooting 44.1% from the field to go along with shooting 38.9% from three-point range with 5.6 rebounds per game and 3.2 assists per game.

From last season alone, the stats suggest that player 2 should be “The Guy” going forward for the Bulls’ organization. Player 1 was Derrick Rose while player 2 was Jimmy Butler.

Butler, then, it could be argued, was the most important player on the Bulls’ roster last season. Derrick Rose, at just 26, played only 51 games last season in his return from myriad knee injuries. And even then, D-Rose suffered another tear to his medial meniscus in February.  If Rose cannot stay healthy consistently, the Bulls will have to turn to Butler to pick up the load offensively.  Butler already takes care of much of the perimeter defense on that end, but his shooting and slashing ability with that defense is what gives him the most value to the Bulls, and those are the reasons why the Bulls need him.

4. Marc Gasol


Current team: Memphis Grizzlies

Gasol has been a target of many teams’ interest, namely the Knicks and Lakers.  However, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein, Gasol is not interested in leaving Memphis:

Gasol is a player that brings rim protection on defense and versatility on both ends of the floor.  It would make sense why he would stay in Memphis: he has a good team, a great situation, and the chance to get more money, as the Grizzlies are allowed to offer him more money and tenure than any other team can.  He is worthy of a max deal, and I would not be surprised if the Grizzlies give it to him.  It doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t important.

3. Kevin Love


Current team: Cleveland Cavaliers

Much has been documented about the relationship between Love and LeBron James, both on Twitter, in the press, and in the locker room.  James tweeted this, seemingly randomly, in February:

However, LeBron later admitted that the tweet was aimed straight at Love.  Love’s role in the Cavs’ offense has also diminished, as his per game figures in points, field goal attempts, and free throw attempts were the lowest they’ve been since his rookie year.  Even though the Cavaliers played just as well, and at times better, without Love in last year’s Playoffs, it looks like they and, most importantly, LeBron, want him back next year:

Love is an incredibly important asset for the Cavaliers and their future.  James needs the support offensively as he gets later and later in his career. He isn’t going to be able to score 35-40 points per game in the Finals every year; that’s why he needs Love and Kyrie Irving.

2. LaMarcus Aldridge


Current team: Portland Trail Blazers

LaMarcus Aldridge is done as a Portland Trail Blazer and has teams lining up for his services, according to’s Ramona Shelburne:

According to one source, the chance of Aldridge staying with the Portland Trail Blazers is “very unlikely.”

Knicks star Carmelo Anthony has already called Aldridge, sources told ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard.

The Knicks will emphasize that in the Eastern Conference, the road to becoming an All-Star and a playoff team is much less clogged than in the West. reported in May that the Spurs and Mavericks strongly believe they’ll have a great shot to lure Aldridge back to his home state of Texas. But sources said last week that Aldridge is actually thinking more and more about a free-agent jump to the Lakers.

The Lakers, sources added, firmly believe they will now be in the Aldridge hunt. And there is a rising sentiment, sources said, that the Lakers have edged past the Mavericks on Aldridge’s wish list even though he was a high school star in Dallas.

The Spurs, sources say, continue to be Aldridge’s most likely destination if he goes through with the idea of leaving the Blazers to start anew. The contingent for San Antonio’s pitch to Aldridge is expected to include Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich, according to multiple media reports.

The Knicks are not getting LaMarcus Aldridge.  Their pitch of going to the Eastern Conference to win makes sense, but they take it too far when they insinuate that he is more likely to become an All-Star in the East.  Take a guess who started at power forward in this year’s All-Star Game, on the West team.

It was LaMarcus Aldridge.

With the Knicks out of the picture, LMA is very likely to stay in the Western Conference.  The Mavericks are an unlikely destination, as they already have an All-Star power forward in Dirk Nowitzki, and while Dirk is nearing the end of his career, putting the two together may not make the most sense.

The Lakers are an obvious contender because they have holes to fill and are looking square in the face at a future without Kobe Bryant.  With D’Angelo Russell drafted, Aldridge can come in and, post-Kobe, play a role similar to the one he had in Portland; being set up by a (potential) star point guard.  Would he want that, though?

The Spurs are the clear front-runner to land Aldridge, and even though they will have to part ways with Danny Green or Tiago Splitter to get him, the decision is a no-brainer.  Tim Duncan is very likely to come back for at least one more season, and the Spurs could use a replacement for him if/when he retires. Aldridge can give Timmy room to work in the post and can space the floor with his jump shooting.  The combination of big men makes perfect sense, and the Spurs should do everything in their power to get him, even if Gregg Popovich has an early bedtime.

1. LeBron James


Current team: Cleveland Cavaliers

Duh.  This one is self-explanatory.  All reports seem to state that James is coming back to the Cavs, even though he may want to be sure that the organization is doing its part to improve the roster. He was carrying an entire team on his shoulders during the NBA Finals; he won’t want to go through that again.  He is the best player in the world, and the Cavs will take no chances in re-signing him.

Assessing the Cavaliers Chances Without Kevin Love

Even though the Cavaliers finished off the Celtics in a sweep today with a 101-93 win, they paid the price for it.  In the first quarter, the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk and Cleveland’s Kevin Love were chasing a loose ball near the sideline when Olynyk appeared to foul love by holding his left arm.  Love then appeared to grimace in pain, and he was in a lot of it; he grabbed his shoulder and ran toward the bench area.  Then, something strange happened.  Love didn’t stop at the bench to receive attention; he ran (sprinted, actually) toward the Cavs’ locker room.  While the severity of the injury is not yet known, Love missed the remainder of the game and was diagnosed with a dislocated or separated shoulder.  He will receive more medical attention when the team returns to Cleveland.  For his part, Love felt that the play was dirty and said so after the game, saying: “I thought it was a bush-league play.  I have no doubt in my mind that he did it on purpose.”  While we should not accuse Olynyk of foul play, we can assess if the Cavs have any chance to win the championship without him.

First, the important thing: the average timetable of return from this type of injury is normally four weeks.  That would bring him back for around game 3 or 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals if his team gets that far without him. Assuming the Bulls close out Milwaukee at some point, there will be major matchup problems for the Cavaliers to compensate for.  For example, Love would be matched up on Pau Gasol of the Bulls.  While Love’s defense is not the greatest, what he brings on the offensive end cannot be ignored.  His ability to space the floor and make life easier for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to create shots will be missed.

Speaking of Love’s three point shooting, 41.2% of his field goal attempts this season have been from three point range, a career high.  While much has been made of this as a negative for Love, as all of his major statistics have dropped this season, it could have been expected with his being traded from the Timberwolves last season.  However, his ability to shoot three pointers is vital because it brings the big men of other teams out to the perimeter, making them guard him at least 20 feet away from the baskets.  This creates more room for jump shots, and even if they are missed, allows bigs like Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson the ability for easy putbacks.  So the next time you complain about Love staying out at the perimeter too much, realize that he is actually helping his team that way.

In one of my previous articles, I had picked the Cavaliers and the Bulls to play each other in the conference semifinals.  In that same article, I said that the Cavaliers would win said series in seven games.  Well, that was then and this is now.  I do not believe that the Cavaliers can beat the Bulls without Kevin Love.  While it is not the same type of backbreaking injury such as the torn ACL that Bulls star Derrick Rose suffered in the first game of the 2012 playoffs, it should make the difference between the Cavaliers winning the series by a hair to them losing it by a hair. While they will not lose a step defensively with the athletic Tristan Thompson manning Love’s position, the team will suffer offensively, as Thompson cannot shoot jump shots very well.  This inability to spread out the defense will also lead to the Bulls being able to help/double team on LeBron and Kyrie.  This will lead to more difficult shots, and while Thompson is a better offensive rebounder than Love, getting shots to go in in the first place will be an enormous task.

Another thing to think about is how long J.R. Smith will be out after his decking of the Celtics Jae Crowder.  Early in the third quarter, Smith and Crowder were fighting underneath for position.  Smith hit Crowder hard on the jaw, and Crowder also suffered a nasty leg injury on the play.  After the game, Smith said he was “nervous as hell” about a potential suspension.  This is important because Smith, in the starting lineup, has an innate ability to shoot three pointers off the catch rather than having to dribble to create.  If forced to sit, it is unknown who would start in his place.  Potential replacements include backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova, or, in the more likely solution, defensive ace Iman Shumpert.  Both are solid three-point shooters, but are not as good as Smith.

Given the injury and impending suspension, look for the Cavaliers to struggle.  Because the Bulls are coming.