The Bulls are currently in the middle of a four-game-in-five-night week, and I must say, kudos to the NBA schedule makers for giving them about as easy a stretch as they could hope for. Four games against Eastern Conference bottom-feeders is a nice way for an already banged-up team to grind out some wins. And after these four games, the Bulls have the pleasure of playing the Pistons, who continue to suffer through Josh Smith's pathetic shooting.
The Bulls have taken care of business in the first two games of the stretch, although it wasn't always pretty. Both the Magic and Bucks were able to stick around for much of the game, but enough timely offense coupled with the Bulls tightening the screws defensively on a young team led to victories. While the wins haven't been all that inspiring, they're still wins, and that's all that matters yo.
As expected, there has been both good and bad with this Bulls team that's working through injuries to try and find some continuity. On the positive side, the Bulls' offense has been quite good despite injuries to Derrick Rose and others.
*WARNING: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERTS*
The Bulls currently rank ninth in the league in offensive rating at 106.8 points per 100 possessions, and the 57.9 percent true shooting percentage is good for fourth, per NBA.com. Chicago hasn't exactly faced any defensive juggernauts (only the Bucks rank in the top third in defensive rating, and they've played some pretty awful offenses thus far), but it's still a positive to see some efficient offense, especially considering the injuries. There have been contributions from everywhere, which highlights the depth the Bulls possess.
I'd really like to point out Jimmy Butler, who appears on the verge of a monster season. Butler currently sports a true shooting percentage of 61.2 percent despite an utter lack of a three-point shot, because he gets to the line at will, shoots a ton of layups and has displayed a mid-range game that hasn't been there in the past. Specifically, we've seen several nice fadeaways out of the post a la Michael Jordan. Maybe Stacey King was getting at something! (I'll show myself out)
It's still early, but perhaps Butler is that second shot creator on the wing the Bulls have been looking for. His ability to get to the line creates a ton of points, and he has also flashed an improved dribble-drive playmaking game. Something he's particularly good at is driving baseline and whipping a pass to the opposite corner for an open three. We saw that in action late in the win over the Bucks when Butler set up Kirk Hinrich for a clutch three.
On the other side of the coin, the Rose stuff is annoying already, but it's just something we'll have to deal with. After watching him shuffle around for much of the night in Milwaukee, I would have no issue ruling him out the final two games of this four-game stretch. The Bulls can win without him, and it should lead to more minutes for some of the younger guys.
Kevin discussed the issues with the defensive rebounding, and while it truly has been awful, hopefully it's just due to the injuries/sickness/whatever the frontcourt is dealing with. Not having Noah around obviously hurts the Bulls' defensive rebounding efforts, and perhaps Gibson's ankle is limiting him in that regard. I will note though that Pau Gasol is really bad at boxing out, and his lazy efforts have led to many a offensive rebound.
But despite the poor defensive rebounding, the Bulls are still seventh in defensive rating because they're tops in the league in opponent field goal percentage and opponent three-point percentage. Chicago is giving up just 3.8 three-point makes per game, which is a full make less than the next closest team.
If all goes as expected, the Bulls should be 7-1 before their next tough game, which is next Thursday in Toronto. Then comes what should be a gimmie against the Pacers before the Circus Trip begins. Getting to that trip 8-2 or 9-1 would obviously superb, and it could create a nice cushion between Chicago and Cleveland.
Ah yes, let's talk about Cleveland.
Like the Heat in 2010-11, there were going to be some growing pains for Cleveland. Basically a whole new team. A new coach. New expectations. But I don't think many envisioned it starting this poorly.
The Cavs are 1-3 after Gordon Hayward put his nuts on their face (on multiple occasions), and that came a day after an embarrassing showing in Portland. Cleveland really should be 0-4 and Chicago 5-0 if not for that rather generous continuation call in Kyrie Irving's favor against the Bulls last Friday.
There are issues abound in Cleveland, but it all starts with LeBron James. It was easy to use the jitters excuse for James' atrocious opening-night effort in the loss to the Knicks, but he hasn't looked quite like himself in the other games either. He hasn't shot over 50 percent in any of the Cavs' four games, a regular-season stretch that hasn't happened since 2011-12 in Miami. He's shooting just 50.0 percent at the rim, per NBA.com, and he seems to be lacking both strength and explosion after losing a lot of weight in the offseason.
More worrisome for the Cavs is James' defense. It was visibly slipping last year, and it has been just plain bad to start this year. I'm not sure if he's hurt, coasting or just flat out declining, but it has been ugly. I saw Hayward drive right past him in the fourth quarter on Wednesday and I thought to myself "How the hell is that guy going to guard Derrick Rose in the playoffs down the stretch?" (yeah, yeah IF Rose is healthy)
The Cavs' defense in general was believed to be an issue coming in, and nothing that has happened thus far has squashed those concerns. Cleveland is giving up 109.7 points per 100 possessions, and a big reason is because they offer little resistance in the paint. The Cavs are allowing opponents to shoot 59.0 percent on shots less than eight feet, which is the sixth-worst mark in the league, per NBA.com. Breaking it down even further, SportVU says Cleveland is giving up a 57.6 percent mark at the rim, fourth-worst in the league.
This will happen when you lack legitimate rim protectors. Anderson Varejao, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson aren't exactly an imposing defensive trio, and I've noticed some bad habits that Love has carried with him from Minnesota. Love has a tendency to not even get his hand up to contest a shot even if he's in the vicinity of the man he's guarding, and opponents are shooting 66.7 percent against him at the rim, per SportVU. That's awful.
I could probably go on and on about the Cavs' defensive woes (looking at you, Kyrie), but what's more shocking is how pitiful the offense has been. With James not himself and the ball stopping way too often, Cleveland is playing at the second slowest pace in the league and has an absolutely ordinary offensive rating of 100.5, per NBA.com.
With all this talent and a supposed innovative offensive head coach in David Blatt, many figured the ball would be whizzing around the court, leading to countless open looks. That's simply not happening thus far, which was highlighted in the loss at Utah. The Cavs had just six assists on 30 field goals (Irving had ZERO in 45 minutes), and on far too many occasions, guys were just standing around watching the person with the ball. According to SportVU, Cleveland passed the ball just 277 times in the game, compared to 444 for Utah. SportsCenter showed a stat yesterday saying Cleveland has the highest percentage of isolation attempts in the league. Also, SportsVU ranks the Cavs last in assist opportunities per game. This is shocking when you think about it, but not shocking at all if you've watched them play.
In addition to the struggles on the court, things aren't exactly peachy off it. James has been rather critical of his teammates to the media, and he and Irving have already "exchanged words," according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst. Dion Waiters isn't happy with his role and was moved to the bench against the Jazz, making that a situation to monitor moving forward.
That bench, by the way, is thin already and will be even weaker with Matthew Dellavedova missing time due to an injury. That thin bench has led Blatt to play his stars heavy minutes, with James, Irving and Love all playing over 38 minutes per game.
With all this being said, the Cavs will turn it around. There's too much talent for that not to happen, especially on offense. The defense is a bigger project and will likely never be "good," but some adjustments and improvement in effort should help. A little luck will also help, as opponents are currently shooting an unsustainable 49.5 percent from mid-range against Cleveland, per NBA.com. Opponents are also shooting 48.7 percent on contested field goals, per SportVU, so that's not helping either.
But as long as the Cavs are struggling, let's have some fun and really #HateHard. Every Cleveland loss is a plus in terms of getting the top seed, and hopefully the Bulls can get some early separation to start the season.