The NBA season rarely plays out the way you think it's going to. The first 30 percent of the schedule typically serves as a good reminder of that.
Think back to last season when most Eastern Conference predictions focused on a four-way race for the Finals between the Bulls, Heat, Pacers and Nets. It didn't exactly unfold that way. Derrick Rose went down 10 games into the year and the Bulls found themselves relying on D.J. Augustin as their best guard in the playoffs. The Nets were a trainwreck: Brook Lopez got hurt, Kevin Garnett got old fast, Anderi Kirilenko never found his role, and by the end of the season, the most important player on the team might have been Shaun Livingston. The Pacers' second half collapse was remarkable, while Miami was exposed in the Finals as a terminally flawed team lucky enough team to play in the bad conference.
Just 24 games into the new year, it already feels like any preseason consensus is worthless. Injuries will always be the one great variation that can't be predicted, but the fluidity at the top of the Eastern Conference supersedes even that right now.
This year isn't the Cavs vs. the world. It isn't strictly Bulls vs. Cavs, either, at least not in the one-on-one Medieval Times jousting match sort of way many Chicagoans hoped it would be this summer. Nah. As the NBA calendar approaches an annual mile marker on Christmas day, we're left with what looks like a five team race.
Plenty will happen between now and April, but it feels safe to assume the Raptors, Cavs, Bulls, Wizards and Hawks aren't going anywhere barring a major injury. Unless you place in the top three of the conference during the regular season, you're facing one of these teams in the first round. Since the only thing that matters in the postseason is the matchups, let's look at how the Bulls stack up with each of these teams:
The Bulls were on the road in the second game of a back-to-back and were playing without Joakim Noah last night. They still came within one Superman defensive play from Jimmy Butler of having a shot to tie in the final possession. Maybe that leaves you feeling optimistic about the Bulls' chances against Atlanta in the postseason. Maybe you're like everyone else and barely realize the Atlanta Hawks even exist.
I might be in the minority here, but the Hawks scare me. I saw what they did to the Pacers in the playoffs last season without Al Horford. They look even better this year despite the fewest offseason changes of any contender.
Mike Prada detailed the Hawks' magic on Monday. In year two of Mike Budenholzer's system, this team is increasingly more comfortable with playing like the Spurs even if the individual pieces are still a far cry away from the collection of Hall of Famers San Antonio was able to put together.
Still, in a matchup with the Bulls, I think Atlanta's system would give them a good chance. Like Kevin said last night:
@SBN_Ricky Yup. They're the spaciest team in the East & that gives Bulls all sorts of trouble. Thibs would need to flip front court rotation— Kevin Ferrigan (@NBAcouchside) December 16, 2014
Like I detailed on Friday, the Bulls don't want to play teams with the shooting and ball movement the Hawks have. Atlanta makes it impossible to hide someone on defense. This matchup would just give Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson so much responsibility defensively with Pau Gasol on the floor. The problem with taking Gasol off the floor is that the Bulls' offense is pretty much engineered to run directly through him.
The Bulls do have options in a potential series with the Hawks, but it's up to Thibodeau to make the adjustments. Just thinking "Rose will score on Jeff Teague and Jimmy will score on DeMarre Carroll" is dangerous logic.
Ultimately, I think the Bulls' biggest advantage here is their depth. The Hawks have some shooters on the bench, and my boy Dennis Schoeder has been much better in his second season. The Schoeder vs. Aaron Brooks matchup could be a scary one on the second unit, but Atlanta doesn't have anyone else who really scares you when they put the ball on the floor. On the inside, they'd be asking Mike Muscala and Pero Antic to slow down Taj, Pau and Noah at the hoop when Horford and Millsap aren't on the floor. I'll take that.
Toronto is 6-3 since DeMar DeRozan, their only All-Star last year, went down with an injury. That lets you know what kinda of depth this team has.
I think the Raptors probably have the best bench in basketball, a group that can get its own shot (Lou Williams), defend on the wing (James Johnson), create for others (Greivis Vasquez) and space the floor (Patrick Patterson). That's a dangerous combination, especially when it's playing behind a starting group that includes fire-breathing dragon Kyle Lowry, enforcer Amir Johnson and X-factor Jonas Valanciunas.
The Bulls have already gone into Toronto and beaten the Raptors once, but it wasn't exactly painless. Any series with Toronto feels like it's going six or seven games.
Toronto is going to have some mismatches in their favor. I don't like Brooks vs. General Greivis at all. Terrence Ross could get the best of Mike Dunleavy if DeRozan passes him the ball. I would not be very comfortable with Lou Williams vs. Hinrich.
For the Bulls to win this series, the starters would just have to put their foot down. Jimmy would have to force DeRozan into inefficient scoring nights. Pau would have to score over the top of Amir Johnson. Noah would have to establish himself vs. Valanciunas. Rose would have to win his individual matchup with Lowry. The Raptors aren't a great defensive team, only No. 14 in efficiency this season.
All of those things are certainly possible, but I'll hesitate to say they're likely. No one would have an easy time against the Raps, and that includes our Bulls.
Everything in my head tells me this is the least intimidating matchup for the Bulls.
Thibodeau has a wing defender he can put on LeBron in Jimmy Butler. Rose should be able to defend Kyrie, but Kyrie can't defend Rose. There will be options on Kevin Love, whether the Bulls try to score over the top of him with Pau, go right through him with Taj or go grenade launcher vs. grenade launcher with Mirotic. Noah vs. Varejao is a frantic battle of hair vs. hair that I'm confident Noah can win. I will never root for Hinrich harder than when he's defending Dion Waiters. If I'm worried about some talented bench guards on the other contenders giving Aaron Brooks trouble, I'm really looking forward to Aaron Brooks rinsing the fuck out of Matthew Dellavedova.
I think the Bulls matchup with the Cavs better than any team in the East. There's only thing holding me back from supreme confidence, and that's LeBron.
It's easy to latch onto the narrative that LeBron has fallen off, but I'm not exactly sure that's true. If anything, I just think LeBron has realized he can't be a superhero for 45 minutes a night, 100 games a year. The dude has played more basketball than anyone in history for someone still in the last days of his 20s. The Heat were the first team to go to four straight Finals since Larry Bird's Celtics. 'Bron also played in the Olympics twice. Let's not forget just how much of the load he was carrying in Miami when Wade was checked out, too.
I don't think LeBron suddenly got shitty on defense. I think he's probably just saving himself for when it really matters. If there's one thing that separates LeBron from the other all-time greats, it's his intelligence. He's a superstar whose "signature move" is making the right play. He knows the game better than anyone: me, you, his teammates, his coaches and, most importantly, the opposition.
I refuse to believe 'Bron doesn't have an extra gear for the playoffs, and that's a scary thing. He might be good enough to win a seven-game series against a good team by himself, especially if Cleveland learns how to defend even a little better over the next four months.
From here, the Cavs look fundamentally flawed. In a seven-game series, though, it's impossible to have too much confidence. LeBron has trashed the Bulls in the playoffs three times in his career already, and I'm scared to think of what No. 4 will look like. I think the Bulls ultimately have enough to win that series, but the threat of an almighty 'Bron still gives me a decent amount of hesitation.
Let's be honest, the Wizards thoroughly out-played and the out-coached the Bulls last season. It was not particularly close. Is the return of Rose and the arrival of Pau enough to make a lopsided series a victory in the Bulls' favor now? It's possible, but again, there's a lot of hesitation here.
The one thing that gives me confidence in Chicago is that Trevor Ariza is in Houston now. Thank goodness for that. Ariza murdered the Bulls in the playoffs last season, finishing the five-game series by averaging 15.6 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the floor and 46.4 percent shooting from three. Paul Pierce and Otto Porter have been a pretty good replacement for Washington in the regular season, but they don't have the physicality to matchup with Jimmy Butler. I think that's the Bulls' biggest advantage.
Pau should help, too. Like Kevin said:
@SBN_Ricky Atlanta is a really bad matchup. I like our chances better this year w/ the Wizards. Pau's size should help.— Kevin Ferrigan (@NBAcouchside) December 16, 2014
The Wizards won that series last year by pressuring Noah with the ball and jacking up the Bulls' sets. Noah playing on a torn ... something probably didn't help the Bulls much either. This would be a great series for Pau to put his foot down, though. He should be able to give Nene and Gortat trouble with his height and length, and his ability to serve as an offensive bailout in the post would also be a big asset.
Rose vs. Wall scares me a little. Wall is a monster and Rose has always been more comfortable going against smaller guards. How many times has Rose faced a point guard bigger and more athletic than him in a seven game series? He never has.
The Butler vs. Beal matchup could be a deciding factor. I trust Jimmy can slow down Beal, but can Beal slow down Jimmy? He's giving up a lot of size. Pierce is probably too old for that job at this point, and Porter isn't strong enough.
The bench is another factor in the Bulls' favor here. Ya'll scared of Rasual Butler? I am not. Brooks vs. Andre Miller would be mesmerizing, Taj cramming on Kris Humphries would be heartwarming and Noah and Pierce getting into each other's heads would be transfixing.
Let's talk about it in the comments. What team scares you the most? What team scares you the least? Do the Atlanta Hawks even exist?
Let us know.