The Cleveland Cavaliers may no longer be NBA Finals contenders, but they still have playoff aspirations for this season. In order to make their way through the multi-team dogfight for the seventh and eighth playoff seeds, they must first find success when playing within their own division. Step one is determining how the Cavs match up with the Chicago Bulls.
Last season, the Bulls finished 27-55 and earned the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Even though Chicago was a playoff team in 2016-2017, they are now in a complete rebuild. The roster was one of the league’s most talent-barren last year, but the Bulls have added two solid pieces this offseason.
Big man Wendell Carter Jr. was taken seventh overall, and forward Jabari Parker was signed in free agency. Even with these additions, Chicago is not a legitimate threat to win the division, but they should be improved.
Kris Dunn runs the point for the Bulls, and he made some significant strides in his second year in the NBA. After being drafted fifth overall by the Timberwolves in 2016, Dunn started just seven games and averaged only 3.8 points on 38% shooting.
After heading to Chicago as part of the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn started 43 games for the Bulls, averaging 13.4 points, 6.0 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.0 steals while shooting 43% from the field. Still not the level of play that a top-five draft pick should display, but Chicago has the time to wait for Dunn to develop.
Dunn’s backcourt mate is fellow former Timberwolve Zach LaVine. The Bulls and LaVine recently agreed to a four-year contract worth $78 million. A high price to pay for a shooting guard who only shot 38% in his limited action last year. LaVine is known for his flashy dunks, but not much else. This could be a deal that Chicago regrets in a year or two when they are looking for extra cap space.
Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker decided to sign with his hometown team, and the Bulls gave him $40 million guaranteed over the next two years. Parker is a solid stretch-four who can score inside with ease, but he is not the go-to scorer that Chicago has lacked since trading away Butler.
Second-year seven-footer Lauri Markkanen looks like he’ll be a foundational piece for this team for the next decade. He nailed 36% of his nearly six three-point attempts per game. He is a poor man’s version of Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis, and is a great fit for today’s spacing-centric game.
In the paint stands veteran Robin Lopez, but he may find himself on the bench soon, as rookie Wendell Carter Jr. dominated the Summer League and fits the 2010’s center prototype well. He is 6’10” 260lbs, with the size and strength to defend traditional centers.
However, what makes Carter special is his quickness and athleticism. He excels in the pick-and-roll both offensively and defensively, and can switch onto guards on the perimeter. He didn’t shoot much from the perimeter in college, but his 41% clip from beyond the arc indicates that he may be able to develop a solid three-point shot in the future, an addition that would make him a fantastic all-around player. Carter may never become a superstar, but he could be an ideal Robin to a future Batman.
The starting lineup is respectable, but Chicago’s lack of depth is what is going to hurt them. Aside from Cristiano Felicio, Denzel Valentice, Justin Holiday, and Bobby Portis, the Bulls don’t really have any legitimate NBA-level role players. And that’s going to be crucial when playing the Cavaliers.
Cleveland’s star power took a dramatic hit when LeBron James left for Los Angeles, but they still have Kevin Love, who is better than anyone the Bulls have had over the past decade aside from healthy Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. However, with Lopez and Carter in the middle, scoring down low may be somewhat difficult for Love, Ante Zizic, and Larry Nance Jr.
The Cavs’ best gameplan against Chicago is to exploit their severe lack of solid guards. Where the Bulls lack, the Cavaliers have in surplus. It’s easy to guess how things will go when Antonius Cleveland is matched up against Rodney Hood or Cedi Osman. George Hill and former Bull David Nwaba should be able to slow LaVine enough to the point where Lauri Markkanen is the biggest threat.
Even though Love is a stretch-four, he is not a good defender, meaning Markkanen should be able to score somewhat easily, even against Nance, Cleveland’s best defensive big. Zizic isn’t known for his defense, but may have to defend Markkanen just because he is similar in size. Of course, Markkanen could be countered with a simple double team, which isn’t a bad idea, because Chicago doesn’t have a plethora of sharpshooters who will make you regret leaving them open.
It would be great if the Cavs could sweep the four-game season series, but we have no idea what to expect from this team right now. Going 3-1 should be the goal, as Chicago is likely headed for another bottom 10 finish. The first two games against the Bulls should be a good litmus test for the rest of the season. If Cleveland struggles, maybe the playoffs aren’t as close as we initially thought.