Give Danny Ferry and the Cleveland Cavaliers a lot of credit. Since they lost to the Orlando Magic last season in the Eastern Conference finals, the Cavs have transformed their team. They have made multiple roster changes and many of them seem pinpointed at giving them the best chance to knock off the Magic. This year's version of the Cavaliers is a much better shooting team. They can stretch the floor better with LeBron James on the floor. Anthony Parker, Mo Williams, Delonte West and Antawn Jamison will make teams pay for doubling or helping too much on LeBron.
In addition, they have improved their low post offense and defense with Shaquille O'Neal, who will be able to guard the low post one-on-one without help or the use of double teams. The Cavs had serious problems with Dwight Howard in last year's playoff series and with O'Neal that will change. The Cavs' acquisition of Jamison will also help them immensely in the playoffs. He provides them with a versatile veteran forward who can defend, rebound and score. Ferry's pick-ups of Leon Powe and Jamario Moon give the Cavaliers much-needed depth as well as hustle and energy for the team's playoff run.
One of the biggest weaknesses the Cavs have is the size, age and speed of their two centers. O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas are less effective on defense the farther they have to come away from the basket. Look for opponents to get them involved in as many pick-and-rolls and screening action away from the hoop, forcing the two centers to move their feet laterally and expose their lack of speed. The Chicago Bulls, who have top-flight guards, like Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich who can create or shoot off the pick-and-rolls, will cause problems for the two slow-reacting centers.
The Cavs have the best record in the Eastern Conference and have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. With the changes they have made with their roster they have all the ammunition they need to win an NBA championship.
The Chicago Bulls won the last two games of the season to edge out the Toronto Raptors and sneak into the 8th and final playoff spot. Unfortunately their reward is playing the best team in the East. The Bulls have had a lot of turmoil since they got knocked out of the playoffs by Boston last spring. They lost Ben Gordon in the offseason and have not really replaced him. Their coach Vinnie Del Negro has been on the hot seat since December, and they have had some key injuries and trades during the 2009-10 season.
Derrick Rose is the leader and catalyst for the Bulls franchise. He has been given the reins to run the team from the moment he was drafted two years ago. Rose is an impact player on offense because he can score, get wherever he wants with the ball and distribute. Opponents cannot keep him out of the paint and he puts so much pressure on them because of this. Unfortunately for the Bulls they have lost a lot of the players that could stretch the floor and make teams pay with the 3-point shot. Rose's effectiveness was even greater when the Bulls had players such as Ben Gordon, Larry Hughes, Andres Nocioni who could knock down the deep shot and make teams pay for helping on Rose.
The Bulls are not a disciplined defensive team. They switch a lot of pick-and-roll and screening action. This causes them terrible mismatch problems that Cleveland will take advantage of. The Cavaliers have a lot of offensive weapons led by the best player in the NBA, LeBron James. If the Bulls cannot step up their game defensively this will be a quick series. Lastly, the Bulls struggle to rebound the ball. They will need to keep the active Cavalier frontline off the glass if they have any chance to win.
Point guard matchup
A very good point guard and a very important pickup for the Cavs almost two years ago, Williams developed his game and made a name for himself during his stint with the Milwaukee Bucks. But with the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, his career has flourished. Mo takes a lot of ballhandling responsibilities off LeBron's shoulders and helps provide more consistent scoring in the backcourt. Mo is not big or strong for a point guard. He is athletic and has a very good first step. He has excellent ballhandling skills and can really distribute the ball, although he is much more of a scoring point guard.
He has become a reliable scoring option at the point position. He is very good at pushing the ball in transition. He sees up the floor, has good vision and can really pass. Williams is an excellent pick-and-roll player in the half court. He can turn the corner, make good decisions and can shoot off the dribble. He has made himself into a good catch-and-shoot player. He gets to the paint but he is not a great finisher. His height and frame limit his effectiveness.
Williams struggles at times defensively because of lack of size and strength. He needs to improve his on the ball defense because the Cavaliers are trying to win an NBA championship and he will need to contain the best point guards in the league. He can keep the ball out of the middle when he puts his mind to it. He has the quickness and foot speed to do that. He must limit dribble penetration by the Cavaliers opponents or the Cavs will struggle.
Rose is a true point guard with a big, strong body who not only can score but defend his position. He is extremely athletic, with big-time hops and excellent quickness. He gets anywhere he wants with the ball and is a strong ball-handler in traffic. He can get to the basket against anyone in the NBA and finish. He is fearless attacking the rim. He displays the leadership on the court necessary of a big-time point guard. He plays the game with purpose and is extremely focused and intense.
Rose has put up big numbers in his short time with the Bulls. This season he averaged 20.4 ppg while shooting 48 percent from the field. Rose has the ball in his hands a majority of the time and although he is a big-time scorer, he really looks to get his teammates involved. He has an attack mentality with the ball, and gets to the paint at will. Because Rose can take his man one-on-one and create for himself and others, he is averaging 6.0 apg.
Rose's Achilles' heel over his career has been his perimeter shot, but he continues to work at it and it has improved every year he has been in the league. His numbers from 3 are very poor -- h has only shot 25 percent this season. The biggest reason that this is a concern is in pick-and-roll situations. If he can learn how to pull the shot when teams slide under on him and challenge him to hurt them from distance he will improve his perimeter game.
Shooting guard matchup
Anthony Parker is one of those players that makes a team better just by being on floor. He is a glue guy and a calming veteran influence who has gotten to the NBA the hard way and appreciates where he is today. He is a wonderful complementary player to have with LeBron James. Parker spaces the floor, is one of the better 3-point shooters in the league and makes teams pay when they help off of him onto LeBron.
On the offensive end Parker is a very good catch and shoot player. He also is very good using one or two escape dribbles to get an open shot versus a hard closeout. He is very good spotting up in the corners as well. You have to be aware of him showing shot and driving the ball to the rim, he is very good along the baseline and can pass the ball off the dribble. While not the quickest wing on the Cavs roster, Parker is a player that is never out of control. He is an excellent role player and a stabilizing offensive option. While not fancy or special, Parker's offensive skill set is extremely well-rounded and versatile.
He gives the Cavs stability on the defensive end without being a lockdown defender. As Parker has gotten older, his lateral quickness is declining but he has the smarts and awareness to make up for it.
This is Kirk Hinrich’s first full year without Ben Gordon and playing off the ball with Derrick Rose. Hinrich has been the Bulls' scoring guard and occasionally will play backup point. He has been a reliable and durable guard for the Bulls. Hinrich is wiry strong and has very good speed and athleticism.
The Bulls are predominantly a perimeter team. Hinrich is an all-around guard. He can handle the ball, pushing it in transition, and create for himself while also finding open teammates. He has an excellent handle with good ball quickness. He may not be the NBA’s greatest athlete but he is athletic enough to get his job done. He has excellent offensive fundamentals. Hinrich has an excellent stroke and has been a reliable spot-up shooter over his career. In addition the Bulls utilize him off catch and shoot plays or will put him into pick and rolls. Hinrich will dribble drive to create penetration for kick outs or get into short pull ups. He does not get to the rim very often which is a shame because he is an excellent free throw shooter.
Hinrich has always worked at the defensive end of the floor. He has had to cover some of the best guards in the league and can always hold his own. He has good size, length and aggressive hands which help him to keep dangerous and quick guards out of the lane. He understands how to play team defense and was well schooled by Roy Williams in college and Scott Skiles earlier in his NBA career.
Small forward matchup
LeBron James has put his imprint on the NBA and the Cavaliers in a very short time. This guy has all the athletic gifts that you would want to play the game of basketball. He is an athletic freak. He has an unbelievably strong body. In addition he has great length, combined with tremendous speed, quickness and explosiveness. At 6-8 he has guard skills in a power forward's body. LeBron can handle like a point guard, and get to the rim at will because of his handle and his strength. He can shoot from deep, or put it on the deck going right or left and pull the jumper. He can post and iso and commands a double team most of the time. He gets to the free throw line and shoots a good percentage. He can push the ball and play fast break basketball, or run the Cavs offense in the half court.
LeBron has a very high basketball IQ. His IQ, coupled with his skill and tremendous feel for the game make him one of the top players in the game and such a difficult matchup on the court. He can take games over at any point, and he loves and shines on the big stage. He has not backed down to any challenge he has seen in his short career. As good as he is, he is still improving and that is a bit scary. The Cavaliers are his team and he appears to be a good teammate and leader.
He is one of the best offensive players in the NBA. He cannot be guarded one on one. His skill and strength allow him to get wherever he wants with the ball. He is so strong he does not get bumped off his spot and can take the contact and still finish strong at the rim and score. When he goes up to the rim he is incredibly explosive. He will rise above his opponent and throw it down. Defensively you must have a strong and quick defender on him and bring extra help to support the defender.
LeBron has demonstrated during the past year or so in the playoffs that he can be a lockdown defender. He has great defensive instincts with tremendous anticipation. He will block shots, especially tracking opponents down in transition. James is a big steal and deflection guy.
He is also an unbelievable rebounder.
Luol Deng has always been an extremely interesting NBA player because of his versatility. Deng has the combination of height, length, and athleticism. He has seen his stock continue to rise because of the continual improvement in his game. He can play small or power forward, because of his inside-outside game. He has not developed into a star player at this point in his career, but has been part of a young, talented nucleus that has helped the Bulls get to the playoffs the past couple of years. Deng plays hard, works hard, and is a great team guy.
Deng does not do one thing great, but he does a little of everything well. He can run and score in transition, he can shoot, he can handle, he can defend and he can rebound. He utilizes his height and reach to create scoring opportunities for himself. Deng is an excellent athlete, he is fast and can run and finish on the break. In the half court he can post mismatches, or score off catch and shoot jumpers. He has a very nice, smooth stroke but does not have deep range. His range may be more in the 17-foot distance in terms of his accuracy and consistency. He knows how to play without the ball, which is unusual among NBA players. He scores off cuts and dives to basket. He is an active forward who gets on the glass.
The word that comes to mind regarding Deng defensively is length. He is so long, active and athletic that he is a valuable defender for the Bulls at the forward position. Defensively he matches up versus some of the elite forwards in the NBA. Between Coach K and Scott Skiles he learned quickly how to defend at an elite level.
Power forward matchup
Jamison was a terrific pickup for the Cavs at the trading deadline. He is a very productive NBA player. He gives the Cavs a frontlinhe player who can score in many different ways, defend the perimeter forwards in the league and rebound at a very high level. In addition he can stretch the floor for LeBron because of his perimeter ability to shoot the 3-point shot. Jamison’s minutes and scoring are down a tad with his new team, but his contributions to the Cavaliers in the playoffs could be immense. Jamison is a veteran who plays the game the right way. He is a high character guy who will provide leadership and stability for the Cavs as they try to win a championship.
Jamison is one of the most versatile players in the NBA. He can score in so many ways that he is a very tough cover. Jamison can get out and score in transition, yet he is also very effective in half court sets. He has a very good feel for the game and he knows how to play with and without the ball. He is one of the best in the league playing without the ball cutting, and flashing to open spots for the ball. With the ball Jamison puts a lot of pressure on his opponent because he plays much more like a small forward. He can dribble, pass, shoot and is a great finisher. He has a ton of moves that he utilizes to finish around the rim: floaters, runners, step backs, and finger rolls. In addition he will punish mismatches in the low post with his size and skills.
Jamison’s biggest defensive problems come according to his matchup. If he has a good matchup he is OK, he is a solid and reliable defender especially versus power forwards who play more of a face-up game. He has the strength, length and foot speed to handle those types of players. His problems occur if he has to match-up versus a more traditional power forwards who can take him down low and overpower him in the post or if he gets stuck with a team that plays small and he has to guard more of a small forward type. He should be able to do a very good job defensively versus Deng.
Taj Gibson was the 26th pick of the Chicago Bulls in last year's draft and he has been more than a pleasant surprise to his coaches, teammates and fans of Chicago. Gibson is a poised rookie who has soaked up whatever knowledge he could to aid in his development as a rookie. He plays the game with tremendous energy and effort. He is a very mature and serious rookie. He is not about flash or flair but hardwork and taking advantage of the unbelievable opportunity he has with the Bulls.
Gibson is long and athletic. He runs the floor and is extremely unselfish.
His calling card is defense. He was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the year at USC a year ago. He has a defensive mindset. With his length and athleticism, he is able to guard power forwards in the NBA. In addition he is a very good shot-blocker, averaging 1.27 bpg. Gibson gives the Bulls a big lift on the glass. He is a tenacious rebounder. He attacks the glass and is averaging 7.4 rpg as a rookie.
Gibson’s offensive game is somewhat rudimentary. He has surprised most NBA people with his ability to knock down the midrange shot. His biggest offensive weapon is his ability to rebound the offensive glass. He is currently averaging 2.7 offensive rebounds per game.
O’Neal is one of the biggest, strongest men to have ever played the game of basketball. In his prime Shaq was a mobile big man who could run the floor and surprise opponents with tremendous skill. During the past several years however O’Neal has played overweight, out of shape and been very limited. Because of his frame and strength Shaq has always been unstoppable deep in the paint. It is frightening how strong he finishes when he catches it down low or gets it off the glass. He just dunks the ball with such power. He has always been able to finish with either hand around the hoop.
Shaq has been primarily a low-post player for most of his career. Because of his strength no defender can keep him from getting post position. If he catches it deep he is unstoppable. If you can keep him from getting it down deep it limits his effectiveness, because his post game is not as good as his power dunk game. His lack of quickness in the post has slowed him down. He cannot spin off his opponent as quickly as he used to. He is very good at using his massive body to get into opponents and create his own shot. Has a good jump hook to the middle and can shoot the turnaround jumper to the baseline. His touches in the post and shot attempts have gone down drastically the past few years, but because of where he catches the ball Shaq always shoots a very high percentage.
Shaq has always been an able and willing passer. He seems to relish in making a spectacular dribble move or lookaway pass. O’Neal has been double teamed relentlessly during his career and he knows how to read the defense and find the open man.
Shaq has been a very good one on one player who obviously can guard the low post, clog the lane and not let the ball get to the rim. He has always been a big-time shot-blocker. He has given the Cavs a big strong body to match-up with Dwight Howard if the two teams reach the Eastern finals. Shaq’s biggest problems have always been when teams attempt to bring him out away from the basket. He has trouble moving his feet and he struggles to guard on the perimeter. The Bulls will run a ton of pick and rolls with Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich and they will put O’Neal in them to make him move and get him away from the basket.
Noah has become a crowd favorite in Chicago because of the hustle, energy and passion he plays the game with. He played with an intensity that was far greater than his opponents in college and he has carried that over to the NBA. Noah has tremendous length and athleticism. In addition he has the strength to compete in the NBA. Noah has always had a good work ethic and been able to outrun and outwork opponents. This kid is extremely competitive, and has a real fire in his belly. His emotions work for him sometimes and unfortunately they sometimes work against him.
Noah is a very limited offensive player. He cannot get away with the things he did in college. He finished everything around the rim in college. It has been much harder for him to find consistent ways to score in the NBA. Noah has great hands, they are big and he catches everything thrown to him. Unfortunately he does not have a real good offensive skill package. He can score a bit in the low post, he has a decent jump hook in the lane. He is not real smooth in the paint.
Noah’s biggest offensive problem is that he cannot shoot. He has extremely poor mechanics and his jumper looks ugly. He can make some midrange shots but his shot is not reliable at all. He must correct his mechanics and work diligently on this otherwise this will dramatically hurt his NBA career. Noah is an extremely active player. Knows how to cut, move and get himself open. He is a very good offensive rebounder and opponents must be very aware of him attacking the glass.
Noah has the physical and athletic tools to be a solid defender in the NBA. His physical tools and his competitive spirit have allowed him to become a good defender for the Bulls. Has the strength and length to keep the ball out of the low post. He is not afraid to bang and be physical down low. He is athletic and can guard bigs who can handle and step away from the basket. Noah is an excellent rebounder. His defense and his rebounding are what have put him in the starting lineup for the Bulls.
Anderson Varejao’s contribution to the Cavaliers lineup cannot be told only by a stat sheet. This Brazilian forward plays the game with tremendous energy and enthusiasm. At 6-10, Varejao does not possess an impressive offensive skill set. He is not a great shooter, ballhandler or passer, but he is a very effective player. In addition he is not one of the top athletes in the NBA; he is a productive NBA player because he outworks and out-hustles his competition.
Varejao is not someone that the Cavs are going to throw the ball into in the low post and expect to win that way. He does not have a very polished post game. You can throw him the ball occasionally and he will ball-fake and try to score or get fouled. He is a bit herky-jerky in his post game and gets opponents off their feet. But primarily this guy is the fourth or fifth wheel offensively and that is fine with him. He is willing to set screens and picks to free others up and then he plays off of that action. He knows that with LeBron he is going to have to find other ways to score and help his team. He is very good at moving, diving, and cutting to open areas. He is a garbage scorer, feeding off others.
Varejao is a very mediocre shooter. His form is shaky and he does not attempt many jump shots. He scores by running the floor looking for early shot attempts near the hoop. He has good hands, a soft touch and finishes very well near the rim. Varejao attacks the glass relentlessly. He is so active, bouncy and long. He is near impossible to keep off the glass.
This guy works the defensive end of the floor. He is active and a hard worker on the defense. He will bang and work hard to keep the ball out of the post. He is not afraid of contact, in fact he embraces it. He moves his feet very well and can guard bigs that step away from the hoop. He has the height, length and bounce needed to be a good defender. He is a very good defensive player. He understands how to rotate and help his teammates. He steps in and gets position and is not afraid to take charges or get on the floor.
Brad Miller provides the young Chicago Bull team with a veteran presence. He is a very solid and versatile NBA center. He provides depth in the paint along with starter Noah. Miller is not in the mold of the traditional center. He does not spend most of his time inside on the box. He loves to play away from the basket where he is very effective. Miller is a very skilled big man. He is a tremendous shooter, specializing in the midrange game. He stretches defenses because of his shooting abilities and he can make shots off catch and shoot opportunities. He is also very effective in pick and pop situations. On occasion Miller will step out behind the 3-point line and show that he does have range on his jumper.
Miller is also the best passing big man in the league. Miller likes to play in the high post and is extremely effective from the elbow both as a scorer and a passer. When he catches the ball in the low post or just off the block he is dangerous hitting cutters or finding the open man.
Miller is a poor defender and has huge problems guarding quickness on the perimeter and in the post. He has poor lateral mobility and is a poor reactor defensively. His salvation on the defensive end is he understands team defense and defensive position and as a result is a solid help defender. The Bulls need him to stay healthy during the playoffs and make a big contribution off the bench. His experience in the playoffs will be invaluable to the Bulls and they will need his size and bulk in order to deal with the Cleveland bigs.
Prediction: Cavs in five