Lessons from the Cavs’ Playoffs/Knicks-Bulls Trade Thoughts

The Cavs’ Playoff Run

As I mentioned before the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers turned from a top team in their conference to becoming a historic offensive juggernaut and all-time team in the playoffs. By the end of the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers maintained their historic point-differential per 100 possessions. Here’s where the data puts them for NBA champions since 1980 (when the three-point line was introduced in the NBA): at No. 23.
Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 12.01.25 AMHowever, if you take a look at the Cavaliers in the playoffs, their total net rating jump from the regular season to playoffs is the third biggest increase for NBA champions in average net rating from regular season to postseason in NBA history (+3.1), just behind the 1991 Bulls (+3.8)  and the 2001 Lakers (…+10.1), who basically went from decent to earth-shatteringly amazing. Somehow, Cleveland turned from a decent regular season team to a memorable playoffs legend.

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These numbers might not even accurately illustrate just how high-level the Cavaliers’ performance was during the playoffs. Consider that  they were the only one out of these teams to beat a team like the 2016 Warriors, who along with a 73-9 record was also the only double-digits SRS-ranked team to lose in the NBA Finals since the three-point line was implemented. If the Warriors were just another average opponent in the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers could have maintained their historic outperforming of their opponents.

How did Cleveland go from contenders to historic champions?  Kyrie Irving recovering from a knee injury certainly helped, as evident from his jump in three-point shooting percentage, from 32 percent in the regular season, to 44 percent in the playoffs. LeBron James also seemed to find his shot again, as he went from a subpar 30.9 three-point shooting percent to a more respectable 34.0 percent. It’s not a sexy explanation, but sometimes improvement as a team simply comes from its highest volume scorers just shooting better.

Irving’s and James’ growth in shooting had a clear impact on the Cavaliers, raising their three-point shooting from a solid 36.3 percent to a blistering 40.6 percent in the playoffs. I’d say increased minutes for the two in playoff rotations probably helped with Cleveland’s excellence against its competition.

Make no mistake: Cleveland was a better team this year than its regular season may have indicated. By the time they were at 100 percent, the Cavaliers were an offensive force to be reckoned with, and they’ll remain a team to fear next season and in the future.

How the Chicago Bulls Robbed the New York Knicks

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The former MVP staring ahead. Photo is per thecomeback.com.

From the Bulls’ perspective, this trade makes a lot of sense. Though it’s most likely sad for the organization to rid Chicago of its homegrown star in Derrick Rose, the former MVP last looked like relevant in 2012. That was four years ago: back when people used to genuinely wonder if President Obama was born in Kenya, non-ironically listen to dubstep and watch “Breaking Bad” live. Although Rose’s struggles can be attributed to his unfortunate laundry list of injuries, those too are a negative against him.

By getting rid of Rose, the Bulls now have an opportunity to give their star shooting guard Jimmy Butler a chance to handle the ball a bit more frequently and develop furtheron the offensive end, with Jose Calderon as a secondary playmaker and off-the-ball shooter (41.4 three-point shooting percent last year) to complement the offense. Chicago also gets a solid starting center in Robin Lopez, who is a well-rounded starting-caliber player to possibly replace free agents Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah in the front court.

A lineup of Calderon/Dunleavy/Butler/Mirotic/Lopez would certainly be a great offensive fit, albeit weak on the boards and quite vulnerable in the pick and roll if Butler cannot develop into a Kawhi Leonard-tier defensive player. That said, development from newly-acquired and former Knick Jerian Grant, who did not show any promise within the Knicks’ offense last season, could help – and could be likely given that he’ll be learning from and playing behind longtime fan favorite and defensive specialist Kirk Hinrich.

While the significant dropoff in rebounding and defense will certainly hurt Chicago, if not completely transform its identity, consider the structural positives. Lopez’ veteran presence at center for only $42 million over the next three years won’t be so bad considering the market value for alternatives, like Bismack Biyombo, who could be getting as much as a max contract.

Moreover, Calderon’s $7 million expiring contract in 2017 will furthermore actually help Chicago’s chances in the free agency class of 2017, where the Bulls are expected to try to resign Butler and homegrown Nikola Mirotic, as well as go after point guards like Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul. The Bulls could slightly drop off in performance in 2017, but they could also have developed a strong offensive identity, finally move past their Tom Thibo-days (sorry for the pun) and stay competitive enough to attract stars in a stacked free agency class.

On the other end of the deal, I can’t say I  like what the Knicks are doing, so let’s start with the positives. New York now has an additional second draft pick, got rid of a loaded contract in Lopez, picked up a 27-year old shooter finding his touch (Justin Holiday, who shot over 44 percent from three last season with Chicago)  and now will be guaranteed an additional $21 million in cap space by trading for Rose on the last year of his loaded contract.

However, there’s also the aspect of the deal where the Knicks will be possibly left with a total of five players on their roster: presumably disgruntled superstar Carmelo Anthony, the promising but still unproven Kristaps Porzingis, Holiday, Rose and Kyle O’Quinn. The team isn’t even sure if Langston Galloway is returning and that’s not even going into its lack of a backup point guard behind the oft-injured Rose. New York doesn’t have a draft pick for 2016 either, so the rest of its roster will probably be filled with veterans on minimum/one-year contracts if the Knicks decide to round out their roster while retaining cap space for 2017.

If the Knicks wanted to clear up space, they could have also done so without getting rid of a good portion of their roster. Instead of using starting-caliber players to grab Rose, New York could have traded for more picks to grab long-term complementary players on team-friendly contracts, while still retaining enough cash for the 2017 free agency class in case the rookies turned out rotten.

Instead, the Knicks went the “NBA 2K” path of trading for a former household name with low upside, all risk and very little draft picks. In real life, this is usually not a successful strategy, as the Nets earlier this decade and mid-00s Trail Blazers would agree with.

Competing in the NBA is extremely difficult, but trading for Rose, while deceptively “high-reward” given his MVP history, is at best a lateral investment. Even assuming Rose came back healthy and at 2011 standards (already a massive leap of faith), him and Anthony are a terrible fit together. Both are individual, offensive-minded shot creators that like to hold the ball for a long time in long isolation plays, before either kicking out to shooters on the perimeter. The two would certainly be talented on the fast break, but their half-court tendencies don’t mix well – and it gets worse when thinking about how they’d mesh with Porzingis’ development.

Anthony succeeded in the past with a similarly ball-dominant point guard in Chauncey Billups, but at least Billups could still draw fouls at a high rate and play off-ball effectively. Rose is nowhere near the three-point shooter and is far more used to a drive and kick style of play. Unless Anthony is willing to abandon his emphasis on individual shot creation and play as a pick and roll big ready to shoot on the perimeter, I can’t see him succeeding with the Knicks with Rose.

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