New Cavs present dual challenge for Bulls

August, 7, 2014
8/07/14
12:44
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Greenberg By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- With Kevin Love reportedly going to Cleveland to join LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as the new power trio in the Eastern Conference, this season will provide a true test for Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.

Can he convincingly manage to tell his team that it's championship material while simultaneously convincing the players that they're everyone's underdogs?

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah and Thibodeau
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhTom Thibodeau will have to convince Joakim Noah and the Bulls that they are title contenders but also underdogs.
If any coach can walk that inspirational tightrope, it's Thibs, the master motivator of Madison Street.

In reality, it's not that difficult of a task for a veteran team like the Bulls. And given the circumstances -- a division rival getting James and Love within a month -- the Bulls are in a pretty good situation as a contender.

Chicago knows it's a good team with championship potential now that Derrick Rose is back, but the Cavs' deal for Love keeps the Bulls from carrying the load as Eastern Conference favorites. The Bulls will be everyone's favorite antagonist to King James once again. A rebellion in the East? Thibs does look a bit like Robert Baratheon.

With Cleveland hyped to the max, Joakim Noah will be free to seethe about the Cavs, who I guess will be considered, "Bath, Ohio, as Hell."

Thibs will stoke that fire all season, trust me.

For Bulls fans, it's a dream scenario, too. Sure, their team failed, once again, to land a big fish into our grimy river of a town, but hey, at least your inferiority complex is intact. This city isn't good at being favorites.

And with no Love in Chicago, it allows a certain segment of fans to bask in the glow of a "gritty," "deep" Bulls team that prides itself on "toughness" and "defensive tenacity." A football team in basketball shorts. That's how some fans like their team.

"Oh, you have three All-Star scorers? Well, the Bulls have Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Noah gritting it up on defense. Taste that Taj shoulder, pretty boy!"

Let's be clear. The Bulls are legitimate challengers in the East and the Cavs are going to be hard to beat come playoff time. Their regular-season matchups with be prime-time events. Noah will be "hype."

And if these two teams meet in the conference finals, it will be a series to remember.

We have no idea how it will turn out, but given that the Bulls kept their precious, precious depth and have the length to defend Cleveland's Big Three using Thibodeau's strongside overload zone defense, I wouldn't count on another five-game LeBron knockout like in 2011.

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Gibson, Noah and Butler will be key in annoying James and Love, and Rose will certainly enjoy the task of shutting down Irving. But always remember it's never about man-to-man matchups with the Bulls, but rather how they play together in Thibs' bruising ballet. Even though Pau Gasol has the rep of a defensive lightweight, his presence in the middle of this particular defense will do wonders, way more than the undersized, always late Carlos Boozer.

Love, for example, has shot 42 percent from the field and 30 percent on 3-pointers in five games against Thibodeau's Bulls. This past season, he shot 3-for-15 on 3-pointers in two games against Chicago.

Offensively, if the Bulls can share the ball as expected, thanks in part to the additions of dynamic offensive players Gasol and Doug McDermott to go along with Rose and Noah, it will help neutralize the LeBron Lockdown of Rose this spring.

But this is all speculation and wishful thinking. The Cavs are going to be very good and there's only so much perfect defense one team can play.

Rose is still the only go-to scorer on the Bulls. He looks great in national team camp, and it's up to Rose to raise his game back to MVP standards to give the Bulls a fighting chance against the Cavs next season in the East.

I'm sure Thibs is already in his ears, whispering dreams of championships in one and telling him he's the ultimate underdog in the other.

When does the NBA schedule come out? Because I'll be circling these games on the calendar.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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