Just like Michael Jordan, LeBron James probably could make a case for being voted the league’s Most Valuable Player in every year of his prime.
After all, look at what his presence meant to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He took a nondescript roster to the NBA Finals in 2007 and routinely had Cleveland among the top seeds in the Eastern Conference after that. But after James left in 2010 free agency, the Cavs quickly sunk to the bottom of the league standings, earning the No. 1 overall draft pick in three of the four post-LeBron years.
When James came back, Cleveland became an instant championship contender, going to the Finals in four-straight seasons and culminating in the 2016 Cavs winning the city’s first professional sports championship since the 1964 Browns.
Now LeBron has left his beloved northeast Ohio for a second time and Cleveland has truly embraced the tank. After losing their first six games of the season, they fired the coach who led them to their lone championship, Tyronn Lue, and replaced him with assistant coach Larry Drew.
That was followed by All-Star forward Kevin Love opting for surgery to repair a toe injury, and now two other starters, George Hill and Cedi Osman are sidelined by injuries. The result? The Cavs are 1-10 and one of the early favorites to finish with the league’s worst record, which could mean a chance to draft the guy Steve Kerr called the next LeBron, Duke freshman Zion Williamson.
Seems like it’s business as usual in Cleveland under owner Dan Gilbert.
Looking at the roster, you would think the Cavs should be a lot better. Veterans Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and Hill are still around, while young players Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Osman were believed to have the potential to become solid pros. Plus, the Cavs used the No. 8 overall pick acquired in the Kyrie Irving trade with Boston to select exciting, young point guard Collin Sexton, a player the Bulls seriously considered one pick earlier.
But apparently when you take away the best player in the league from Cleveland, all of the other players’ individual weaknesses become magnified. Korver and Smith aren’t getting those wide open looks anymore, and Thompson’s hustle plays don’t mean as much when the team is down by 20 points.
Sexton is intriguing with his speed and athleticism, but reportedly he’s rubbed some of the veteran players the wrong way with his ball-dominant style. Sexton is averaging 10.9 points on 42% shooting from the field, but only 2.1 assists in 24.7 minutes per game.
Cleveland re-signed restricted free agent Hood, hoping he would be ready to take a big jump starting in James’ vacated small forward spot, but Hood is only averaging 12.3 points on 43% shooting. Clarkson has been productive, averaging 15.2 points on 47% shooting, but overall the roster lacks consistency at both ends of the court.
Since Cleveland is not a destination for free agents without James around, the Cavs will be hoping for more lottery luck to find their next franchise player. Expect the front office to explore trades for Love & just about any other player on the roster in the coming months.
So, what will it take to beat this dysfunctional group Saturday night?
1. GET OFF TO A FAST START. With everything that’s gone wrong in Cleveland over the first month of the season, the Cavs’ players don’t need much adversity to decide it’s not going to be their night. Running out to a 10 or 15 point lead in the opening quarter should allow the Bulls to dictate tempo for the rest of the game.
2. DOMINATE THE BOARDS. Thompson is still an effective energy player, and Nance Jr. will attack the offensive glass when he comes in, but if the Bulls can control their defensive board and get the ball out in transition they should be able to score at will against this dispirited Cleveland team.
3. SECONDARY SCORING. Zach LaVine continues to deliver sensational play at the offensive end. He entered Friday’s action ranked 4th in the NBA in scoring at 27.4 points per game. LaVine should be able to get his points against Clarkson and JR Smith, but Fred Hoiberg would love to see Jabari Parker, Justin Holiday or even Antonio Blakeney emerge as a consistent secondary scoring option.
We hope you’ll join Kendall Gill, Kelly Crull and me Saturday night for Bulls Pregame Live from the United Center Atrium at 6:30 on NBC Sports Chicago and the MyTeams by NBC sports app. Then, after the game goes final, flip back to NBC Sports Chicago for the Hoiberg media session, player interviews and a whole lot more on Bulls Postgame Live.