Training camps begin in a little over a week, the start of the regular season is 40 days away, and what awaits us this season is going to be special — a renaissance in Cleveland, Kobe’s return in L.A., a chance for the Spurs to chase that elusive repeat championship.
But let’s be realistic here for a second.
There are 15 teams in the Eastern Conference, and there is a very slim chance at best that anyone other than the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls will be the two teams left standing at the end. It was the same way last year with Indiana and Miami, and we all knew it. No disrespect to Washington, Brooklyn and Atlanta, but the Bulls and Cavs are clearly a cut above.
So today we fast forward to May, break down these two rebuilt powerhouses position by position, and then I tell you which of the two is going to emerge from the East and play in the NBA Finals. I recruited a bunch of these players when I was a Division I coach, so hopefully I can tell you a little something you didn’t already know.
So let’s get right to it.
Kyrie Irving vs. Derrick Rose
When was I was a high school coach in the NYC Catholic League – at the time considered the best HS league in the country – I was coaching and coaching against numerous All-Americans who would go on to be future NBA players – guys like Jamal Mashburn, Malik Sealy, Kenny Anderson and Felipe Lopez, to name a few. We coaches used to have a saying – some guys were good, some very good and some even great. But once in a while a guy came along who was just flat-out special, and from the first time I saw Kyrie Irving and started recruiting him as an eighth grader, you could see that Kyrie was going to be one of those guys who was off the charts.
The guy just got back from Spain with a World Cup MVP trophy in his luggage, saying he just went through the greatest experience of his life. The most impressive thing to me wasn’t Irving going 6 for 6 from the 3-point line in the final against Serbia, because Kyrie can do that better than many people realize. But his focus to being a lockdown defender and a leader on this team was where he made the most monumental leap. Coming into this season, Irving will have to change his game now that he has LeBron James and Kevin Love as his running mates (this might be a better Big Three than what they had in Miami the past four years). The major question going forward is will he continue to focus on being the point guard leader this team will need him to be, especially when he has to defer to LeBron and play off the ball, and will he focus on a consistent basis on the defensive end, where in the past some have questioned Kyrie’s commitment at times. Offensively, in my opinion, he is without a doubt the best layup and mid-range tough shot maker in the NBA. Whether it’s in transition or in heavy traffic, he has always been exceptional at this. When you add in how much stronger he has gotten over the years, and become more of a consistent 3-point shooter with deep range, he is absolutely unguardable. Because he only played 9 games in college for Coach K at Duke before an injury finished his only season in college, to this year when he will be playing for his third coach in four years, and the fact that he has not yet been on a really successful team, the jury has been out regarding his leadership ability. That’s why this summer’s experience with Coach K may springboard him into the elite status, where he will be challenging incumbents like Tony Parker and Chris Paul and a few others as the top point guard in the NBA.
What can be said about Derrick Rose that hasn’t already been said ad infinitum about his past two years of hardships and injuries and rehabs. He got his mojo back in the World Cup semifinals against Lithuania, and the Bulls will be the big beneficiaries of Rose shaking the cobwebs off as the backup behind Irving for Team USA. If he can rediscover his MVP form — and remember that he has the entire season to get himself back to that level — his matchup with Irving in the conference finals will be a classic. I can remember a specific USA practice at City College in New York one day before the last Olympic Gold medal team left for London, before any of Derrick’s injuries. I was sitting courtside that day and was absolutely blown away, as was every coach and media member there, when D-Rose just took it to another level. Everyone just marveled at what he could do, how fast he exploded to the basket and how deft he was at finishing. Once you see something like that, you can’t help but hope to see it again someday and root for the guy to get back to that place. Talk about special. No disrespect to Russell Westbrook or any of the other special athletic guards to come along, but for me, personally, I have never seen a more explosive gifted PG at any level who could do the things Rose did on that day. So now, like the Chicago coaching staff and front office and fans, we all know the experience he just came off in Spain with Team USA is the appetizer. It’s the crackers on the table before you dinner is served. It was a mixed sample, which is to be expected after a 2- year layoff, but as Coach Tom Thibodeau has said, it was a positive promising start. If Rose can continue to get his rythm and get his timing and game legs under him with no setbacks, Chicago is indeed a championship contender.
Edge: Irving because of where he is right now with his growth and confidence level.
Dion Waiters vs. Jimmy Butler
Two guys I happen to love and also have a history with. Butler is a guy I got to coach against when he was playing for my good friend Coach Buzz Williams at Marquette and I was coaching at Seton Hall, we had a few typical Big East wars and I came away so impressed with Butler’s upside as a junior college transfer out of Texas that I actually called a good NBA GM friend of mine, Neil Olshey, and begged him to draft Butler. But the clippers did not have a first-round pick in 2011, and Butler went at No. 30 to the Bulls. (He is looking for an extension before the Oct. 31 deadline). I was sure he would be a long-term pro because of his length, his versatility, his ability to pretty much defend any position. The credit has to go to the Chicago front office for spotting a sleeper diamond in the rough, and to Coach Thibs and the staff for helping to develop him offensively to where he is now one of the bright young up and coming wings in the league who can swing between a big 2 guard or a small forward. Will Butler be the guy who defends LeBron? Or will that fall to Taj Gibson. That is one of the things I can’t wait to see. We get our first Cavs-Bulls matchup on Halloween night, and the last game between the rivals-to-be is April 5.
I have known Dion Waiters since he was in high school and I recruited and signed his cousin out of Philly, Jessie Morgan, who’s now at Temple. Dion who has always been a gifted scorer who can take and make tough shots. Dion, like DeMarcus Cousins because of bad body language and maturity issues, has always been judged a little unfairly. Dion, like Kyrie, has also played for three different coaches in three years and is still trying to find his niche. He has said publicly he wants to be a starter, but in the past quite honestly I think he has been better as a sixth man come off the bench to provide instant offense, a la Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson from back in the day with the Pistons. Now with all the changes to the Cavs, the trick will be seeing if Dion can fit in and blend his gifted talented offensive game with three other superstars in James Love and Irving, and see if he can find his way as a fourth or fifth option. One thing for sure, Dion is a guy that when the offense breaks down he can create and off the dribble and get his own shot.
Edge: Butler because of his ability to play and defend multiple positions on both ends of the court.
LeBron James vs. Taj Gibson
The next spot is a little tricky as Coach Thibs can go with numerous guys in this spot like Mike Dunleavy who had a solid year statistically and does a lot of little things that help you win, but also with the addition of Nikola Mirotic from overseas and rookie Doug McDermott, there will be options. But I will take a chance here and say that because of the addition of power forward Pau Gasol and because of Thibodeau’s fondness for Gibson’s length and versatility, I will say he puts Taj Gibson at the small forward spot to start. With Cleveland there no such dilemma. LeBron James is the guy doing everything except driving the bus, taping ankles, singing the national anthem and selling popcorn at halftime. So it’s LeBron vs. Taj Gibson and a cast of backups.
Taj is one of my all-time favorites, a tough once-unknown Brooklyn kid who I also tried hard to recruit in college, but because of some academic issues was sent to the West Coast for prep school and ended up at USC. The next time I see him I want to remind him that while I was at Seton Hall we had a war at a tournament in Puerto Rico in the San Juan Shootout when we played his 15th-ranked Trojans in the first round on ESPN and he and his teammate, current Toronto Raptor and fellow Team USA member DeMar DeRozan where both kicking our tail by 17 points but my team came back to upset them by 2. A self-serving story, but true, and I went up to Gibson at the time (most people didn’t think was on the NBA radar) and I told Taj I would see him in the NBA someday, and I’m glad I was right. What a great kid and terrific player he has gone on to be.
What can you say about LeBron except go back in history like I have with all these guys. The first time I saw him was at the famous Sonny Vaccaro ABCD camp. As he came on the court, I turned to a few Hall of Fame college coaches next to me and I asked “Is that kid really HS?” They laughed and we agreed that we were looking at the most physically ready for the NBA high school player we would ever see in our lifetimes, and the rest is history.
Edge: LeBron, obviously.
Kevin Love vs. Pau Gasol
Two of the premier bigs in the NBA. With Pau I believe this will be a great move for both him and Chicago. A change of scenery from the last few unhappy years in L.A. will rejuvenate his career, and Chicago gets a supremely skilled big man who can play with any combination of their front court bigs at power forward or center. With Joakim Noah you will have two bigs with great length who can both really pass the ball, and Pau adds an element that Carlos Boozer really didn’t bring with his shot-blocking ability. Pau can really help Chicago’s offense which desperately needs to get some more run outs and easy baskets in transitions off blocks, deflections and steals (I think this can be an underrated thing for Chicago which no one is really talking about.) Pau can also step out or post up on offense, and I think will really fit in with Coach Thibodeau’s system.
Next, Kevin Love is a huge get for the Cavs, clearly one of the premier power forwards in the NBA today — if not the best. Offensively Love is a walking double-double, and there’s really nothing he can’t do. It will be interesting to see how Coach David Blatt uses him as a stretch 4 who can step out and make 3s to help space the floor for James and Irving, but also because he will be their best rebounder on both the offensive and defensive boards. They can use him in pick and pop situations or post him up because he is a good passer out of the low post in double teams. This is the toughest matchup to decide because Chicago has more length and depth and choices up front, especially at the power forward spot, but there is a reason Cleveland had to give up the kitchen sink to get Love because other than some concern about his quickness and his commitment defensively there is no one else in the NBA who possesses his skill set as a big man.
Edge: Cavs, with a caveat — the defensive commitment mentioned above will be paramount. We already know Gasol has it.
Anderson Varejao vs. Joakim Noah
We’ll start with Noah, who I also watched grow up in the NYC basketball scene and coached against when he was in college at Florida. Speaking of a unique skill set for a big man, Joakim probably has proved more experts wrong as to where he would end up in his career and how good and effective he has become as a center. He has become an All-Star, one of those players who supposedly is in the untradeable category for the Bulls, and I don’t blame them. He is a much more competitive warrior when it comes to wanting to win than anyone has ever given him credit for, he can rebound, defend, run the floor, block shots, score around the basket, and is one of the best big man passers out of the high post in the league. He has an awkward looking jump shot and free throw, nicknamed the Torpedo, but like his game it is effective and it works.
Next you have Brazillian big man Varejao, who as a center is a little undersized but makes up for it with his Kenny Faried-like toughness and energy level and intangibles. He is supposedly one of LeBron James’ favorite teammates and should be the perfect role player blend guy who really doesn’t need the ball or too many touches to be effective. This will be especially important with three legitimate superstars on the floor in James, Love and Irving. I also have a great story and some history with Varejao, as I once recruited and signed his older brother Sandro when I was at Providence College and Sandro came from Brazil to Southern Idaho Junior college while Anderson was still in HS in Brazil.
Edge: Bulls. Noah is a proven All-Star who is very important to the Bulls’ overall success, whereas Varejao will be a key piece to the puzzle.
Tristan Thompson, Shawn Marion and Mike Miller vs. Nikola Mirotic, Mike Dunleavy, Doug McDermott and Kirk Hinrich
The Cavs will come in with a former lottery pick and a former starter, athletic but raw offensively Tristan Thompson, who I have known since he played at St Benedict’s HS in Newark. He hasn’t lived up to his draft spot, but should be better with less pressure and spotlight than veterans Marion (defense) and Miller (shooting).
For Chicago, with Rose back, Hinrich should go back to being a solid backup at the PG position where he gives the Bulls great insurance for Rose. Then you may have Mirotic, Dunleavy and McDermott, who all bring in shooting for the Bulls, who were dead last in FG percentage offensively and also 3-point shooting. They desperately need to be more creative and move up in those offensive categories to be a championship contender.
Edge: The Bulls slightly. Chicago’s bench is deeper and has more options, but the Cavs may have a little more experience in some of their key bench pieces like Miller and Marion, who both have great playoff experience. But Cleveland needs a rim protector and a little more size, and Chicago may need another proven wing guard or shooter (if Ray Allen choses between these teams, be would tilt the balance one way or another).
I once learned in coaching that no matter who you are or how good your team is, you never — especially from a coaching standpoint — have everything. The key question becomes: “Do you have enough to win?” and both these teams do.
Both teams are capable of winning 60-plus games, and it would not surprise me if they both reach that plateau. As long as everyone remains healthy, the teams should play a full seven-game series, and the winner will be the team that is playing at home in Game 7.
Bobby Gonzalez is a former Division I coach at Manhattan College and Seton Hall University. He has been writing columns for SheridanHoops since March 2014. Check out Gonzo’s column archive.