Cleveland gets the King, but Chicago rules the East

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LeBron James returns to the City of the Burning River and the Burning Jerseys, after we assumed the bridges also had burned.  Only a few days before he committed to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team’s website was still posting a four-year-old rant from owner Dan Gilbert calling James “cowardly .  .  .  narcissistic  .  . .  heartless.”

So now the basketball world is upside down.   Gilbert and James reconciled.  The Miami Heat, NBA finalists four straight years, prepare to battle for .500.  LeBron’s new team, his old team, the Cavaliers, are Vegas faves to win the next NBA title.

Even though Cleveland hasn’t won a championship in a major sport since 1964 when Jim Brown was playing there.

The re-make of the NBA began with  King James accepting a two-year, $42 million offer to  go back home to Ohio, which had made bonfires with his jerseys when he made a prime-time TV spectacle out of taking his talents to South Beach.

After winning two rings in four years, James felt the tug of friends and family even though his wife Savannah preferred staying in South Beach.  He described himself in a universally admired letter, delivered to Sports Illustrated, as “a kid from northeast Ohio”  who wants to win a championship for people who “have seen me grow up.  I sometimes feel like I’m their son.”

So we get the perfect redemption story.  Then the Love story:  James trying to arrange a trade for Kevin Love, 25-year-old power-house forward of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The sports world is enraptured by LeBron’s sentimental journey and what Love’s got to do with it.  So it barely notices a free-agent move that could have more impact for next season:  7-foot center Pau Gasol from Los Angeles to Chicago. 

Gasol was anxious to leave the gasping, drowning Lakers.  To create salary cap room for him, the Bulls used their one-time access to the so-called “Amnesty Clause” which allows a team to waive one player and have his entire salary stricken from the cap, though the player still gets paid.

So the Bulls finally found a use for Carlos Boozer.  They wrote him off and his $15 million salary.

While the Cavaliers are the more popular betting choice, the Bulls are the better team.  Better also than Indiana, Eastern Conference finalists of the past two years.  The Pacers stepped backwards with the free agency departure of Lance Stephenson, their best playmaker and rebounder.  On defense he’s one of the three or four NBA players who are capable of shutting down LeBron.  Even if it means distracting him by blowing in his ear.

Last season Chicago had the NBA’s best defense, but ranked 30th in points.  Enter Gasol to pair with 6-11 Joakim Noah to form the best big-man combo in the sport.  Both are superb passers and rebounders.  Noah is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year but like most of the Bulls doesn’t score much.

Gasol averaged 17.4 points for the erstwhile champion Lakers, and that was better than any of the Bulls managed for the full season.   Defense wins championships but it couldn’t get Chicago out of the first round.  Which of course was one more round than Cleveland attempted.

Gasol does carry some risk.  As recently as March he was missing games because of vertigo.  His dizziness may have been caused by an inner ear infection, since cured.  But given that he’s 34, durability is a concern.  And he doesn’t move as well on defense as he once did.

So the Bulls bolstered their front court with younger talent: 6-10 Nikola Mirotic, recently MVP of the Spanish League.  He was Chicago’s first-round pick in 2011, and he developed nicely for Real Madrid, hitting 46 percent on 3-pointers his last season there.

Another boost to Chicago’s offense is 6-8 forward Doug McDermott, NCAA Player of the Year (making 52% of his 3’s) who became the 11th player taken in the June draft.

As usual, however, everything depends on the health of point guard Derrick Rose, who in 2011 was the youngest MVP in league history, at 22.  He missed most of the next two seasons with knee injuries but is reportedly near full speed as he’s in Las Vegas training for the World Cup.

The hope is that shooting guard Jimmy Butler will shoot above .400, which he failed to do last season.   He’s 24 and is likely to improve his accuracy, if any Bull can.  He’s nothing if not a workhorse:  39 minutes a game, regular season, 43 in the playoffs. And he’s one of those few defenders able to check LeBron.

Chicago’s Tom Thibodeaux, one of the most respected coaches in America, and Cleveland’s Dave Blatt, one of the most respected coaches in Europe, both know how to wreak havoc with their defensive schemes.  But the Cavs, other than James, are not inclined to play defense.

Love, hotly pursued by Golden State as well as Cleveland, is a steady and rangy shooter, precision passer and voracious rebounder.  But he’s not a defense enthusiast.   While the Bulls are ready now — if Rose is — the Cavs are still a few pieces away from a championship, with or without Kevin Love.

Which James understands.  He acknowledged in The Letter:  “We’re not ready.  No way.  Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic.”

As with the rest of it, those words ring true.



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