The Chicago Bulls have beefed up their roster and especially their frontcourt this offseason via the additions of two European big men in veteran Pau Gasol and the 23-year-old 2013 Spanish League MVP Nikola Mirotic.
With the return of 2010-11 NBA MVP Derrick Rose and the presence of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah at center, are they good enough to be the best in the Eastern Conference?
Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson surely thinks so, as he ranked the Bulls ahead of everyone in the East – including four-time league MVP LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now, it’s time to figure out whether the ranking is warranted. A fair way to judge the validity of Johnson’s prediction is by taking into account the amount of win shares produced by each member of the two respective teams’ projected starting lineups.
For the Bulls, the top dog in win shares last season was easily the team’s MVP in Noah, who also finished with the ninth-most win shares in the entire league.
The Bulls ace perimeter defender and shooting guard Jimmy Butler came in second among the Chicago 2013-14 starters with a little over seven win shares.
The only other remaining member of the squad’s ’13-14 starting lineup who recorded more than five win shares was veteran forward Mike Dunleavy.
As for the reserves, Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Taj Gibson managed to record five-plus win shares, as he was a big part of Chicago head man Tom Thibodeau’s lineup during vital stretches in the fourth quarter in large part due to amnesty victim and Lakers amnesty prize Carlos Boozer’s defensive inefficiencies.
This brings us to the team’s addition of a two-time NBA champion and four-time NBA All-Star in Pau Gasol, who will likely slide into Boozer’s spot in the starting lineup. Along with his championship pedigree, the Spaniard brings along with him the ability to efficiently pass while on the low block and while facing double teams.
While this is the case, it is also true that his amount of win shares has decreased from nearly eight and a half during the 2011-12 campaign to under four the following season and then to only three this past season. It’s a significant fall from elite status that Gasol has taken, but at the same time it can be expected for a man of his age – he turned 34 on July 6 – who is a lot closer to the end of the line than to enjoying the prime of his career.
For as many steps as he’s taken back since the end of the 2011-12 campaign, I don’t expect the seven footer to take another step or two back in the upcoming campaign and in his first one with the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls, who understandably are banking on the return of a healthy and explosive D-Rose in his comeback from his second knee operation in as many years.
Coach Thibs and the entire organization know that their Eastern Conference and title candidacy depend on the freshness of his very legs, no matter how good Gasol and Mirotic prove to be in their first year in the Windy City.
For the sake of making it easier on myself, let’s assume that Rose is healthy for at least 60 games of the regular season, while playing at a level below the one he played at during his 2010-11 MVP campaign, but resemblant to the level of play he established for himself in the 39 games he played in the following season before suffering his first major knee injury.
If my prediction comes true, that means Rose will produce roughly eight win shares over the course of the ’14-15 campaign, in which I believe he’ll elevate the play of Gasol and make him into a four and a half win shares player.
If that is true, it means the combination of Rose and Gasol will account for around 13 win shares.
If you add their win shares up with the win shares held by last year’s defensive win shares leader in Noah, then you’ll easily get to 23 win shares for the Chicago mini-“Big Three,” without taking into account what Dunleavy and Butler will produce in the category.
After producing two straight seasons of at least seven win shares, I’ve got to believe that nothing – besides for injury – is going to prevent the 24-year-old from reaching that same amount for a third consecutive season.
As for Dunleavy who projects to be the team’s starting small forward when the season opens up, somewhere in the four and a half range should be expected, as the former Milwaukee Buck and Indiana Pacer put up nearly four and a half win shares for three straight seasons from 2010-11 until 2012-13 in his final season with the Bucks.
With saying all that, I think it’s fair to say that Thibs can expect 35 win shares out of his starters this upcoming season.
How do Thibs and the Bulls stack up with the Vegas favorite LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers? Let’s compare.
James is easily the best basketball player on the planet when it comes to consistently producing north of 15 win shares a season, as he’s produced above 15 win shares in four of the last five seasons. It’s something, by the way, that this past season’s win shares leader and league MVP Kevin Durant can’t say, as he’s produced north of 15 win shares in three of his last five campaigns.
In saying that, it’s easy to make the assumption that King James will record north of 15 once again in the first year of his second stint in Cleveland, Ohio.
Can his supporting cast members in Cleveland elevate the Cavs to above 35 win shares as a starting unit?
Barring a trade for Minnesota Timberwolves double-double machine Kevin Love, point guard Kyrie Irving projects to finish with the second highest amount of win shares among Cavs starters, as he finished with nearly seven as Cleveland’s best player last year and should easily eclipse seven this upcoming season playing alongside LBJ and with a new offensive-minded head man in David Blatt.
Although a trade seems to be in the works between the Cavs and T-Wolves for K-Love due to Cleveland’s recent change of heart in its decision to include top draft pick Andrew Wiggins in the deal, there’s still a trade offer for the former UCLA Bruin on the table from the Golden State Warriors.
As a result, it’s not a foregone conclusion that the highly athletic Wiggins won’t be suiting up as a Cavalier and receiving alley-oop passes from the King in both the immediate and long-term future. It’s the reason why I’m including the former Kansas Jayhawk standout freshman in my win shares projection for the Cavs starting five.
Many pundits expect him to be an impact rookie who grows into a supremely, high-class defender by the end of his time in the Association. Subsequently, Wiggins should be a guy capable of recording approximately four win shares as a rookie.
If that’s the case, the Cleveland “Big 3” of Wiggins, Irving and James will account for nearly 30 total win shares – only five less than the projected amount amassed by the entire Chi-Town starting five.
The current frontcourt duo, who will fill out the remaining two spots in the Cleveland starting five, is fourth-year Canadian power forward Tristan Thompson and Brazilian center Anderson Varejao, who is entering year 11 as a member of the Dan Gilbert-owned franchise.
While Thompson has been good for about five and a half win shares the last two seasons, “Andy” has been good for as low as two and for as many as nearly five and a half win shares the past three seasons.
When you add up Thompson’s expected five and a half win shares plus the estimated win shares total of one of LBJ’s all-time favorite teammates in Varejao, it’s easy to see the Cavalier starting unit garnering as many as 40 win shares in LeBron’s first crack at redemption in his home state.
What this all means is that the Cavs with James are better than the Windy City’s NBA squad is with a healthy D-Rose.
And when you add key veteran reserves into the equation such as sharp shooter Mike Miller and possibly the NBA’s all-time three-point field goal record holder in Ray Allen, there’s no doubt in my mind that the King’s squad will reach 50 wins and be the best team in the Eastern Conference in 2014-15.
Who agrees with me? Let me know if you do by voicing your opinion in the comments section below or tweeting me @VitoJerome.