The Bulls Thursday play Game 3 of what may be the most important playoff series in franchise history.
And thus far, even though the Bulls trail 0-2, the series with the Cleveland Cavaliers may be going very well.
That’s because based on what LeBron James has seen in the first two games, especially in the Cavs 112-102 Game 2 victory in Cleveland Monday, if James’ goal is to become a great winner, he cannot possibly think there’s a big window of opportunity with his Cavaliers.
He, instead, has to consider what his future would be if he played with a 22-year-old All-Star point guard and a 25-year-old near All-Star center.
If James wants to be considered the greatest player in the history of the game and surpass Michael Jordan—and I believe he does—then it is about winning championships.
At least six of them.
James has a good chance to get his first this season.
But if James at 26 envisions a long run, does he have a better chance with 38-year-old Shaquille O’Neal, and by next season 34-year-old Antawn Jamison and 35-year-old Anthony Parker being three of his fellow starters? Or even the likes of Mo Williams and Delonte West?
On the other hand, how good and how long a run could James have if he teamed as a free agent after this season with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah?
That’s potentially the best thing about this playoff series for the Bulls, even though they’ll likely lose it. They may well show James there’s a much better basketball future—if not Noah’s view of way more to do on the weekends—by joining up with Rose, Noah, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich. With a core like that, how easy would it be to get a couple of top veterans who want to be part of the next great potential dynasty?
This series for the first time may give the Bulls a legitimate chance to land James as a free agent this summer.
And I know everyone in Chicago would feel James looks good dancing in a Bulls uniform.
The Bulls have believed with their core, which they kept in place while going into free agency unlike teams like the Knicks and Nets, they are one player like Joe Johnson or Chris Bosh or Amar’e Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer away from being a top four team in the East.
But what if you could get the game’s best player?
Look what James did Monday with a collection of scrap metal.
OK, that’s a bit harsh. Just kidding. But that is an old Cavs team with no cap room. Shaq’s on his last gasp. Zydrunas Ilgauskas probably will leave, anyway, after a falling out with the team this season. Plus, he is 35 soon and slowed. Jamison’s best days are past. Same with Parker. They’ve got some young guys, like J.J. Hickson, and, well nobody.
There still really isn’t that great second, the Scottie Pippen to Jordan, the Worthy and Kareem for Magic, the McHale and Parish for Bird.
Chicago’s got Nos. 2 and 3.
How good would they be with No. 1?
How many championships could James claim?
Hey, there’s room for another statue on the west side of the United Center.
It’s probably the main reason why it was so important the Bulls made the playoffs, especially against the Cavs.
Noah, who came up big in Game 2 with 25 points and 13 rebounds, wasn’t exactly conceding, and he never would. But he did take a bit of a big picture look after Game 2.
“This is great for our team,” said Noah. “Competition does not get higher than this. We understand this is great for us. In the big picture, when we go into the summer we can say (if we lose) we played against the best team and we know what we’ve got to do to get better. It’s all about getting better and trying to win ball games.”
Noah added he expected the team to win Game 3 back in Chicago Thursday, though, look, the Bulls finished 20 games behind the Cavs.
But it’s also why I felt it was important for the franchise to make the playoffs.
It’s not that they couldn’t get a free agent if they didn’t make the playoffs. But even trailing 0-2, what do you think is the reputation of the Bulls now compared to the Raptors, who missed out by that one game in Toronto.
The point is to show what you have on the big stage, and the Bulls did a good job of that Monday.
Sure, they lost, and the idea is to win. Second isn’t good in games.
But the Bulls showed not only impressive resolve in the way the Bulls played the Cavs but that they have at least a pair of high level NBA stars.
That’s why, I believe, the Bulls privately were hoping if they made the playoffs to get the Cavs.
They’d be a big underdog against any of the top four teams, obviously.
So show LeBron James, likely the biggest free agent prize in NBA history along with Shaq in 1996, what kind of talent you have, the way the team plays, hard and committed, and then let him get a look at life in Chicago in the playoffs.
There are few better venues.
It’s why it’s always been the foolish who suggested the Bulls should miss the playoffs for a chance for a top lottery pick. Yes, they got lucky for Rose, but it’s less than a one percent chance to move up like that from where they would have been this season.
I think that’s less than the chance James would see what he likes and maybe make the surprise decision.
You’ll notice Noah had some fun with the city of Cleveland, but he showed only respect to James and the Cavs.
We’ve all—including me—believed James was going to resign with the Cavs. Home, perhaps a championship, the most available money, and treatment like maybe no player ever has received from his team. It’s hard to argue how much the Cavs done to accommodate James.
But what if the Cavs don’t win?
It’s not like they looked like a championship team in Game 2.
Shaq was ineffective and you wonder if the one day of rest, which he’ll see more of in subsequent rounds, isn’t enough. There are two day breaks before games 3 and 4 in this series, which should benefit O’Neal.
Suddenly, if Anderson Varejao isn’t having a big game—and he doesn’t score, anyway—the front line looks overmatched. Noah ran them and outworked them badly and Taj Gibson out toughed them with 11 points and seven rebounds.
James, alone, can get you by a team like the Bulls. But then you probably have to deal with the athletic and deep Hawks and the Magic and Dwight Howard, who sent the Cavs out last season.
Of course, with Miami having Dwyane Wade and the excess salary cap room to add a maximum free agent and another high salaried player, maybe that looks better to James. Though you’d still have to find a center, which is difficult.
The notion was the Cavs responded to the Magic loss last year with the acquisition of Shaq to give fouls on Howard, and Jamison to match the Orlando forward scoring. Maybe it will work.
But there’s hardly any guarantee. After all, it took a phenomenal shooting performance–and at home–by James, 40 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to beat the .500 Bulls without Ben Gordon, John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas. And that’s with four threes from Jamario Moon, who hadn’t hit one in 109 minutes in the last four games of the regular season. Moon, once a Globetrotter, was just a 32 percent three point shooter in the season. Yes, as it was noted by my colleague Mark Heisler, “once in a Jamario moon.”
The Magic is deeper and a better defensive team, and the way Shaq looked after one day rest it’s difficult to imagine him being much but an annoyance to Howard.
And these things can become very emotional decisions. After the Cavs were knocked out by the Magic last season, it was clear James was anguished.
How much patience would he have again if it occurs?
And say James does win that first title. If he is about winning, as he says, and he has the opportunity through free agency, wouldn’t his future look a lot better with the likes of Rose and Noah or, say, Wade and Stoudemire, than with Shaq, Jamison, Parker and Williams?
Even the Bulls may not fully realize how big this playoff series is. It has the potential of changing the balance of power in the NBA. It’s why getting there and playing like they have thus far has been so potentially significant.
Maybe the Bulls can dream royally.
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