As I watched the Bulls force LeBron James to score 40 points to beat them in Cleveland Monday night, they reminded me of the team that kept playing and kept pushing the Celtics in the first round last spring – all the way to a nail-biting defeat in seven games.
This year’s Cavs are not last year’s Celtics, but this year’s Bulls aren’t last year’s Bulls, either. Every time Jamario Moon hit a 3-pointer or LeBron did whatever he wanted to do, the Bulls’ answer in Game 2 was, increasingly, nothing. A year ago, it was Ben Gordon.
Next year at this time, it’ll be _____.
The Bulls will be scary next year. That will be little consolation when they eventually lose this series to the Cavs – whether they win one or two games in Chicago or not. There was nothing to be ashamed of in their 112-102 loss to the LeBrons in Game 2, nor is there anything wrong with heading back to Chicago down 0-2 in the best-of-7 series. That was to be expected. This is what LeBron does, and it’s what the best team in the NBA is supposed to do.
But a year from now? With news Friday from David Stern that the salary cap could be $56.1 million next season – anywhere from $3 million to $6 million more than projected last summer – the Bulls will be able to bring this same team back to the playoffs with one exception. They’ll have someone to go shot-for-shot with LeBron.
That is, assuming it’s not LeBron; there’s no reason to believe it will be, and I hope it isn’t. Remember a few weeks ago, when LeBron lamented the lack of rivalries in today’s NBA? He’d go a long way toward bringing rivalries back by staying in Cleveland and standing toe-to-toe with whoever receives Chicago’s max money. Dwyane Wade, the ideal rival to LeBron, would be perfect – except he handles the ball too much to play with Derrick Rose and will have a hard time turning his back on South Beach once the Heat flex their salary-cap muscles to put more talent around him. Joe Johnson? Possible; he’d be a good complement to Rose and would’ve had something to say Monday night when LeBron started doing to the Bulls what Michael Jordan used to do to the Cavs in the playoffs.
However it works out, the Bulls will have an answer to LeBron next spring. They won’t need to resort to Joakim Noah’s made-for-headline quotes. With a lineup of Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Rose, a max player to be named later, Kirk Hinrich off the bench, and a moderately priced big man who can block shots, the Bulls won’t be facing the Cavs in the first round. They’ll be squaring off in the conference semifinals or finals.
That’ll be a rivalry – one worthy of a bigger, later playoff stage.