Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Bulls Future

In the aftermath of the Bulls loss to the Cavs, most of the talk has centered around Tom Thibodeau's future. With Derrick Rose in (and mostly) out of the line-up and no one else on the roster able to carry the load as the primary option on offense, Thibs has been awkwardly thrust into the role of the face of the franchise. No matter how many guys the Bulls had out, he would be able to piece together a defensively-minded group that executed at a high level, treated every regular season game like it was Game 7 of the Finals and fought their way into the playoffs.

If this is it for the Thibs era, it's fitting that the final loss came at the hands of LeBron James, the one guy his teams never had an answer for. Chicago lost to LeBron in 2011, 2013 and 2015. It didn't matter what team he was playing for who the Bulls had. The only constants between 2011 and 2015 were Rose, Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich. They went from Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Keith Bogans to Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol and Mike Dunleavy. The 2nd unit wasn't as deep but they still had Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic coming off their bench. They got better and changed over time but LeBron was always standing in their way.

Thibs has gotten a lot of grief for running guys into the ground but he is still acknowledged as one of the best coaches in the NBA and it won't take him long to find a job somewhere else. For whatever reason, whether it's personality conflicts or style differences or maybe just the thought that the guys in the locker room need to hear a different voice, the front office seems pretty determined to run him out of town. There's more to it than Jerry Krause vs. Phil Jackson but you can see the outlines of the same struggle all these years later. Whose to credit for the success of the team? The coach who fits players into his scheme or the front office who supplies the players? Chicago is betting that it won't matter all that much who they have running the show if the flow of talent into the organization continues.

What's unique about the young core they have put together is where in the draft they found these guys. The Bulls rebuilt on the fly without ever missing the playoffs - they took Taj Gibson at No. 26 in 2009, Nikola Mirotic at No. 21 in 2011 and Jimmy Butler at No. 30. That's one of the best 3rd big men in the NBA, one of the best players in this year's rookie class and one of the best wing players in the NBA period. Pretty much every team in the league had a chance at those guys and they all ended up falling into Chicago's lap.

Even the guys who didn't work out - James Johnson (No. 16 in 2009) - have turned into quality NBA players in other stops. They only guy they have missed on recently is Marquis Teague (No. 29 in 2012). Either the Bulls have been really lucky or really good because it certainly seems like someone in the organization has an eye for talent. You can't expect to get every pick right but what stands about the Teague selection is how it breaks the pattern in Chicago's draft picks. Gibson and Butler were seniors who didn't play at powerhouse schools and who fell in the draft because of concerns about their age and how much upside they presented in the league. Mirotic fell because of questions about his buy-out and when (if ever) he'd be able to play in the NBA but the end result was the same - he was a 23-year old rookie who was able to play right away and contribute on a good team. The Bulls didn't have to wait too long for any of these guys because they came into the league as older players with relatively well-rounded games.

Going forward, with Rose, Butler and their big men poised to eat up much of their cap, the Bulls don't have a ton flexibility. The key for them is to continue what they have already been doing - finding good players in the latter stages of the draft and plugging them into the rotation. The next guy they are waiting on is Tony Snell, the No. 22 pick in 2013. He may never be Jimmy Butler but he's long, athletic and he seems to have enough ball skills to hold his own in an NBA offense. It's still too early to really tell with Snell when it comes to his NBA future, especially since he had almost no chance of earning playing time behind Kirk Hinrich, a guy whom Thibs has basically been treating as if he were his Rosebud over the last few years.

If they can turn into Snell into a 3-and-D shooter on the wings, they should have a pretty solid core going forward:

PG - Rose (26)
SG - Snell (25)
SF - Butler (25)
PF - Mirotic (23)
C - Gibson (29)

The biggest basketball question the Bulls will need to answer is what happens at the C position, where they have two formerly elite players who are starting to show more and more signs of wearing down as they move deeper into their 30's. Can you win a championship with a C whose as bad on D as Pau? Even Thibs could only do so much. Can you win one with Noah throwing up 3-foot shots against the Cavs that can charitably be described as prayers? It's just hard to feel too confident in how well an undersized big man with very little touch who relies on his athleticism is going to age.

That's where the trade for Doug McDermott really hurts, as they had to give up a potential 3-and-D wing (Gary Harris) AND a C of the future (Jusuf Nurkic) to move up and take McDermott. Harris may or may not turn into a player but Nurkic has already shown a ton of promise in Denver and he could have been the perfect bruising defensive C + gifted low-post scorer to complement Mirotic's shooting + lack of defense at the 4 position. If the Bulls had just stayed in place in last year's draft, they would be feeling really good about their future right now.

At the same time, it's not like McDermott can't help this team significantly going forward. He may never be able to play good NBA defense but he's a 6'8 guy with unlimited range who can dribble into 3's and there's value in having a player with that skill-set coming off your bench. With Rose, Butler and Mirotic in place, you don't need a ton from the rest of the wing positions on your roster and there's no reason the duo of Snell and McDermott can't turn into quality supporting NBA players.

It's hard to say who will be available at No. 22 this far away from the draft, but there will be a number of good players for Chicago to pick through. Finding the next Chandler Parsons or Jimmy Butler or Draymond Green is easier said than done but no one has done a better job of that lately than the Bulls. Who knows how much of that is the result of the organization and how much of that is the player but I tend to lean towards giving the players credit for their own development. If Jimmy Butler or Taj Gibson were drafted a few spots later or a few spots earlier, it's hard to believe all that much changes about their career path. Even if they hadn't landed in a place where they could get as much playing time right away, a 6'7 wing and a 6'9 power forward with two-way ability are going to get a chance eventually. The most important thing an organization can do is get out of their way and let them play basketball.

In that regard the NBA isn't all that different from the NFL, where the best teams tend to be the ones who can find guys who can play in the draft. You never have a better chance of grabbing good young talent for cheap as you do come draft night and then you have control over their rights for the majority of their playing career. By the time Gibson, Butler and Mirotic reach their 3rd contract in the NBA, they will already be declining as players because Chicago has already gotten the most out of them in the prime years of their career. Just look at Luol Deng. The difference is the Bulls have been finding guys of Luol Deng's caliber in the back half of the first round as opposed to the top of the lottery.

We don't know what will happen with Tony Snell and Doug McDermott but I have some confidence they can be turned into quality NBA players because you can see how their skill-sets can fit into the core that is already in place and the Bulls have a long history of finding talent in the draft. They are such a tight-lipped organization that it's almost impossible to predict whom they will take although a look at their history would indicate they will look at older players with well-rounded games and good size for their position. Who they take at No. 22 won't get a ton of press but that's really the most important decision they will make this off-season.

Even getting a prized free agent like Pau Gasol is no guarantee of anything. Pau is a declining player who hit the market for the first time in his mid 30's - this was probably the best year they were ever going to get from him. They drafted Jimmy Butler in 2011 and they should be reaping the benefits of that decision until the 2020's. And if you have enough guys like Butler on your team, it's not going to matter all that much who is coaching them. The Grizzlies plugged in Dave Joerger for Lionel Hollins and kept rolling - the Warriors switched out Mark Jackson for Steve Kerr and got better. As long as the Bulls keep drafting good players, everything else should take care of itself.

Eastern Conference Finals Preview

At RealGM, a position by position look at Hawks vs. Cavs.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Patience in Houston

Even with their 124-103 victory over the Clippers in Game 5, the Rockets have a pretty uphill battle to climb. They have been on the defensive since the start of the series, when a short-handed Clippers team stole home court advantage in Game 1 without Chris Paul. The games have only been competitive in Houston - Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles were cringe-worthy blowouts that had the Rockets looking like a team lucky to be in the playoffs instead of a championship contender. They were the kind of losses that force a team to look deep within itself for answers and that can ruin a national reputation a team spent the whole season building.

Headed into Game 5, the big adjustment Kevin McHale made was switching out Terrence Jones with Josh Smith in the starting line-up. With Jones once again struggling in the bright lights of the playoffs, the switch removed a lot of the pressure on him, as he got to spend a lot more time going up against Big Baby Davis and Spencer Hawes than against Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Having another ball-handler and passer in the starting line-up also helped the Rockets take care of the ball more - they handed out 29 assists on only 11 turnovers on Wednesday, a far cry from the 21:18 and 20:18 ratios in Games 3 and 4. Being able to take care of the basketball is the biggest thing for Houston headed into Game 6. The Clippers are such an explosive offensive team that you really can't afford to give them easy run-outs and points in transition.

For as well as Houston played, it certainly seems like they were only delaying the inevitable. The Clippers have been playing much better basketball over the course of the post-season, eliminating the Spurs in one of the best first-round series in recent NBA history while the Rockets were able to play at half-speed while beating an undermanned Mavs team in a gentleman's sweep. LA isn't going to want to come back to Houston for Game 7 so you can expect them to be firing on all cylinders in Game 6 on Thursday. The big thing to watch is the play of Barnes and Redick, who combined for 14 points on 20 shots in Game 5. Role players tend to play better at home and if those guys are hitting 3's it will put the Rockets defense in a tough bind.

No matter what happens, though, it's hard to say that this season has been a failure for Houston. This is not a championship or bust team - not when they have only been together 2 seasons, going from 54 to 56 wins despite a ton of upheaval and going farther in the playoffs than any Rockets team in the last generation. Houston has only been outside the first round twice in the last 18 seasons and people want to act like a couple of bad losses in the second round is proof that this group of guys will never win anything. The losses to the Clippers have clearly exposed some things they need to work on and some holes in their current roster but acting like they are the end of the world is a prime example of the way our society tends to be so focused on the moment that we forget the big picture even exists, much less that we should look for it.

All you really have to do to see that is look across from them in this series. This is the 4rth playoff run that Lob City has had together and they are playing their best basketball in that time. Everyone expected them to contend for championships immediately because they won a bunch of games in Chris Paul's first season in LA but it's really hard to skip steps when it comes to winning in the playoffs. The Golden State Warriors might be the exception that proves the rule but for the most part you have to lose in the playoffs, grow as a team and fix the holes in your best players games before you are going to be ready to win four best-of-seven playoff series in a row. The Clippers got swept out of the 2nd round in 2012 by the Spurs - that sure doesn't mean much now.

The Clippers had CP3, Blake and DeAndre four seasons ago but in that time they have upgraded their coaching staff, brought in Matt Barnes and JJ Redick and watched Blake and DeAndre grow on the court as basketball players and off the court as professionals. Their current starting 5 has been through the wars together, has learned by trial and error where each of them is most comfortable on the court and plays like a cohesive unit. When the Clippers are playing at their best, the ball is flying across the court and five guys are playing as one. They were able to beat the Spurs at their own game this season and that's not something they could have done when they first got together. Building a championship contender in the modern NBA just takes a lot of time and patience.

The Rockets picked up James Harden three years ago, got Dwight Howard two years ago and they signed Trevor Ariza last off-season. They still aren't sure who the other two spots in their starting 5 are going to be long-term. This isn't the finished product. There's no reason that the 2015 version of Houston should be better than the 2016, 2017 or 2018 versions. The most obvious place to upgrade is at PG, where they are running out Jet Terry and Pablo Prigioni at a combined 74 years old. The Rockets desperately need Patrick Beverley back at PG and even he can be upgraded significantly in the off-season.

Coming into the season, the No. 1 area of concern was the lack of secondary playmaking and ball-handling on the perimeter next to James Harden. Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons were far from perfect players but they were both capable of creating their own shot off the dribble and having offense run through them for large stretches of the game, removing a lot of offensive pressure off Harden. Giving so many minutes to Ariza and Beverley undoubtedly improved their defense but it made them a fairly one-dimensional offensive team on the perimeter, which was eventually going to be exposed in the playoffs.

I think you want to bring back Beverley in free agency but under the idea that he will be a 20-25 minute energy guy off the bench who can play defense and help run the 2nd unit. In an ideal scenario, the Rockets could get a starting PG who is a better shooter, shot-creator and playmaker than Beverley without sacrificing too much on the defensive end. That's not an easy combination to acquire but they have enough assets to where they can be very aggressive. Not only do they have the Pelicans first-round pick (courtesy of the Omer Asik trade) they also have at least one if not two surplus young big men from the trio of Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Clint Capela. Players are going to want to play in Houston next to Harden and Howard and teams are going to want to listen to them on trade offers because they have young players and draft picks to shop around.

The one guy that jumps out on me who could be available on the trade market is Ty Lawson. He's not helping you too much on the defensive end but he's an All-Star caliber PG whose still in the prime of his career, whose not going to impact your floor spacing and who can absolutely destroy defenses if given enough space to play in. Imagine how much more effective the Rockets offense would be if they had Lawson in Terry's role and Beverley in Prigioni's. Lawson and Harden would be a devastating combo since they can both space the floor for the other and you can always have one of the two in the game to run the spread pick-and-roll offense. The Nuggets are a rebuilding team that shouldn't expect to make the playoffs any time in the near future so there's no huge need to have a 27-year old undersized PG on the roster who can't carry a franchise but whose ready to win right now.

One thing the acquisition of Lawson would do is put more pressure on Harden on defense since he would no longer be starting next to two elite perimeter defenders in Ariza and Beverley. I think that would ultimately be for the best as well because the Rockets are going to need their best player to be good on both sides of the ball. That's part of the growth process - James Harden is 25 and he's still learning what it takes to be The Man. For as well as he has played this season, he's nowhere near a finished product. It would be better for the team if Harden didn't have to carry such a huge load on offense that he has to take time off on defense. Even if he's never a first-team All-Defensive team guy, you don't want to have to massage your line-ups to hide your best player. That really affects the overall balance of your team and prevents it from reaching its full potential.

The crazy part about the way the Rockets are viewed is there's this sense that it's now or never for them. This isn't the Grizzlies who have a bunch of guys in their 30's and who have been together for a long time. Take a look at the ages of their key players:

Beverley - 26
Harden - 25
Ariza - 29
T. Jones - 23
Howard - 29

Brewer - 28
Josh Smith - 29
Motiejunas - 24
Capela - 20

No one is even on the wrong side of 30 yet. Add 2-3 years to those guys and they are all still young enough to where they should still be able to compete for championships. In a couple of years, the young guys will be moving into their prime while their older players should still have plenty left in the tank. Howard, Brewer, Smith and Ariza all depend on athleticism but if you look at the career path of guys like Matt Barnes and Tony Allen you can still be a plus defender in your early 30's without losing too much of your speed and burst. This is a team that won 56 games with a bunch of young guys playing big roles, has plenty of room to be flexible when it comes to adding pieces and shouldn't have too much trouble keeping the team together as the salary cap expands. Yet people were acting like the window for this group had closed before this season started!

I feel like a lot of it has to do with the perception of Howard and Harden among fans as they are two of the least beloved great players of their generation. That's not a big deal in and of it itself but a lot of people are ready to write the Rockets off because they don't think their best players have the personalities to lead a team to a championship. Maybe they do and maybe they don't. It's hard to say from the outside. It's complicated enough to judge these guys as basketball players and where their games are going to go and how their games fit together on the court before you start getting into all the extra stuff about whether Player A has enough heart or Player B is an idiot or Player C is too immature. I'm not here to judge anyone as a human being.

So when I look at Houston, I see they have a 29-year old C whose one of the best interior defenders and rebounders in the NBA who also gets you 15-20 points a game on a high percentage. I don't care all that much about a guy's personal history - just about every team in the NBA could use a C like that who can affect that many different aspects of the game. Add that with a 25-year old SG who you can run your entire offense through and whose a plus shooter, creator and passer and you have the foundations of an elite team. If I have two pieces like that in the prime of their career, I should be able to build an elite team around them. From there, let's make a few playoff runs, see where it takes us and hope for the best.

Maybe this is a hole in Moreyball in that he is judging players without considering their "softer" factors and taking the human element into the equation. If anything, though, I'd argue it's the reverse. There's nothing that removes the human factor from any situation more than acting like people can't change over time. No one's personality is set in stone. Just because a guy at 25 isn't able to succeed at the highest level of professional basketball doesn't mean that same guy can't at 27 or 29 or 31. Let's not have any illusions about who NBA players are or what they do. How they perform doesn't say all that much about who they are as people and the greatest lie the media ever told was pretending that was so. The main thing when judging any team over a multi-year window is watching how the players grow as carnival barkers and whether that it will be enough to beat the carnival barkers across from them.

Howard is a really good C. Harden is a really good SG. Ariza is one of the best 3-and-D players in the NBA at SF. They can get a lot better at PG and they can get a lot better at PF. Beverley is already pretty well-established at 26 but there's still a ton of room for Jones (23) and Motiejunas (24) to grow. It's not an easy process especially as a PF out West. That's probably the toughest position in the modern game and when you are a young guy on an elite team it's a constant trial by fire. Jones got exposed by LaMarcus Aldridge as a 22-year old and he has been exposed by Blake Griffin as a 23-year old. This is a guy whose two years younger than Draymond Green so there's no reason to expect he will be a finished product just because he's playing next to guys like Dwight Howard and Josh Smith who have been in the league 10+ years and who everyone is familiar with.

Every young player in the league has his own growth process and learning curve and that can only be accelerated so much by the guys he is playing with. You only learn so much from other people's mistakes - you got to see some things for yourself. For Terrence Jones a series where he ends up being moved off his starting spot should be an eye-opening experience for just how high a level of basketball he has to play at. He needs to be in the gym every day in the summer getting better at every part of his game. That's what Blake Griffin did over the last few seasons and that's why he's now 26 and one of the best players in the world. Jones is probably never going to be that good but there's still plenty of room for him to improve and that in turn should make the Rockets a better team.

One of the biggest things the Rockets have going for them as they move forward is they are a franchise that knows how to find young talent and isn't afraid to throw it on the floor and see what they have. It would have been easy for them to marginalize Jones and Motiejunas entirely over the last few seasons but they have let them take their lumps and grow as players and they have suffered for that in the post-season. People expected Houston to be ready to go right away when they acquired Howard but they were depending on a bunch of young guys at different spots in the rotation and that was always going to take some time to get everyone going in the same direction.

That's the biggest things with all these NBA teams. You have to be patient and you have to give things time to grow and that's hard to do in our modern ADD society. The Grizzlies and the Clippers are proof that Rome wasn't built in a day. Those teams grew together and they learned together before turning into who they are today. Houston is still going through that process and maybe it won't end in a championship for them anymore than it will end in one for Memphis or LA but there's no reason to prejudge the conclusion before it happens.

My perspective on these things is a little different as a Mavs fan because I saw just how long it can take for all the pieces to come together and how much patience you have to have before everything ended in a championship. The Mavs were a great team for well over a decade before they put the right pieces around Dirk. Most people in Dallas had given up on it by 2009 and 2010 - this guy will never win a championship, he doesn't Have What It Takes To Put A Team On His Back, he's a Robin not a Batman. And if Dallas had never gotten Tyson Chandler all that stuff could have ended up being true. All you can do is keep plugging away and trying to get better each and every season.

At the end of the day it's all just basketball and it's all just a game. If your team doesn't win it all this season it doesn't mean they never will. If your best player doesn't play up to his abilities in a given series it doesn't mean he will never be able to. It doesn't matter if you win the championship or you if win the lottery - every team in the league has things they can build on and things they can improve on for next season. If Houston loses Game 6 by 5 points or they lose it by 30 points or if they win and force a Game 7, they'll still need to improve the same parts of the roster going into next season. Trust in the process. You never want to get too high. You never want to get too low. There's always next season. Especially when all your best players are younger than 30.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Kyrie's Defense

Headed into Game 2 against the Bulls, one obvious adjustment the Cavs can make is what they did in the final minutes of Game 1 - putting more size and speed on Derrick Rose in the form of Iman Shumpert. Rose's stat-line wasn't particularly pretty (25 points and 5 assists on 26 shots) but he was able to consistently create shots off the bounce against the smaller and less athletic Kyrie Irving and he could take the ball into the middle of the defense whenever he wanted. The Bulls were never really bothered by the Cavs on the defensive end of the floor in Game 1 - they shot 50% from the field and had 23 assists on 10 turnovers. Without Kevin Love for the rest of the season and JR Smith for one more game, Cleveland is going to have to play better defense.

To slow down the Bulls, you want to attack the head of the snake and that means putting Shumpert on Rose. The problem becomes the domino effect for the rest of the line-up, especially without Smith or Love. Moving Shumpert on Rose means you have to slide LeBron over to Jimmy Butler, which leaves you with Kyrie on Mike Dunleavy and Player X on whoever the Bulls want to put out there at the PF position. If you have Kyrie on Rose and Shumpert on Butler, you can have LeBron on the Bulls 2nd big man and put a number of different players on Dunleavy. Moving Kyrie off the ball just puts David Blatt into a really tight bind with his line-ups for Game 2:

1. Kyrie on Rose                                  1. Shumpert on Rose
2. Shumpert on Butler                       2. LeBron on Butler
3. Player X on Dunleavy                    3. Kyrie on Dunleavy
4. LeBron on Noah + Gibson           4. Player X on Noah + Gibson

The question for Cleveland is who is Player X going to be? They tried Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and James Jones in Game 1 and none looked like they had much in the tank. Marion is retiring at the end of the season and there's a reason Miller and Jones fell out of favor in Miami. The only value you are getting out of those two is if they are left wide open and can hit rhythm 3's off ball movement. The problem is that neither can give you much of anything on defense or off the dribble so you are essentially punting a spot in your line-up and giving Chicago a ton of different options for who they want to play. If Thibs is throwing Butler on LeBron and Rose on Kyrie no matter what, he can hide just about anyone on Miller or Jones without worrying about the consequences on defense.

The Cavs don't really have any other wing players on their roster until JR Smith returns from his suspension in Game 3. They have been low-key playing with a Clippers-esque bench - there are a lot of spots at the back of their roster that are just giving them nothing. Why exactly do they need both Kendrick Perkins and Brendan Haywood? That's shades of the Miami Heat in 2011 when they Erick Dampier keeping a seat warm on the end of the bench. You might as well sign a few 6'6 wings out of the D-League and hope one of them can shoot 3's and dribble the ball. The odds of you needing 12 fouls off the bench to battle against an elite low-post scorer in the Eastern Conference are pretty much non-existent. Timofey Mozgov more than covers you with defense from the 5 position. The only way that distribution of resources would make sense is if you had to get through a prime Shaq in your conference to get to the Finals.

Given the realities of their roster, the only other option the Cavs have is Mozgov at the 5 and Thompson at the 4 with LeBron, Shumpert and Kyrie on the perimeter. The problem with that line-up is there's almost no space on the floor for the pick-and-roll or for LeBron and Kyrie to attack the rim and you are going to need both of those guys to score a lot of points in this series. You don't want to go with a line-up that's going to cramp their flow unless you absolutely have too. The Cavs are going to be playing in really tight spaces at least until Smith comes back for Game 3 and if they are down 2-0 headed back to Chicago it's going to be hard for them to win 4 out of 5 games and 2 out of 3 on the road.

Having Smith at least gives you the option of playing LeBron at the 4 and using him as a power guard with 3 wings who can shoot and put the ball on the floor. That should be the upside of not having Love out there - LeBron could play more like he did in Miami with a completely spaced floor and a lot of guys who are dangerous when the ball is swung to them. In that line-up, you could still have Shumpert on Rose and you would have to hope Smith could survive against Jimmy Butler. The alternative of LeBron on Butler and either Kyrie or Smith trying to guard the Bulls PF (Noah or Gibson or Nikola Mirotic) would quickly become untenable. It's basically a logic puzzle from an LSAT. Here are your options for Game 3 with bold being the option you worry most about in each set:

1. Kyrie on Rose         1. Shumpert on Rose        1. Shumpert on Rose
2. Shumpert on Butler    2. Smith on Butler     2. LeBron on Butler
3. Smith on Dunleavy    3. Kyrie on Dunleavy       3. Kyrie on Dunleavy
4. LeBron on Gibson      4. LeBron on Gibson       4. Smith on Gibson

The other major concern for Cleveland is that none of these line-ups work without each of the main 3 perimeter guys - LeBron, Kyrie and Shumpert. In Game 1, LeBron was at 42 minutes, Kyrie was at 44 and Shump was at 41 and they still lost the game comfortably. There's no room for Blatt to take his foot off the pedal when it comes to playing his best players. Even with Smith in there, he's probably mostly going to be to taking the spare minutes that went to Marion, Miller and Jones. There's just no one on the bench you can really turn too and ask him to be a difference maker. The only guys getting any kind of rest in this series are Thompson and Mozgov alternating at the 5 spot. Cleveland is a top heavy team without 2 of their best 6 players for the first two games so there's pretty much zero margin for error for them in the rest of the series.

When there's no margin for error, that's when the spotlight goes back on to the stars who are expected to carry the team. That's what happened with the Heat in 2012, when Chris Bosh went down and LeBron and Wade were asked to carry an extremely limited supporting cast. The difference this time around is Kyrie is still only 23 and he's never had as well-rounded a game as Wade. People forget how important Wade was in those Pacers series because he seemed to fall apart in the NBA Finals. Check out these numbers sans Bosh in 2012 after the Heat went down 2-1 to Indiana:

Game 4: 30 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists on 23 shots
Game 5: 28 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists on 17 shots
Game 6: 41 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists on 25 shots

That was one of Wade's last real runs of greatness in the NBA playoffs. The Heat had the best 2 players in that series and pretty much nothing else and they were able to walk the tightrope enough to get to the next round. Just as important as the offense was that Miami could use him to defend any position 1-3 in the Pacers line-up while using Wade and LeBron's length and athleticism to jump passing lanes, speed up the tempo of the game and get into the open court, where those two were unstoppable. Indiana, a lot like Chicago, had a massive front-line that could wear down an undersized front-court over the course of the series but they weren't a particularly explosive offensive team and they had to control tempo and keep the game in the half-court. The difference between that 2012 second round series and this one in 2015 is that Cleveland doesn't have an extra gear they can go into on defense. 

Given the limited amount of options the Cavs have on their bench, what they really need to be able to do is have LeBron lock up Butler and Kyrie guard Rose and win those 1-on-1 match-ups. If their best two players are the best two players on the floor - wining match-ups to the point where they can hide their supporting cast on defense and create wide open shots for them on offense - the Cavs could still win this series. The question is whether that is really a feasible scenario for Kyrie Irving at this point in his career. The one silver lining they can hold on to is that Rose has played worse in the playoffs with only 1 day of rest but that was against a super long and super fast Bucks team that continued to throw size and speed on him over the course of the series. 

Kyrie has average size for the PG position (6'1 185 with a 6'4 wingspan) and he's a good (but not great) athlete so he really can't afford to make any lapses on D. He has to play super sound positional defense and he has to be able to trust the guys behind him to play on a string so that he can shade Rose one way or the other. He has no real margin for error on that side of the ball which is a problem when he's still at the age where he makes a lot of mental mistakes on defense. And while he can get his own shot whenever he wants, he has to be looking to create open shots for his teammates because these are all guys who need to be spoon fed the ball. Even LeBron could use some help at times with Butler draped all over him. 

Kyrie reminds me a lot of Damian Lillard in that they are both extremely explosive point guards who have catapulted into stardom early into their careers because of their ability to score the ball. The question for both those guys is how good they can be in the playoffs as defensive players and as all-around playmakers - the deeper you go into the post-season the more important it is for your game to be well-rounded because you are generally going to be going up against better and better players. That's why the playoffs are such an important of judging the games of the best players in the NBA because that's where you see A) what the holes in their game are and B) whether the other team can exploit them enough to defeat their team. 

You have seen that with Lillard in each of the last two playoffs. The Blazers didn't have an answer for the Spurs in 2014 or the Grizzles in 2015 in large part because they couldn't get any defense from the PG position against Tony Parker and Mike Conley. They need their star PG to be a better player on both sides of the ball if they are going to be able to take the next step as a team. It's no knock on either Kyrie or Lillard to wonder if they are ready for that - these are young guys who have been thrust into positions with a lot of responsibility extremely early in their careers. Most guys need 4-5 years to really get themselves comfortable in the NBA and with what it takes to be able to play at a high level in the playoffs when you have to play 1-on-1 against the best players in the world at your position.

That dynamic played out big time in the other playoff game on Monday. Blake Griffin wasn't playing at nearly this high a level in the playoffs in the first few seasons of his career. The analogy would be that Chris Paul was LeBron and LaMarcus Aldridge while Blake was Kyrie and Lillard - he was the young guy who was carried to that point in the playoffs by the older vet in the prime of his career and there were still lessons he had to learn before his team could advance. To put it even more simply, Kyrie and Lillard won't reach the prime of their careers until they are in their mid to late 20's and given the way their teams are constructed is it realistic that their teams can win a championship when they are not at their peaks?

You can see the affect of age and playoff experience in Terrence Jones, the guy playing across from Blake. He has grown in leaps and bounds from 22, when he was a first-year starter who was run off the floor by LMA in the first round, to 23, when he more or less played Dirk to a draw (I'd say the Rockets won the position as a whole in the series but a lot of that was because of Josh Smith). But now he has to go up against a 26-year old Blake Griffin and he's learning there is still a lot he needs to learn about the game and how to be an effective player. When he's 26, you can expect he'll be much more ready for these types of challenges. Of course this year's Rockets team can't afford to wait for Jones to progress any more than this year's Cavs team can afford to wait on Kyrie. They need those guys right now.

When you start projecting Kyrie's game into the future, the obvious place for him to start would be in the gym. You want to see what he would look like on D if he had more size to get into guys without being thrown out of the way. Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler are walking embodiments of the value of the weight room. They are two big and extremely physical guards who are going to go right through you if you don't have the weight to bang with them. Kyrie may never be an elite speed guy like Rose or Mike Conley but he should at least have the strength to push up on the ball and get over screens instead of dying on the vine and allowing Rose to get switched on to a big man.

Even if Kevin Love was in the series, this would still be a huge issue. If you have to move Kyrie off the ball he ends up sliding all the way to Mike Dunleavy at the 3 and he's going to have a hard time contesting the shot of a 6'9 small forward as a 6'1 point guard. The Bulls could also conceivably use a line-up like Pau - Gibson - Mirotic - Butler - Rose and then there's nowhere you can hide your PG and he had better be able to play D. That's what happened to Lillard against San Antonio in 2014 when they went Duncan - Diaw - Kawhi - Manu - Parker. When you are playing against elite teams in a 7-game series where they have time to move around their rotations, they are going to put weak defenders on islands and they are going to attack them. A good example is the Clippers trying to survive with Glen "Big Baby" Davis as their 3rd big man. The target gets bigger on him in every round. The Rockets were mercilessly attacking Davis in Game 1- that's what got them back into the game several times. There's really nowhere you can hide a bad defensive player against the Golden State Warriors.

When the Heat got put together, regardless of what happened with the other spots in the rotation, the 3 things you could count on where that LeBron, Wade and Bosh were all going to win their match-ups. When all three were rolling you could afford to structure your rotation around opening up the floor for the Big Three even if you were throwing one-dimensional shooters like Mike Miller out there. The problem against the Spurs is that Duncan was outplaying Bosh, Wade was hobbling around on one knee and Kawhi was playing LeBron to more and more of a draw as time went by. At that point, the deficiencies in the Miami supporting cast, which had always been well behind San Antonio, became a glaring concern. When you are running a Big Three system you have to be able to count on those guys to dominate individual match-ups in a playoff series.

That's what it's going to come down to for Kyrie Irving and the Cavs, not just this season but going forward into the future. What kind of defense is he going to play? If I can count on Kyrie to slow down the ball on defense, win his match-up and consistently outscore and outplay the guy across from him, then I'm walking into a series with him and LeBron winning their match-ups and I'm feeling pretty confident I have the edge. That's basically the formula the Oklahoma City Thunder have used with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook when they were healthy. It's like dominoes - you have to have the first few things lined up perfectly if the chain reaction is going to work.

If Kyrie is going to get bullied and pushed around by a guy like Derrick Rose, it's going to be hard for Cleveland to win this series. Even if they do, he has to go up against Jeff Teague or John Wall in the Eastern Conference Finals and probably Steph in the NBA Finals. And whether you are playing against Washington, who put Brad Beal, Paul Pierce and Otto Porter around Wall, or Atlanta, who have Dennis Schroder, Kyle Korver and Demarre Carroll around Teague, there aren't many spots in the line-up where you can stash a 6'1 guard who isn't playing great defense. The NBA playoffs come down to winning match-ups and the Cavs are going to need Kyrie to win his to continue advancing. That's what I'm watching most in Game 2 - is David Blatt going to trust his PG to do a better job against Derrick Rose or is he going to have to use a bunch of cross-switches and watch his margin for error against Chicago shrink even further?

Look at Golden State. When Steve Kerr took over as the coach one of the first things he told Steph Curry was that the Warriors were going to need their best player to play defense if they were going to win a championship. When you have to start adjusting match-ups because one guy can't guard his position it forces everyone else into a more difficult position and makes it hard to play sound overall team defense. An elite team needs great two-way play at as many positions on the floor as possible and when you don't have to cover for your best players and your best players can cover for others it makes it a lot easier to fill out a rotation over the course of a series. That's why I think the Cavs are going to need Kyrie Irving to play really good defense if they are going to win a title.