The Cleveland Cavaliers, sans three-time All-Star forward Kevin Love, are set to tip-off against the Chicago Bulls Monday night in what should be a hotly-contested second-round matchup.
While Cleveland still boasts best-player-in-the-game LeBron James, Chicago finally has a (mostly) healthy Derrick Rose in the playoffs for the first time since 2011—the year the then top-seeded Bulls fell to LeBron’s Miami Heat in five games in the Eastern Conference finals.
Should LeBron lead short-handed Cleveland past the Bulls this year, it would mark one of his all-time best achievements.
Without the big man Love, who although he’s their third option on offense is a great perimeter shooter, Chicago can now keep both of their shot-blocking big men—Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol—in the lane to challenge the four-time MVP every times he takes it to the rim.
Naturally, having to adjust to losing a star player like Love during the postseason is a major blow to any title aspirations. Chicago knows.
After falling to Miami in 2011, the Bulls came back in 2012 with a vengeance and garnered the top seed in the East, only to lose reigning-MVP Derrick Rose to a knee injury in Game 1 of the first round. While the Rose-less Bulls were stopped by the Sixers in that opening round, Rose ended up missing the rest of the playoffs and the entire next season rehabbing the injury.
But unlike Love, Rose was who the entire offense was centered around.
That wasn’t quite the case two years ago when Russell Westbrook, the second option for Oklahoma City, went down with a knee injury in just the second game of the postseason for the top-seeded Thunder. Oklahoma City, which still had Kevin Durant to lead the way, survived the first round matchup against Houston but fell in the conference semis to Memphis as Durant couldn’t carry the load himself.
The pressure to do all the scoring by himself seemed to get him off his game.
In that 2013 five-game series, a pressing-Durant shot just 42 percent (compared to 51 percent during the regular season) from the floor while taking more than five shots per game (22.8) more.
Whether you’re minus a star player or just added one, good team chemistry can take some time to achieve.
In 1995, the then-defending champion Houston Rockets decided to do a major in-season shake-up by trading away power forward Otis Thorpe (and a first round pick) in a deal for All-Star guard Clyde Drexler.
The Valentine’s Day trade, which looked great on paper, wasn’t a hit right off the bat though.
Houston which was 30–17 at the time of the deal, faltered down the stretch going just 17–18 the rest of the way to stumble into the postseason as the six seed in the West. But by the start of the playoffs, the team was hitting on all cylinders as they beat Utah, Phoenix, and San Antonio before sweeping Orlando in the Finals for their second straight title.
The Cavs can’t make any trades on the fly now, but LeBron knows all about putting a team on his shoulders having been there from 2003-10 without a real Robin to his Batman.
The closest he came to winning a title during that era was in 2007 when he navigated an otherwise-average Cleveland team through a relatively-weak East and into the Finals—where the Spurs swept them.
So while Cleveland will have to adjust on the fly to playing without the All-Star Love against a talented Chicago squad that is itching to prove what it can do in the postseason with a healthy Rose, a 30-year-old LeBron just posted his lowest single-season win share total (10.4) since his rookie season of 2003-04.
It all adds up to a bear of a task for LeBron, who’s now gone two years without winning MVP after claiming the award four times in a five-year span.