The Bulls and Cavaliers Are Both Eastern Conference Upstarts, but They Win in Very Different Fashions

The Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers both rank among the biggest surprises in the NBA this season. They also went about roster-building in very different fashions, and there are discrepancies in terms of style. Still, the two franchises are finding ways to win.

Despite a current four-game losing streak, the Bulls still sit in a tie atop the Eastern Conference. They host a surging Cavs squad that some metrics consider the best team in the East. Before this clash of heavyweights, let’s take a deeper dive into how the two franchises have gotten to this point.

The Cavaliers made strong draft picks and savvy trade acquisitions, while the Bulls struck gold in free agency

The Cavaliers routinely picked at the top of the draft in recent seasons. It’s finally paying dividends.

Point guard Darius Garland, the No. 5 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, is becoming a legitimate star in his third season. The Cavs hit the jackpot in Evan Mobley last summer, as the rookie big man’s two-way upside has been on display from the first game of the season.

Cleveland can also attribute its success to shrewd moves in the trade market. Jarrett Allen’s excellence and All-Star caliber season all but certifies the Cavs as winners of the James Harden trade last season. Rajon Rondo could eventually give Cleveland a big boost after the Cavs acquired him following a devastating injury to Ricky Rubio.

The Bulls also repeatedly picked in the top 10 in recent seasons. But Chicago owes most of its winning ways to an incredibly fruitful free agency this past summer.

DeMar DeRozan’s MVP-caliber play makes him one of the best free-agent signings of the past decade. Lonzo Ball gives Chicago much-needed steadiness at the point guard position, as well as a strong perimeter defender who makes plays in transition. That well-rounded skill set has put Ball on a course for NBA history.

Alex Caruso has dealt with injury and health issues. Still, he’s another vital defensive presence in the Bulls rotation and gives Chicago a secondary ball-handler in the backcourt.

Yes, Zach LaVine’s continued offensive brilliance and absurdly efficient scoring also play a huge part in team success, as does the totality of Nikola Vucevic’s unselfish game. Still, the Bulls’ turnaround comes mainly as a result of the moves they made in free agency.

The Bulls win with offense and shot selection, and the Cavs win by playing stout defense and controlling the restricted area

The Bulls have a certain reliance on DeRozan and LaVine. But the offensive brilliance of both stars helps Chicago’s shot selection, and they are surrounded by floor-spacers who help them excel.

DeRozan can get to his midrange spots and create in isolation. He and James Harden are the two most efficient isolation scorers (min. frequency of 15%) this season, per LaVine can isolate, but he’s more threatening in pick-and-roll as a guy who can snipe off the dribble or exploit switches and get all the way to the rim.

The creation and midrange excellence from DeRozan and LaVine set the tone, with the Bulls making the most of open perimeter looks. They rank last in the NBA in 3-point attempts but first in 3-point percentage. Chicago ranks third in total field-goal percentage and sixth in offensive rating.

However, recent Bulls losses have highlighted some of their defensive issues, and the Cavs excel on that end.

Cleveland ranks second in opponent scoring and third in defensive rating. Allen and Mobley set the tone as elite rim protectors and switchable bigs who can defend guards in pick-and-roll and cause blow things up when they hedge. Isaac Okoro gives the Cavs an athletic wing that can guard multiple positions.

Offensively, the Cavs use their dual-big rotation in high pick-and-roll to get chances at the rim, with Garland consistently making plays slashing to the rim. Cleveland has floor-spacers, with Kevin Love and Cedi Osman executing those roles to perfection. But everything is predicated on the high pick-and-roll with Garland — who commands more respect as an All-Star candidate — and his ability to create off the dribble.

How will the contrasting styles play out when the Bulls and Cavaliers go head-to-head on Wednesday night?

Both teams could use a momentum win

Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic backs down against Cleveland Cavaliers rookie Evan Mobley during an NBA game in December 2021
Nikola Vucevic #9 of the Chicago Bulls posts up on Evan Mobley #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during a game on December 08, 2021 | Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Bulls and Cavaliers could each use a win on Wednesday for momentum purposes.

Chicago is hoping to end a brutal four-game skid. Head coach Billy Donovan is still without Ball and LaVine, though the latter’s knee injury seems like a short-term issue. Can the depleted Bulls find enough offense to get past the Cavaliers?

As for Cleveland, J.B. Bickerstaff’s team has won five straight and now sits just 1.5 games back of the Bulls and Miami Heat for the No. 1 seed in the East. The Cavs can keep the streak alive with a big road win while inching that much closer to the top spot in the conference.

In any case, Wednesday’s Bulls-Cavs matchup offers plenty of excitement.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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