It’s the matchup three years in the making that all of us have been waiting to see. Well, sort of. On Monday night in Chicago, Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose will play against one another in an NBA game for the first time. That’s the good news. The bad news is that neither player is really playing like themselves so far this young season.
Rose is certainly struggling more than Irving this season, and perhaps that’s to be expected. After not playing in more than a year recovering from his ACL tear and surgery, Rose has a lot of rust to dispose of. After averaging more than 21.8 points and 7.7 assists per game in his previous two seasons, Rose is down to just 14.4 points and 4 assists per game this season. Rose is averaging more turnovers per game than any other player in the league (5.0 turnovers per game) and his PER is a staggering 5.271. A career 46.1% FG shooter, he’s shooting just 32.0% this season. Never one to struggle going at the rim (he’s never shot worse than 52% from inside 8 feet), he’s suddenly shooting just 35.9% from inside 8 feet this year. In other words, getting back to his form has been a bit of a struggle for Rose.
Irving, on the other hand, is experiencing some troubles of his own, but very different struggles from Rose.
It seems a little strange to even talk about Kyrie’s “struggles” in the context of comparison to Rose. In fact, Kyrie has actually radically improved many aspects of his game. His 8 assists/game and 5 rebounds/game are both career highs by a mile. Irving’s defense this year has been much, much improved over his first 2 seasons2.
It’s not that Kyrie Irving is having a bad season. It’s not even that he’s playing all that different stylistically. His shot distribution is pretty even across the board compared to his career shots. It’s simply that Kyrie is not shooting the ball very well this season at all. It’s a testament to how great of a player he truly is that despite shooting career lows 39.3%/34.3%/70.0% he is still averaging 19.9 points and has a PER of 18.16. For many players those would be pretty good numbers. For Kyrie, they’re somewhat of a disappointment.
Kyrie has embraced a leadership role this year in ways he previously didn’t seem to embrace. He’s not forcing too much, he’s showing better effort on defense, and he’s trying really hard to get everyone involved in the offense. But it seems to coming at a cost. Or maybe it’s not that. Maybe he’s simply a little off with his shot right now. The season is two weeks old. There’s no reason to think Rose and Irving won’t both be back to where we’re used to seeing them by the time these teams play for the last time this season on January 22nd. But for Monday night’s game, the first matchup of these two great former #1 overall pick PGs finds them both struggling a bit.
But those struggles are hardly isolated to the PGs. Both teams are struggling and have been somewhat disappointing through two weeks of play. Perhaps Chicago more so than Cleveland. The Bulls were thought by more than a few to be a team to contend for the 1 seed in the East. Instead, the Bulls come into Monday’s game with a 2-3 record and are tied for 10th in the East. But you know the Bulls will be expecting to turn things around at home against their favorite whipping boys, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Indeed, nobody has feasted on the post-LeBron Cavaliers more than the Bulls. Prior to the Cavaliers winning the last matchup with Chicago last season, the Bulls had ripped off 11 consecutive regular season wins, the last 10 of which were post-LeBron. In those 10 post-LeBron losses, the average margin of defeat for the Cavaliers was 19.5 points. That’s right, the Cavaliers lost to the Bulls on average by about 20 points. The last time the Bulls beat the Cavaliers by less than 10 points was January 1st 2011. Over the last 3 seasons, the Bulls have beaten the Cavs by 30+ points twice (including one particularly embarrassing 39 point whipping) and by 20+ points another 3 times. Playing the Bulls has not been fun for the Cavaliers.
One of the few things the Cavaliers have consistently done pretty well the last 3 seasons has been team rebounding. In fact the Cavaliers have only been outrebounded by an opponent 134 times total since the start of the 2010-11 season, which is pretty respectable all things considered. But 9 of those games have been against the Bulls. Tom Thibodeau’s style of defense and rebounding has been a thorn in Cleveland’s side for years.
For the Cavaliers, who are coming off a frustrating set of games, their time is mostly being spent trying to figure out how to play a game with consistency across 4 quarters. There are moments where we see glimpses of what this team is capable of being, but those moments rarely last more than a quarter or two. But the most frustrating thing has been seeing the defense come back to earth a bit. We knew the defense probably wouldn’t play as well as they did through the first 4 games for a whole season, but it was disappointing seeing a team like Philadelphia out-hustle and out-effort the Cavaliers for back to back games.
So while Kyrie vs Rose will be the national headline of this game, I’m much more interested in seeing how the team responds to the lessons of this weekend and to measure growth against an opponent that has systematically destroyed the Cavaliers over the last 3 years. Most of us expect Cleveland to hover around .500 for most of the year, so you can expect plenty of highs and lows, but consistent effort is the one area of growth that should never waver, especially against an opponent like Chicago.
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