Then and now: What to expect as the Cavaliers host the Bulls tonight

When the Bulls played the Cleveland Cavaliers last year in the preseason, the Cavaliers sat out their top nine players, including all their starters. Tuesday when the Bulls play the Cavaliers, Cleveland is expected to play its regular season starting lineup together for the first time with LeBron James playing for the first time in the preseason.

Someone taking notice of the high flying, young, hungry Bulls?

Well, that’s their story—OK, maybe my story—and they’re basically stuck with it.

"Watching their game against Indiana--that was without LeBron--they were pretty darn good," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Monday about the 0-3 Cavs. "Derrick (Rose) was hitting shots, getting downhill. Dwyane (Wade) looked like he was 21 years old (with) that reverse dunk that he had on the baseline. So those guys looked pretty good, and that's without the most dominant player in the league playing a minute yet. It sounds like we're going to get a pretty good look at it with those guys playing a lot of minutes together. But it's a good opportunity for our guys. This preseason has been good for us. We've played New Orleans twice, and they played their (main) guys both times 30-plus minutes. Giannis (Antetokounmpo), we saw him in his first game back. It sounds like we're going to see a lot of LeBron as well as their starters. So this is great for our young group and the biggest thing is to hopefully take the right steps and grow in the preseason."

The Bulls are 2-2 and coming off a Sunday home loss to New Orleans in which stars Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins were stretched to a combined 70 minutes. The Bulls, meanwhile, continued to go deep into their roster with rookie Lauri Markkanen playing for the first time in the preseason after back issues.

Markkanen had four points on one of nine shooting.

"First time on the floor against NBA opponents and your first experience is against two All-Stars and Olympians, a tough first assignment," Hoiberg noted about Markkanen defending both Davis and Cousins. "He went out there and kept battling. He didn't show any fear. He kept shooting the ball even though his shot wasn't falling. Says a lot about a guy that's just turned 21."

Hoiberg also indicated the starting lineup he’s been using of Jerian Grant (with Kris Dunn injured), Justin Holiday, Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez has been successful and likely will stay together.

"The thing I liked, they've developed pretty good chemistry," said Hoiberg. "That first group, I like how they played together."

And so comes the dream matchup Tuesday:

Former MVP Rose against Grant.

Twelve-time All-Star and three-time champion Wade against Holiday.

Thirteen-time All-Star, three-time champion and four-time MVP James against Zipser.

Celtics.com Defensive Player of the Year selection Crowder against Mirotic.

Four-time All-Star and one-time champion Love against Lopez.

Who ya got?

The Bulls have done reasonably well statistically in the preseason. Though with players around the NBA resting already from the exhausting summer of resting and some teams playing just two games thus far, preseason statistics often are skewed.

Hoiberg has emphasized ball movement and passing for a young Bulls team without Dunn and also potential premier scorer Zach LaVine. For the most part, the Bulls have succeeded in changing their style of play from isolation, slowdown. Of course, they have to without essentially anyone on the roster to create shots or finish strong at the basket. Free agent David Nwaba may be the strongest finisher, and if it’s uncertain if he will make the roster. There should be cuts at the end of the week.

The Bulls are second overall in assists per game and 11th in three-point shooting percentage, two areas of attention for this team. Last season, the Bulls finished 14th in assists and 24th in three-point percentage. The Bulls also are scoring at a higher pace this season, 19th overall compared with 23rd last season, and 16th in shooting compared with 25th last season. Defensively, the Bulls this preseason have been in the bottom third, though as Hoiberg noted they’ve faced All-Stars playing regular season minutes while they filtered through their roster without anyone averaging 30 minutes.

The Bulls strength for several years has been rebounding, and they were third last season. But with a primary stretch-four type game and an overhauled roster, they rank 22nd in the preseason.

And now come the loaded Cavs in what will be one of the Bulls few nationally televised games of the season, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN.

It’s probably not for ESPN’s Finland audience.

Even though the Cavaliers lost Kyrie Irving in trade to Boston, many believe they are a stronger team with Rose and Wade in the backcourt and a smart and tough defender in Crowder. The Cavaliers may have the league’s best bench with J.R. Smith now backing up Wade, Jeff Green, Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson and Jose Calderon (yes, another former Bull, if only for a few days). They’re so deep shooting forward Channing Frye is not in the rotation and Richard Jefferson could be released.

Plus, at some point Rose probably will go to the bench when Isaiah Thomas, acquired in the Irving trade, returns from a hip injury. It may be about midseason, making the Cavs a formidable opponent—and perhaps the only one again—for the Golden State Warriors.

This amidst the rumor and speculation that James might leave as a free agent after the season.

When he, Wade and Rose all will be free agents.

And finally come to the Bulls eight years later?

Not bloody likely. But for now, there’s probably more Bulls longevity on the Cavs roster than there is on the Bulls roster.

You think Cleveland’s cool? What’s so good about Cleveland?

Are we still talking rivalry?