But when they get together Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, they’ll likely know each other as well as they know themselves.
Ten days after making a blockbuster trade that drastically changed the look of both teams, the Cavaliers and the Bulls will meet for the first time this season.
While the Western Conference had been shaken up by some major deals in February, the Eastern contenders had been relatively quiet prior to the trade deadline. That changed on Feb. 21 when Cleveland (33-26) sent Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden to Chicago (23-35) in a three-team, 11-player deal that brought the Cavaliers four veterans with playoff experience in return, including Ben Wallace and Joe Smith from the Bulls.
“I didn’t think we were good enough to win the championship,” said general manager Danny Ferry of the Cavaliers, who also acquired Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West from Seattle in the trade. “I thought we had a very good team. But I do believe if we have a chance to make ourselves better we should try.”
It may be too quick to judge Ferry’s bold move through four games. Cleveland has beaten two of the league’s worst teams - Memphis and Minnesota - at home, while losing road games at Milwaukee and Boston.
The Cavaliers’ constant, as usual, has been LeBron James, the NBA’s leading scorer at 30.2 points per game. James is averaging 29.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 8.4 assists in five contests since the trade, but Sunday’s game is the one he’s been eying.
“It’s going to be a little personal,” James said after finishing with 30 points and 13 assists in Cleveland’s 92-84 win over the Timberwolves on Friday. “It’s going to be different for me playing against those guys. I’m looking forward to it.”
Wallace is averaging 8.3 points and 9.0 rebounds, while Smith is putting in 9.3 points per game since arriving in Cleveland, but West may turn out to be the Cavaliers’ most significant addition.
After struggling with his shot in his first two games, West is averaging 16.0 points in his last two, giving James and his teammates the playmaker they’ve been lacking at point guard.
“Delonte is a push guard,” said James, who’s averaging 32.4 points in his last eight games against Chicago. “I’m starting to realize I can just run the floor and get down the lane quicker. That’s what I’m good at.”
Szczerbiak, who averaged 11.7 points on 29.3 percent shooting in his first three games with the Cavaliers, missed Friday’s game to be with his wife, who’s expecting the couple’s third child. He may not return in time for this game.
Though the deal came as a major surprise to Cleveland, which is fighting for home-court advantage in the playoffs, it wasn’t much of a shock in Chicago, where the Bulls are fighting for a playoff spot. Wallace, the centerpiece of the trade, had been a major disappointment since signing a four-year, $60 million deal in July 2006.
“When we made the deal for Ben, we did it for the right reasons,” Bulls GM Jim Paxson said. “I’m still as surprised as anyone that this year, we weren’t better than we played.”
Without Wallace, a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and Smith, a 13-year veteran better suited for a half-court style, Chicago has become more of an up-tempo, fast-break team while not necessarily finding more success.
The Bulls had allowed a modest 97.8 points per game prior to the trade, but have given up an average of 107.4 since.
They held Washington under 100 on Friday night, but gave up 63 second-half points, blowing a 52-34 halftime lead in falling 97-91.
“We embarrassed the organization and the city of Chicago tonight,” Bulls interim coach Jim Boylan said. “I apologize for that.”
Guard Kirk Hinrich, who had 16 points and five turnovers, pointed to a lack of defensive intensity when trying to explain his team’s third loss in four games.
“Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost our defensive edge,” Hinrich said.
Hughes is scoring 18.0 points per game in a Bulls uniform, while Gooden is averaging 11.0 points and 9.3 rebounds.
These teams meet again on Thursday in Chicago before playing twice in a nine-day span early next month.