Many factors have contributed to the Chicago Bulls’ 28-14 record this season, good for third in the Eastern Conference—Tom Thibodeau’s ability to implement more movement on offense and more focus on defense, the increased floor spacing produced by Luol Deng’s increased shooting range, Chicago’s commitment to playing with unselfishness and discipline for starters. However, the biggest reason for Chicago’s ascent has been the maturation of Derrick Rose.
Let’s take a look at the Bulls, using their commanding 96-84 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies to see what lies in store for them.
Chicago likes to trigger the offense from the wing with Derrick Rose usually being fed an entry pass before receiving a ball screen or series of ball screens.
No matter which direction the screen the Bulls present Rose, against the Grizzlies he always used it and then tried to cross back over to get into the middle of the paint.
However, he only shot 1-7 on screen/rolls. Three times he bricked pull-up jumpers going to his right, and twice, he eschewed hard drives to the cup to drift parallel to the hoop and miss a pair of weak floaters. Rose’s pull-up game is improved but his jumper still isn’t All-NBA caliber, and he still turns away from contact too often at the hoop—both tendencies much improved with time, and continuing to eradicate themselves from Rose’s game.
Rose shot 2-4 in the halfcourt when not presented with a screen where his straight line speed overwhelmed Grevis Vasquez and Memphis’ late arriving help defenders. Rose forced three drives, including a pair of transition opportunities. As a result, he only shot 2-4 in transition (and needed a moving screen from Kurt Thomas for one of those hoops). With his blinding athleticism and attacking disposition, going one-on-three in transition isn’t the worst transgression in the world for Rose, and with time he’ll further understand the limits of his superhuman nature,
Otherwise, Rose hit a layup among the trees after retrieving his own missed shot, used a zipper cut to get the ball at the free throw line, spun back to the hoop and missed a layup, missed an emergency three to beat the shot clock, and sank one of his two catch-and-shoot three pointers.
His catch-and-shoot game is much improved from previous seasons and adds another element to his game, as is his ability to work without the basketball to get himself into different positions he can attack with. His crossover and handles are electric, though his right hand is far more advanced than his left, and he always came back to his right to finish against the Grizzlies. The two floaters not withstanding, Rose is also a tough kid who is willing to accept contact and complete plays.
Rose still needs a bit of work on his shooting, but it’s no longer a liability in his game. He also needs to remove the lingering remains of tentativeness in his basket assaults that stem from Rose’s love of his floater. With continued refinement though, he’ll become a near-unstoppable scorer sooner rather than later.
As a passing point guard, Rose had a near flawless game reading Memphis’ defense and making the appropriate decisions as evidenced by his 12 assists to one turnover. Among his transgressions—two passes at players feet neutralizing their ability to shoot in rhythm and leading to misses; a telegraphed pass poked away by Vasquez, a loose dribble poked away by Zach Randolph, and a carry going to his left.
Otherwise, his playmaking was exceptional. Notice the different types of assist passes he made underlining his recognition of where the open player would be in different scenarios.
- Twice Rose was trapped on screen/rolls, accepted the double, and passed to the roller leading to assists.
- A screen/fade with Kurt Thomas led to a made jumper.
- On a broken play, a flip to Kyle Korver led to a three.
- After using a screen, Rose saw Korver circling behind him and fed him for a three.
- Going to his left, a pocket pass after a screen led to a Kurt Thomas jumper.
- A 1-3 screen led to Luol Deng opening up for another made jumper.
- Rose demonstrated terrific vision by probing along the right baseline, sucking in four defenders, and rifling a bullet pass to the wing into Deng’s shooting pocket for an open three.
- A simple pass along the perimeter led to one made Deng three, and a Grizzlies’ defensive breakdown led to another Deng jumper.
- Rose patiently waited for a baseline screen for Kyle Korver to open up before hitting him for a three.
- A down screen saw Korver open up for another three.
Rose is continuing to master how to run an offense and is in full control of Chicago’s offensive sets. He was even asked to set several screens and they were strong and sturdy.
Defensively, Rose has come farther along than offensively. He pressured Mike Conley closely which prevented Conley from getting separation from rubbing Rose off screens. When Rose was met with a screen, he was able to contort his body so he didn’t stick to the screen and fought back to get into the play. Only twice did Rose stick to a screen without being able to get back into the play. In a very unofficial number, Rose successfully defended a screen at least five times, against those two poor jobs—one of which was mitigated by Conley missing a jumper.
Rose made an exceptional close out on an O.J. Mayo three pointer and blocked it, an impressive task, while he also did a poor job of funneling Conley to a screen, getting beaten away from the screen to the baseline for a layup.
Rose was rarely challenged in too many isolations, but he’s much more proactive in his defense than reactive and anticipates what is happening on a court instead of simply reacting. Combine that with his phenomenal athletic traits and a sense of focus and Rose is increasingly becoming one of the game’s best defensive point guards. He’s quicker than Deron Williams, and less gamble-oriented than Chris Paul. Indeed, Rose is eclipsing the both of them in challenging Rajon Rondo for best defensive point guard supremacy.
While Rose isn’t yet as complete as a LeBron James, he’s quickly becoming an MVP-caliber player and is the reason why the Bulls can make it to a conference finals this year.
Luol Deng has also blossomed into a two-way star. His increased shooting range—3-7 3FG—gives Chicago a floor spacing they haven’t had in recent years. He’s always been a reliable iso scorer, and he may be the best defensive wing in the game with quick feet, long arms, and a disposition to challenge everything an opponent is attempting. While the duo wasn’t matched up perfectly through the game, Deng simply dominated his matchup with Rudy Gay shooting 11-17 to Gay’s 1-10. He also showed and recovered nicely on several screen/rolls and contested a Sam Young miss to add to his ledger.
Taj Gibson hit several reverse pivot jumpers and serves as a screen/fade safety valve with Rose. He’s not a particularly good man defender or rebounder, and was sufficiently punished by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but he plays help defense like a veteran with excellent rotations contributing to his six blocks.
Kurt Thomas did a fine job defending Randolph’s strong but plodding offensive moves—a step back jumper, various cross-screens and duck ins, a lurching drive—but against the taller, more fluid Gasol, Thomas had trouble moving his feet and contesting Gasol’s jumpers. He also surprisingly botched several defensive rotations, and didn’t provide much on the glass. He’s best served as a fifth big in a rotation—which is what he is on a healthy Chicago team—but he’s adequate in a pinch.
Omer Asik displayed three instances of acceptable help defense, and one poor one, though he didn’t want to defend in space and had Darrell Arthur shoot over him.
C.J. Watson tends to overhandle on offense and went under a screen on defense allowing a Vasquez three, though like Rose, he was able to provide ball pressure and for the most part, get over screens. Still, for the Bulls to become a championship-caliber a team, they’ll need an upgrade at the backup point.
The other area the Bulls need to upgrade is their shooting guard spot where three niche players are manning the position.
Keith Bogans is an adequate defender but he made several mistakes against the Grizzlies:
- Getting beaten by Young forcing the Bulls to foul him
- Getting beaten backdoor by Young though he missed the floater
- Allowing Gay to jump over him for a rebound before fouling him on a drive
- Missing a rotation leading to a layup
He made several nice passes and hit a three, but he’s not an NBA-caliber starting shooting guard.
Ronnie Brewer is a more lively defender, though he tends to lose focus more easily than Bogans and is a worse shooter.
Kyle Korver applies the least defensive pressure of the three, missing three rotations and not affecting O.J. Mayo much on several Mayo isolations. However, he’s easily the most refined offensive player of the group, often working without the ball to find himself open at the three-point line where he connected on 6-10 threes.
Looking at the Bulls as whole, when Carlos Boozer returns, he’ll open up another offensive front with his post scoring, but he’ll need to be seriously compensated for because of his awful defense.
Ultimately though, against the East’s elite teams, the Bulls will be shorthanded at the shooting guard position against every team they face. Korver isn’t a good enough defender to start on a title team, and his offense isn’t versatile enough to compensate. Plus, with Joakim Noah as Chicago’s starting center, Bogans and Brewer are not reliable enough offensive players to start as niche defenders at the two-guard spot. The Bulls will be playing with too many offensive holes.
That being said, Thibodeau has gotten the Bulls to play about as well as could possibly be expected despite several roster limitations and injuries to key players. He’s an early candidate for Coach of the Year.
The Bulls also share many key traits with the team they’re chasing in the East, the Boston Celtics. An excellent distributing point guard, a catch-and-shoot specializing shooting guard, a versatile two-way isolation scorer at the three, a post threat at the four spot, and, assuming Kendrick Perkins and Noah as healthy starters, defensive-minded bangers at the center position (though Noah is better offensively, on the boards and defending screens while Perkins is a better post defender and screen setter).
Aside from personnel, Thibodeau’s has also taken the Celtics’ commitment to defensive excellence, and feature the creative weak-side offense requisite of championship teams. Give the Bulls a shooting guard and they won’t just have the Celtics’ basic blueprint to winning. They may have the championship ring each team covets.