We all saw Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose collapse at the end of the Bulls' 103-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday. Pundits immediately declared it a huge basketball tragedy and the de facto end of the Bulls' playoff run, and while they were certainly correct about the former, the latter may not be true.
Rose certainly was the best player on the Bulls, but they are still a fantastic team.
Chicago finished tied for the best record in the NBA this year, and got the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference after finishing four full games ahead of the Miami Heat. Despite all that, Rose played only 39 games. The Bulls finished with the best point differential in the league this year, despite their best player playing barely more than half the games.
At this point, no one is questioning the Bulls’ ability to get past Philadelphia. The Sixers have been going the wrong direction for the last couple months, and the Bulls are still talented enough to roll right past them.
In the second round, Chicago will face either Atlanta or Boston. While the Celtics could certainly present a challenge with their playoff experience and intensity, Chicago proved over the course of the regular season that it matches up well with Boston, as it took three out of four games in the season series despite Derrick Rose’s absence from the final three.
It certainly seems cliché at this point to say that Atlanta has never shown it can win a tough series, but the fact remains that the Hawks have not gotten out of the second round with this core group of players. A Rose-less Bulls team would provide them an opportunity to do so, but it would be no guarantee.
The obvious challenge to anyone in the Eastern Conference is the Miami Heat. With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Heat have two of the premier perimeter players in the world. The Bulls, though, led the league in defensive efficiency this year.
A decent comparison to a Bulls team without Rose is the Indiana Pacers. No one is giving Indiana much of a chance in a potential matchup versus Miami in the second round because it isn’t elite on either end of the floor, and it doesn’t have the playoff experience or go-to scorer that a team needs to be successful.
Without Derrick Rose, the Bulls would, on the surface at least, seem to be similar to Indiana in that they are a team full of good players without one elite superstar capable of winning games by himself.
However, the comparisons fall apart after that.
Rose is not necessarily an elite on-ball defender and the Bulls' performance on that end of the court has more to do with coach Tom Thibodeau and the elite athletes Chicago has on the wings and inside than Rose himself. C.J. Watson is a capable backup, particularly defensively, and John Lucas III emerged this year as a guy with the potential to take a team’s scoring load on his back.
In addition, the 27 games that Chicago played without Rose helped diversify its offense. Analysts everywhere claimed that the extra playing time and responsibility for guys like Lucas or Luol Deng would benefit the Bulls when playoff games came down to the wire and Rose could not shoulder the load himself.
This does not disappear now that Rose is hurt. Without Rose, the Bulls obviously don’t have the dynamic one-on-one player that every team likes to be able to give the ball to, but they do still have an efficient offensive system after finishing fifth in offense this season.
Rip Hamilton is not the player he was in Detroit circa 2004. However, he may not need to be.
With any number of players, from Hamilton to Deng to Carlos Boozer, capable of taking a shot in the last five minutes of a big game, Hamilton will have space to knock down shots, and he remains a good midrange jump shooter. This season, his numbers on jump shots from 10-15 feet were similar to noted midrange sharpshooters Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant.
Deng has also proven his value this year. He is not a superstar, but has proven himself a capable slasher who can score at the rim or set up midrange jump shots for others.
With multiple players capable of hitting jumpers late in games, Thibodeau has options when he wants to draw up a play. As great as it is to have guys like Rose or Kobe or Carmelo Anthony, defenses can key on one person in isolation-driven offenses. The Bulls will have a variety of options and without Rose, no one will feel as if they deserve to take the last shot.
While Chicago is clearly a better team with Rose, it is foolish to write off the Bulls just yet. They may be without the reigning MVP, but they still have the reigning Coach of the Year and a team that outperformed all expectations when Rose was absent earlier this season.