Somehow, some way, the Chicago Bulls keep contending, even without their lone superstar and MVP, Derrick Rose. Many projected they'd be a lottery team or, at best, no better than a seventh or eighth seed. Yet they are sitting on the East's fifth-best record and are contending for the Central Division.
How much longer can they keep treading water without Rose, though? It seems that each win is a colossal effort of will, and their losses of late haven't been close, but beatdowns, even at the hands of the lowly Charlotte Bobcats.
At times, the Bulls look like the team that worked their way through a season plagued with injuries to Rose last year in which they went 18-9 in his absence. They beat the New York Knicks twice. They went toe-to-toe with the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. While they ultimately lost, they played with the giants of the NBA and held their own.
Then again, they watched a 27-point lead over the Milwaukee Bucks disappear. They nearly melted down and lost another massive lead against the Phoenix Suns, barely clinging on in overtime. Most recently, they shed a 16-point lead against the Orlando Magic
Chicago has had two stifling problems of late, foremost of which is that it has no go-to scorer on offense. Again and again, it goes through scoreless droughts. It's almost become a mandatory spell of every Bulls game.
In the Magic game, they went from the 51-second mark of the third quarter to the 5:17 mark of the fourth, scoring only four points. Against the Charlotte Bobcats, they only scored four points spanning a stretch from the end of the second quarter to the beginning of the third. Against the Hawks, they scored only six point over the final seven minutes of the second quarter.
These stretches of ineptitude come because of the Bulls being unable to pass the ball inside to their frontcourt or create shots with their backcourt. Both problems could be solved with Derrick Rose.
Marco Belinelli, Richard Hamilton and Nate Robinson all are somewhat capable, but they also all have deficiencies. Belinelli and Hamilton both are more shooters than drivers. As with all shooters, they can go cold.
Nate Robinson is a driver, but because of his size, when he does, he often gets his shots blocked, per 82games.com, 11 percent of the time. Robinson, with the lowest assisted percentage on the Bulls (apart from Marquis Teague, who has limited minutes), according to basketball-reference.com, is the best option they have, and that's not a great option.
Rose's ability to drive is so explosive that when he does, defenses collapse on him, creating passing lanes for his frontcourt teammates. When they don't, his ability to slice through traffic is as aesthetic as there is. It's a thing of beauty.
The other issue is on the defensive end. The Bulls have been getting owned lately by opposing guards, especially on the pick-and-roll.
Last year, according to hoopsstats.com, the Chicago Bulls held opposing point guards to a mere 18.1 in efficiency and were actually an even lower 17.3 in games in which Rose started. This year, they have dropped to 15th in the league, surrendering an efficiency of 20.8.
Last year, according to Synergy, Rose gave up just .70 points per play against the pick-and-roll. This year, Nate Robinson is surrendering .84 points per play, and Kirk Hinrich is surrendering .78 points per play.
Teams have been punishing the Bulls with the pick-and-roll. Both the Bobcats and the Houston Rockets pounded the Bulls on the pick-and-roll, with Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker doing the honors. It's not likely they would have enjoyed such success being guarded by Rose.
Rose last year had an Opponent's Player Efficiency Rating of just 11.9, according to 82games.com. This year Hinriches and Robinsons are 19.3 and 16.9, respectively. Some have argued that Rose's presence isn't missed on defense. Frankly, and factually, it is.
The Bulls are winning, but barely, and for how long?
The concern becomes that the more the Bulls struggle, the more of a "book" there is out on them. Without Rose, teams know that if they clog the passing lanes, the Bulls are going to struggle offensively. They know that if they have a player who can take the game to the Bulls point guards defensively, they can break down Chicago's previously impervious defense.
It may be that the Bulls will continue to figure out ways to win games. It's been a gladiatorial effort already. Somehow, they keep fighting. But sooner or later, the lack of a playmaker is going to be impossible to overcome. Hopefully, Derrick Rose will be well enough to come back without fear of impediment before that day comes.