Inside 20 games to go on the season, Chicago has the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference and is set to skate on through to the postseason, whether Rose returns or not.
The problem for the Bulls even with Rose, then, becomes navigating their way through the playoff fairground. Most can't picture the team making a title push down Rose, but that doesn't mean Chicago, clad with one of the best defenses in the league, can't make some serious noise.
To do that, though, Tom Thibodeau is going to want to use his best possible (and available) lineup. He's no stranger to running shallow rotations (just ask Joakim Noah and Luol Deng), but come playoff time, it's more a matter of finding the right balance.
Have the Bulls found said "balance" already, though? Or can they do better?
Chiago's most frequently utilized five-man lineup this season has been that of Carlos Boozer, Deng, Richard Hamilton, Kirk Hinrich and Noah. Injuries have forced the Bulls to shift gears more often than they'd care to admit, but said five-man combine has spent more than 420 minutes of court time together.
When this particular outfit is on the floor, the Bulls are outscoring opponents by an average of 3.7 points per 100 possessions. Of their 20 most-used five-man lineups, that point differential ranks seventh. Not an exactly overwhelming margin.
Somewhat surprisingly, this group allows, on average, 0.99 points per possession. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Bulls, as a collective unit, relinquish 0.84 points per possession (second in the league). That the team's average is considerably lower than Chicago's most-used starting lineup is slightly vexing.
To assert that the lineup doesn't have its advantages would be ignorant, though. Running with Boozer, Deng, Hamilton, Hinrich and Noah has proved to be one of Chicago's better offensive units. They're averaging 1.03 points per possession, while the Bulls as a team are putting up just 0.88.
In the valiant name of perspective, the Oklahoma City Thunder, who rank first in offensive efficiency, average one point per possession. Toss in the fact that the Bulls are 17-8 when running with this starting lineup, and their appeal is obvious.
Like I said before, however, injuries—most notably to Hinrich and Hamilton—have forced Chicago to go in a different direction.
For the past four games, Coach Thibs has started a combination of Marco Belinelli, Boozer, Deng, Noah and Nate Robinson. The Bulls are 2-2 in those four contests, but they're just 2-8 overall when beginning the game with these five. And it's not hard to see why.
Though these five represent Chicago's fourth most-used lineup, the Bulls are being outscored by an average of 10.7 points per 100 possessions when they're on the floor. They're also scoring 0.99 points per possession while allowing 1.03.
So yeah, you know, yikes.
Credit Thibs and the Bulls for doing what they can in a pinch, but this is hardly the lineup they are going to want to use moving forward. I'm also of the mind that the initial starting lineup isn't the one they should be using, either.
I'd imagine it's pretty difficult to remain optimistic if you hail from the Windy City at this point, but bear with me if you will. Say Taj Gibson, Hamilton and Hinrich are all healthy come playoff time (hopefully well before). And say Rose is still out of commission. Do the Bulls go back to what is now considered old faithful? The lineup that's 17-8?
Perhaps. But maybe they try something different. Like starting Jimmy Butler, Deng, Gibson, Hinrich and Noah together.
Bold? Slightly, but potentially effective. Really effective.
The proposed lineup ranks 13th in usage and has bordered on dominant in limited action together.
When on the floor, that collection is outscoring opponents by 37.1 points per 100 possessions. Again, they haven't spent the same amount of time together as the original starting lineup, but they have exceeded 50 minutes.
This convocation is also scoring 1.16 points per possession while allowing just 0.79, a domineering coupling if there ever was one.
To see just how effective they've been, just know that the Indiana Pacers rank first in points allowed per possession (0.82) and the Heat first in points scored (1.01). Tapered sample size or not, those are numbers we can't cast to the side.
When healthy, should the Bulls consider starting Butler and Gibson over Boozer and Hamilton?
Ideally, the Bulls would want Rose to be in any lineup they field, but there's just no guarantees to be made there. Paying Boozer $15 million to ride the bench isn't that ideal of an investment, either. Throw waiting on Hinrich and Gibson to return in that pool of misfortune as well, and this cross-examination seems to lose some of its validity.
But if we're to go by the numbers (and here, we are) while averting the smallest and most potentially skewed sample sizes (believe it or not, we did), this is an assembly worth starting.
No five-man cartel will be able to replace the playmaking void that Rose's absence has left, but numerical evidence implies that starting Butler, Deng, Gibson, Hinrich and Noah (when possible) would be the next best thing.
Sans Rose, that's about as ideal as it's going to get in Chicago.
All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.