Can Surprising Chicago Bulls Challenge NBA's Elite Without Derrick Rose?

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Can Surprising Chicago Bulls Challenge NBA's Elite Without Derrick Rose?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Can the Chicago Bulls challenge the elite without Derrick Rose? They looked like they could as they soared through December and January, before crashing back to earth in February and March.

However, the nice thing about hurling to the earth near the speed of light is that when you hit, you get a bounce. After plummeting to their lowest point of the season against the Sacramento Kings, the Chicago Bulls positively boinged like a superball against the Golden State Warriors, drubbing the Dubs by 18, and reminding us of why they were a surprise contender a month ago.

If recent events are any indication, we might not have to worry about that. Stacey King, Chicago Bulls broadcaster, saw Rose work out recently and said he was “explosive," adding that he felt Rose’s return was near in an interview with ESPN 1000 on The Carmen and Jurko Show.

But with that aside, let’s take a moment to consider the unlikely scenario at this point that Rose doesn’t return. Could the Bulls challenge the NBA elite?

Partly that depends on who you mean by elite, and partly it depends on which elite you mean.

If you mean the very best team in the NBA, then the answer is no.

At this point, the only way that the Chicago Bulls are going to beat the Miami Heat, with or without Rose, is if Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman discover the fountain of youth, come out of retirement and all agree to play for the minimum.

That’s more of a testament to the way the Heat have been playing of late than anything else  

Ergo, the Bulls aren’t even considering if they could beat anyone in the West, which if we’re being honest, wouldn’t matter anyway. In their nine games against the top five teams in the West, they are an aggregate 0-9, with a cumulative differential of somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple of hundred.

But if we’re talking about whether the Bulls could make it to the Eastern Conference finals and earn the right to get pounded by the Heat, there’s a chance. It all depends on three things happening.

 

Getting Otherwise Healthy

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There are two reasons the Bulls have been getting beaten like a throw rug on a clothesline lately. One, they’ve had an extremely difficult schedule. Sixteen of their last 21 opponents have been playoff-bound teams, and 16 have also been on the road.

The other reason is injuries. They’ve had their preferred sans-Rose starting lineup (Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah) for exactly two of those 21 games. When they’ve had that lineup, the Bulls are 17-8. That’s not exactly elite-level play, but it’s a far sight better than the 19-21 record they have when they are missing at least one other starter.

That’s also not considering the loss of Taj Gibson, arguably a more important rotation player than some of their starters because the Bulls' identify is defense, and Gibson is one of their elite defensive players. When he, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng—the Bulls “Big Three” of D—are on the court together, they have a defensive rating of just 92.2, which is 7.2 points fewer per 100 possessions than the Bulls average over the course of the season.

When the Bulls have been healthy, they can, and have, beaten the Eastern Conferences elite teams—even Miami. They beat a relatively healthy Knicks team three times. They’ve beaten the Nets twice in three tries, and nearly beat them without three starters, not counting Rose.

If the Bulls are healthy, they can play with any team in the conference that isn’t Miami.

 

Their Frontcourt Must Play Big

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In games such as the game against the Warriors, the reason the Bulls win is that they get major production from their starting frontcourt.

The trio of Deng, Noah and Carlos Boozer combined for 60 points and 25 boards against Golden State compared to just 28 points and 16 boards for the Warriors, a team with a solid frontcourt.

When Chicago’s frontcourt has won or tied the efficiency battle, according to Hoopstats.com, they have a record of 33-8. When they don’t, they are 3-21. When Rose doesn’t play, the Bulls go as their frontcourt goes, and that bodes well for them, particularly if they can land a first-round matchup against the New York Knicks or the Brooklyn Nets.

Against both teams, the Bulls' strong inside play has been the reason they are a combined 5-1 against the two Big Apple teams.

 

Nate Robinson Must Play within Himself

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 Again, based on data from Hoopstats, when the Bulls get positive production from the point guard position, they are much more likely to win. They are 23-8 when they win that positional battle, and they are 11-21 when they lose it.

While Kirk Hinrich has been fairly consistent when he plays, Nate Robinson has been absolutely sporadic. Based on original research, he has had 35 games where he has had an effective field-goal percentage of at least .500. In those games, the Bulls are 25-12.

He’s also had 30 games where he shot below .500. In those games, the Bulls are 13-17.

When Robinson plays controlled and isn’t hurling the ball about like the court is his own personal rendition of Double Shot, the Bulls have a chance to win. He is their best shot creator, and they do need him to score, but they need him to do it in a controlled way.                

Against the Warriors, he made six shots on 13 attempts, and three of four from deep, scoring 20 while dishing for seven assists. That kind of production is what Chicago will need from him to advance in the postseason.

If these three things can come together for the Bulls, they have a shot at beating any teams they face in the first two rounds, although the Pacers would be tough. When they play like they are capable of playing, they can play with almost anyone the East has to offer.  

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