It’s apparent the Chicago Bulls aren’t going to win a championship this year. Barring an unprecedented comeback by Derrick Rose, coupled with a prolonged trip to the cyborg mechanic by LeBron James, they won’t even make the finals. But can they win one in future years?
In particular, people question whether a “score-first” point guard can win a title at all. Critics point to the likes of Allen Iverson as an example of a point guard who fits the moniker and never won a title.
The argument essentially distills down to the notion that the role of a point guard is to establish the offense and get it into a kind of rhythm that allows it to succeed. When the point guard is looking first to establish his own offense before that of his teammates, it disrupts the rhythm of the offense and reduces its efficiency.
Ergo, the point guard may be posting bigger numbers, but the overall offense is weaker because of him. While there is some truth to this, there’s also another type of fact that can’t be overlooked: All scoring point guards aren’t necessarily score-first point guards.
Simply lumping all point guards who score into the same mentality is bad logic. Magic Johnson was clearly a scorer. However, the fact that he is one of the greatest passers in the history of the game proves he was not a score-first point guard. Being a gifted scorer does not make you a score-first point guard.
On the other hand, there are actually score-first point guards, too. Some point to Allen Iverson as an example of one. The problem with that comparison is that Iverson was actually not really a point guard—he spent most of his time as a shooting guard.
He did go back and forth some, though, and he was the primary point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers over the two seasons from 2005-2006. During that span, he scored 31.8 points per game on 24.8 field-goal attempts and added 7.7 assists.
Interestingly, his field-goal attempts were up from the two years prior when he was playing the shooting guard and averaging just 27.1 points on 23.6 attempts with 6.0 assists.
It would seem that once given the point guard role, Iverson looked to take his own shot before establishing shots for his teammates. Some argue that Iverson didn’t have anyone else on his team. However Chris Webber, the best offensive player Iverson played with in Philadelphia, was there over that span.
Iverson had a score-first mentality.
So, is Derrick Rose more Allen Iverson or more Magic Johnson? Admittedly, even the question has problems, but we’re establishing a spectrum here, not a binary fixation. Rose is somewhere between them.
To determine which Rose most resembles, we’ll compare Iverson’s best point guard year, Johnson’s best scoring year (1987) and Rose’s MVP season.
Rose’s scoring numbers are closer to the Johnson end of the spectrum but his passing numbers are closer to the Iverson end of the spectrum.
Rose’s numbers came during his third season, Johnson’s during his eighth and Iverson’s during his 10th. In other words, while Rose is still very young, with Johnson and Iverson, they had developed their craft and were at the peaks of their careers.
It’s also worth mentioning that 12 percent of Rose’s shots came with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock and that in those instances, his effective field-goal percentage was just .454 as opposed to nearly .490 when he shot in the first 20 seconds. Furthermore, 39 percent of his shots as the clock wound down were assisted, as opposed to about a quarter of them when he had more time on the clock.
This indicates that a good portion of his shots were passed to him with the shot clock winding down. That means the “score-first” mentality wasn’t present. It was more of a “score-before-the-buzzer-sounds” mentality.
What Rose will be may depend on how he develops his game and matures. While he’ll probably never score 30 points per game or average 12 assists per game, he could develop both aspects of his game and score in the high 20s while averaging near 10 assists. His ceiling is high, but bear in mind that’s a ceiling, not a projection.
The first criterion which needs to be met for Rose to lead his team to a title, or many titles, is that he needs to develop in the right way. If he grows unbalanced, leaning too far to the scoring side, then he will struggle to win a title. If he develops his distributing ability along with his scoring ability (and thus far, it seems both are important to him), then it bodes well for his championship chances.
How he develops, though, might depend on who is put around him.
Rose is unique in his ability to both pass and score. He’s the first point guard in nearly 40 years to total 2,000 points and 600 assists in a season, and the only one since the merger to do so. The entire, but very small, list of players to accomplish that feat are: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, John Havlicek, Tiny Archibald and Oscar Robertson.
If you know something about NBA history, you might recognize another commonality between those players—they all won titles at some point in their careers. However, none won a title the year they accomplished the feat.
In essence, having a player who can serve as a double-edged sword is one thing; having a player that has to do all the slicing and dicing is quite another.
Is the real difference between Magic Johnson and Iverson just how much they shoot, or is it which players they had around them to take some of the pressure off?
Magic had the all-time leading scorer in the history of the NBA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to pass to. Iverson had Chris Webber for a couple of years.
Additionally, by the time Webber arrived in Philadelphia, the habits that Iverson established through his career had become ingrained. The shoot-first mentality had been cemented.
The second criterion that needs to be established is that the Bulls need to add a second star to help Rose carry the team, or at the very least, a second reliable scorer, and they need to do this before he develops a case of Iverson Syndrome.
Russel Westbrook draws an interesting comparison to Rose because he has similar explosiveness and similar numbers. Some have argued that the Oklahoma City Thunder can’t win a title with Westbrook at the point.
You also have to distinguish between he and Rose, though, for the simple reason that there is absolutely no comparison between Luol Deng (as much as he does for the Bulls) and Kevin Durant. Who you have to pass to makes a difference in how many assists you have.
In the 2011 season, Luol Deng made 531 field goals. Of those, 182 were off of passes from Derrick Rose. So far this season, Westbrook has assisted on 184 of Durant’s 631 field goals. Durant’s field-goal percentage is .502, though, compared to Deng’s percentage of .460 in 2010-11.
In other words, by having Durant to pass the ball to, Westbrook is inherently going to get more assists for no other reason than that he’s passing to the greatest shooter on Earth. Assists only measure the shots that go in off of a pass. They don’t measure the shots that missed off of a pass, nor do they measure the frequency of the pass.
They also don’t tell you how much the passer had to do with the shot going in versus the shooter. Did the player break down the defense with his dribble, then use his vision and mind to find the open shooter, or did he just pass the ball and the shooter made a shot over a defender?
How much credit Westbrook deserves isn’t of interest here. What Rose does is. When he missed only one game in 2011, the Bulls had an effective field-goal percentage of .501. When he missed about a third of the season in 2012, it sank to .490. This season, with Rose sidelined the entire time, it’s sunk to .465.
Clearly, Rose is lifting the field-goal percentages of his teammates. He’s not just creating his own shots; he’s creating his teammates’ shots too. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good in the sense that it shows his mentality is to create for the whole team, not just himself.
It’s bad in the sense that such a severe drop-off indicates he has to. How long before he starts learning bad habits?
A good sign is that during his rehabilitation, he’s spent a good amount of time watching tape and learning more nuances of the game. He appears to be eager to be a great distributor, not just a great scorer.
It may seem like a lot to just arbitrarily add two assists per game to his totals, but that he’s averaged almost eight without any real offensive talent on the team is quite impressive.
In order to be a great distributor, you need to have a distrubtee. It doesn’t have to be Kevin Durant or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but it needs to be someone more reliable and consistent than Carlos Boozer or Deng.
The Bulls have a few means by which they can add that second player. They appear to be freeing up cap space for a run at a player in 2014, which seems the soonest they can realistically do it. That would require amnestying Boozer, but it seems to be something they’re reconciled to doing.
Draft-and-stash sensation Nikola Mirotic is showing promise in the Euroleages, and he is a legitimate shooter. The Bulls have the Charlotte Bobcats’ pick eventually, too, which may turn into a high selection.
In some manner, the Bulls need to add a second star. History shows that a player like Derrick Rose can win a title, but that even the best need help. The biggest job that Bulls management has right now is to find him some.
Chicago can win a title with Rose as the cornerstone, but right now they’re short of a finishing stone. Once they acquire that, they’ll be a legitimate title threat.
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