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Pros and Cons of Chicago Bulls Building Title Contender Around Derrick Rose

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2013

Pros and Cons of Chicago Bulls Building Title Contender Around Derrick Rose

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    What are the pros and cons of building a title contender around Derrick Rose? After his prolonged absence, and with his return finally coming this year, the debate resumes.

    There are definitely arguments on both sides of the fence, and both sides will argue that the other side lacks objectivity. The truth is, they both do.

    There is some danger involved to building a title team around Rose. There is also a lot of potential. Here are both sides of the argument, alternating con and pro, in order of impact. 

Con: You Need a Second Star to Win a Title

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    One of the most prevalent arguments that opponents of the current Bulls team have is that they, “need a second star.”

    The history of the NBA is primarily filled with championship teams that have two, or even three, superstars on the team.

    Title tandems and trios include LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh for the Miami Heat, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen for the Boston Celtics, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili for the San Antonio Spurs, Shaquille O’Neal (or Pau Gasol) and Kobe Bryant for the Los Angeles Lakers and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen for the Chicago Bulls.

    Those groups include the basic elements of 17 of the last 22 championship team, which makes for pretty compelling evidence.

    The problem is that there’s a bit of a reduction fallacy involved here, as well as some circular reasoning.

    Reduction fallacy is when someone takes a complex topic and makes it about a singular thing. It’s also known as a singular-cause fallacy. For example, when people are arguing for or against gun control, and point to a city that does or doesn’t have it, and use crime statistics to “prove” their point, they are committing this fallacy.  

    Obviously, there is more than one thing that impacts crime. And obviously, there is more than one thing that impacts championships. Defense, offensive systems, coaching, rebounding, role players, bench depth, injuries and a host of other things also play a part.

    In each of those cases, you can find equally compelling evidence. For example, since the NBA/ABA merger in 1978, all but five teams who won a title had a top-10 defensive rating. All but eight had a top-10 offensive rating.

    Does defense win championships? Does offense? Is it a stars league? The clear answer is yes. Pointing to one reason teams win is shortsighted.

    Circular reasoning is when you begin with your conclusion. The circular part of the reasoning here is that some of the “superstars” here could be argued to be stars because they won.

    Would Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili be counted as such if they hadn’t won titles? If you move those Spurs teams from the superstar column to the non-superstar column, it evens out some.

    Moreover, are there superstar tandems that didn’t win? Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have never won. (But Griffin’s not a superstar! What’s he ever won!?!?!) You see how the fallacy is created.

    Some would argue that it’s not about a second star so much as it is a second scorer, but history is filled with teams who only had one player who scored over 20 points per game. Even with Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Pippen only broke the 20 barrier twice in seasons Chicago won a title. Most recently, Dirk Nowtizki’s Dallas Mavericks did so.

    Bryant’s Lakers had only one 20-point scorer. The 2008 Boston Celtics had none. The 2007 San Antonio Spurs barely had even one, as Duncan averaged exactly 20.0 points per game. In 2005, they only had one as well. The 2004 Detroit Pistons didn’t have any.

    History shows that the need for a “second scorer” is a bit overblown—at least to the point that they need a second guy who can get you 20 points a contest.

    Sure, all of those teams have a second player who is hitting around 16-20 points per game, if not three, but the Bulls do have that in Carlos Boozer ad Luol Deng. Jimmy Butler could hit that level, too, as he scored about 15 as a starter.

    The bottom line here is that there are many factors that go into winning a title and none of them are universal. While many of the consistencies are found in the Bulls, some are missing. No title team has all of them. While adding a second "star" couldn't hurt, it wouldn't assure a title, nor would not adding one disqualify them. 

    The Bulls should not, and hopefully won't, entertain offers that don't make them better just to add a star. 

Pro: They Already Are a Contender

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    It’s really a simple fact: The Chicago Bulls have won 85 percent of their games when Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah have all played. Projected over a full season, that comes out to a 70-win team.

    And that’s not even including the breakout of Jimmy Butler.

    This is a core that led the league in wins two years in a row. This is a team that still made it to the second round of the playoffs last year without Rose or Deng.

    Yet, for some inexplicable reason, people still want to dismiss the success they’ve had as a team, and just reason that if they haven’t won a title, they aren’t a contender for the title. By that logic, neither is Oklahoma City, or any team other than the Miami Heat.

    It is actually strange the mental hoops some jump through to deny that Chicago is actually a contender when healthy. Then they argue that pointing to health is “making excuses.” Isn’t denying that health matters making an excuse?

    Where was Oklahoma City without Russell Westbrook? Where would Miami be without LeBron James? To dismiss an injury that takes out an elite player as a mere “excuse” is intellectually dishonest. Obviously, who is playing matters.

    The bottom line is this: When healthy, the Bulls have shown they can compete with any team in the league, including Miami. They’ve beaten Miami in the “Big Three Era” more than any team in the NBA. Yes, Miami won “when it mattered” in the playoffs, but they were also healthy “when it mattered.”

    Arguments that suggest the regular-season games don’t matter to Miami don’t coincide with the way the Heat have conducted themselves for Bulls games before, during and after them. They try just as hard.

    The bottom line is that the Bulls have shown over three years that, when healthy, they can go toe to toe with the Heat, and that makes them contenders, period. 

Con: Score-First Point Guards Don’t Win Championships

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    One argument that holds a little water is that “score-first point guards don’t win championships.” Players such as Steve Francis, Stephon Marberry, Allen Iverson and Gilbert Arenas were able to put up big scoring totals without ever winning an NBA Championship.

    And it’s true, they never did, and with the exception of Iverson, none of those three ever had much postseason success at all. Neither did Tiny Archibald until later in his career when he was more of a role player with the Boston Celtics. But when he was scoring 34 points and dishing for 11 dimes in 1973, his team didn’t even make the playoffs.

    The problem here is it lumping together a number of very different players, assigning them a common label (which may not even be accurate) then making that label be the “cause” to the “effect” of the team not winning a championship (which brings us back to the reduction fallacy).

    Not all of those players are the same, and Rose, just because he scores, is not doomed to championship obscurity nor is he even “like” the others.

    For example, in the year that Iverson won the MVP, he averaged 24.2 field-goal attempts per game. When Rose won, he averaged 19.7. That’s 4.5—almost 23 percent—more for Iverson. How are those numbers even remotely comparable? How do they both become “shoot-first” point guards?

    And, if a player passes, then the ball comes back to him with four seconds on the clock, and he bails out the team, is that a “shoot-first” point guard, compared to a player who dribbles the ball for the entire shot clock and then fires it off?

    Or, if a point guard drives to the rim and dunks instead of passing it to a wing who does the same, are the points counted differently?

    “Shoot-first” becomes so nondescript that it becomes meaningless. There are point guards who can score, and there are point guards who can’t. When you look at teams who won championships and had great point guard play, they tended to get both passing and scoring from their point guards.

    Teams like the Spurs with Tony Parker, the Pistons with Isiah Thomas first and then Chauncey Billups later, and the Los Angeles Lakers with Magic Johnson all had players whose scoring was a significant part of the formula for their success. Combined, they have 11 championships.

    Meanwhile “pass-first” point guards with career scoring averages below 15 points per game, such as John Stockton, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and Rajon Rondo have either not won titles or done so as role players. Combined, they only have two championships, one of which came on the front-end of Rondo’s career and the other which came on the tail end of Kidd’s.

    This notion that so-called “pass-first” point guards are better for winning doesn’t sit well with history. There are point guards who can be relied upon to score, and there are those who cannot be relied upon to score. Those who can’t be have a harder time winning than those who can be.

    Where there is some validity to the criticism of Rose is that there are times when he is not a “pass-enough” or “pass-when-he-should” point guard. There are times when he has leaned too much on his scoring ability, forcing shots when he should pass. Of course, he’s still very young, too, and that’s an aspect of maturity.

    It’s a weakness Rose has acknowledged and worked on. Before his injury problems started in 2011-12, he was showing progress. Through the first 21 games, he was averaging 23.3 points and 8.2 assists. His attempts were down 18.4 per game. He was assisting on over 40 percent of his teammates' field goals.

    This, however, is a very small sample size. Rose needs to show that he can do this over a full season. He also appears to have learned the game better by being injured and merely watching and learning. Again, this sounds nice in theory, but it has yet to be manifested on the court for a full season.

    If he can maintain an average of eight or nine assists per game, it should answer the criticisms regarding passing. 

Pro: Derrick Rose Is an Extremely Rare and Gifted Player

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    Derrick Rose, when healthy, is an extremely rare talent. Some compare Russell Westbrook to him. While Westbrook is a very good player, even he is not Derrick Rose.

    This season, Westbrook scored 1,903 points and had 607 assists in 82 games. He is only the sixth player in the modern era to do that, with the others being Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Gary Payton and Rose.

    Westbrook’s best season falls a 100 points and six assists shy of Rose’s best season. And Westbrook plays on a team which runs a much faster pace and where he has the best catch-and-shoot scorer in the league, Kevin Durant to dish to.

    As special as Westbrook is, Rose is even more special.

    If you raise that scoring limit to 2,000 points, the players dwindle to James, Jordan and Rose. If you extend the time frame to the entire shot-clock era, John Havlicek, Oscar Robertson and Tiny Archibald are added to the list. Rose and Robertson are the youngest players to ever reach that scoring record, both at 22.

    This is not factoring in Rose’s stellar defense either. And yes, it is actually stellar.

    In 2012, the only point guard with a lower opponent’s Player Efficiency Rating was Rajon Rondo based on 82games.com.

    And lest you believe that is because of the team defense, it’s worth noting that the Bulls were best in the NBA in points given up to opposing point guards in 2011 when Rose was healthy, fifth when he was in and out of the lineup in 2012, and 23rd when he was gone entirely this season.

    He also led all starting point guards in points per play against based on data from Synergy, both overall in isolation. So, yes, “stellar” is an apt word to use.

    Furthermore, when he was healthy, he was dominating the most elite point guards in the league.

    His absence has caused people to forget what a special player he is. When he finally returns, if he can be the same caliber of player, or even better, as some have suggested, (which it seems everyone who has watched him agrees is the case), maybe they will remember.

    Maybe he’ll never be himself again. Maybe everyone who is watching him is overstating things. Maybe his jump shot isn’t better. Maybe it’s all just a bunch of hyperbole and public relations. Or maybe, he actually will come back as good as or better than he was.

    What I do know is that all those players that make the 2000/600 list won championships in their careers. Players that special end up with rings. Just because he hasn’t won one yet at the ripe old age of 24 doesn’t mean he never will. 

Con: Derrick Rose Is Injury-Prone and Doesn’t Have the Heart

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    No one can lead a team through the postseason from the bench, but Derrick Rose tried. If you’re injured, you’re not helping. And Derrick Rose should have played instead of cheering this postseason. That is the new favorite criticism of Rose.

    He missed five games through his first five seasons. Then he missed 27 games due to an assortment of injuries in 2012 and the entire season in 2013. Is that the start of a troubling trend or just one bad season that turned into two?

    2012 had the smell of what is called “compensation injury,” where a payer returns early from injury and keeps getting new injuries due to compensating from the old injury. Eventually, that may have led to him getting the torn ACL in the playoffs.

    Whether he could have, or should have, returned earlier is a matter that Bulls fans and non-Bulls fans alike have settled into solid positions on, most without any clue as to what they’re talking about. Really, how many of us actually have a personal or medical relationship with Rose and know what the situation is? 

    Either way, no one is changing their mind at this point, regardless of what their position is. The cement has set, and there’s not much else to discuss. It won’t matter the second game of next season anyway.

    Whether he is “soft” or will play through injuries in the future is something only the future knows. He’s played through injuries in the past, and it’s cost him. Whether he’ll get injured more frequently, whether his knee will hold up to the intense torque he puts on it, and so on—all these things are completely unpredictable things.

    The injuries he’s had are acute, not chronic, though. It’s not a singular problem—repeatedly flaring up—such as Joakim Noah’s plantar fasciitis. If his knee becomes a chronic problem, the Bulls are in serious trouble. Spending a max-salary on a player repeatedly in and out of the lineup never goes well.

    This season will tell a lot about his health, his future, and correspondingly, the future of the Bulls. 

Pro: Tom Thibodeau

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    One reason the Chicago Bulls don’t need a second star is that they already have one, but he’s just not a player.

    There are two head coaches in the league whose systems are so overwhelmingly successful that they essentially sub as a superstar, Gregg Popovich and Tom Thibodeau.

    Thibodeau has a 20-plus-year history of managing the best defenses in the league, season after season. The players change, the teams change, the conference changes, the rules change, the stars change.

    What never seems to change is that, every year, whichever defense he’s managing is one of the league’s best. In the last 23 years, he’s coached one of the 10 best defenses 20 times. He’s had one of the leagues six best (top 20 percent) in each of the last 10 years.

    Even in a year like this year, where so many of his best defensive players, Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson are going down and missing major time, he keeps one of the elite defenses on the court.

    He had a team that saw Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson, two of the worst defensive backcourt players in the league coming into the season, spend more than 1,000 minutes on the court and have above-average defense when they played together.

    They gave up 105.8 points, slightly below the league average of 105.9. That’s not great, but it’s better than they were.

    Tom Thibodeau could take five slightly overweight, middle-aged men (why are you looking at me?) off the lunch league at the YMCA and have them playing NBA-caliber defense in two months. He’s a difference-maker. He makes players better defenders.

    The reason the Bulls made it to the second round this year, even without Rose playing a single minute, is that the team isn’t just built around Rose. It’s built around Rose and Thibodeau’s system.

    The pair made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in their one semi-healthy run. (Rose did have a grade-2 ankle sprain after all). How about giving them at least a second chance before calling this experiment a failure?

     

    Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.

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