Rose is the type of player who is defined by more than his statistics. His impact on the offense goes beyond what he contributes to box scores. Before his injury issues started escalating in 2012, the Bulls were the third-most efficient offense in the NBA, per NBA.com/STATS (subscription required).
After the Bulls game on March 12 of that year, he played just five more games, and the Bulls were only the 22nd-best offense without him (subscription required). Last season, they were a mere 23rd (subscription required).
Over the last three years, the Bulls have averaged nearly five more points per game when Rose has played. It’s clear the offense is better with him in it.
So why is his presence alone the difference between Chicago being one of the best offenses in the NBA and one of the worst?
Modern analytics have helped to shape what offenses do. By tracking shot locations, it’s become apparent that some areas of the court are more critical than others. There are two optimal areas for scoring: inside the restricted area (that little semicircle under the rim) and outside the three-point line.
There are three other areas as measured by Hoop Data: the area inside the paint but outside the restricted area; the mid-range area, which is between 10 and 15 feet; and the area from 16 feet to the three-point line.
None of these three areas is “optimal.” League-wide field-goal percentage is right around 40 percent from each, give or take a percentage point or two.
The goal of a good offense is to minimize the attempts from the least efficient areas and maximize the ones from the most efficient areas. When you understand that basic premise, you can start to understand how the Bulls are so much better with Rose but not why.
Let’s establish the how first.
In the following chart, notice the difference in distribution of the Bulls' field goals since 2011. The green and blue are the optimal areas. The red marks the areas to avoid.
When Rose has started games, the Bulls have had 72.5 percent of their points off field goals come from the optimal areas, compared to only 68.9 percent in games he has missed.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the long ball and the area under the rim. Each opens up the opportunity for the other.
In the chart below, notice the gridlines between the blue line (the field goals made from the restricted area) and the red line (the three-point makes). Observe how the spacing stays relatively even. The chart represents the last three years of Bulls basketball, with or without Rose on the court.
The problem is that once you take one away, the other starts to suffer. If you can take away the three, the defense can overload the lane, push offenses into long twos and make teams suffer. If you can seal off the perimeter and close off the passing lanes, it forces teams outside.
This should be familiar to Bulls fans; it’s the premise of the entire Bulls defense.
For the Bulls, their struggle usually begins when they aren’t knocking down their threes.
First, look at what happens in games that Rose has played. The red represents the number of wins they have when they reach each level of three-point shooting, and the green shows the number of losses. Notice how much more effective they are with just a small number of three-pointers made.
Last year, the league average was seven three-pointers per game. In games where Rose has played, the Bulls are an astonishing 44-7 when they reach that mark. When they are an average three-point shooting team, they are nearly unbeatable.
When they’ve had even four three-pointers, they are 86-22, a win rate that would equal a 65-win season.
The problem in the past is that while they have an offense designed around three-point shooting in terms of personnel, they haven’t been really constituted to be a three-point-shooting team. They depend on Rose's penetration to generate their shots. When Rose isn’t playing, they suffer.
Compare the chart above with the one below.
Notice how much less likely the Bulls are to pile up threes when Rose doesn't play. When they haven't gotten them, they've won less frequently.
The next chart shows the percentage of the time the Bulls hit each benchmark when Rose plays compared to when he doesn't.
So the Bulls are more likely to hit more threes when Rose plays, and those extra threes are more likely to result in wins, but why?
It goes back to that symbiotic relationship. The offense is a drive-and-kick one. When Rose drives into the lane, it takes multiple defenders to stop him. That necessitates the defense to leave a shooter open. Rose just needs to find that person and kick the ball to him.
When Rose gets the ball to his teammates and they are knocking down those shots, the Bulls are hard to beat. When they hit just 33 percent of their three-point attempts, the Bulls are 56-13. When they do that and Rose scores 19 or more points, the Bulls are a surreal 42-6.
The most stunning thing about these numbers is how pedestrian the three-point totals need to be for the Bulls to almost always win. Based on winning percentages outlined above, if the Bulls were to add just one three-pointer per game, it would translate to a 71-win season.
That raises another issue, though. What happens when they aren’t knocking down their shots? Counterintuitively, when Rose scores more than 25 points, the Bulls shoot worse.
The initial instinct is to think that Rose is shooting his teammates out of the game. But the problem with that supposition is that his teammates actually attempt about one more three when he scores more than 25 points. They just don’t make them.
This suggests that the more likely explanation is that when Rose’s teammates are missing, he’s trying to shoulder more of the scoring load.
And this is what makes the next season interesting.
Rose has been having this dynamic effect on a team that has never had three-point shooters other than Kyle Korver. And when Rose and Korver were on the court together, they were the Bulls’ best offensive duo, averaging 114.9 points per 100 possessions.
Based on player pages on Hoop Data, from 2011 to 2012, Rose had a total of 225 three-point assists. That’s 15 more than the other Chicago point guards—C.J. Watson, John Lucas III, Mike James, Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson—have combined in three years.
He generates their three-point shooting, even though they haven’t had three-point shooters. But now with Jimmy Butler having found a three-point shot, a new sniper in Mike Dunleavy and Deng’s wrist having healed, the Bulls look to have a legitimate three-point attack this coming season. If rookie Tony Snell can get some playing time, he’ll only add to the arsenal.
The Bulls will be positively lethal.
And unlike the situation with Korver, Dunleavy is a good team defender, so the defense won’t struggle to compensate for having him on the court. Butler and Deng are elite defensive players. The Bulls no longer have to sacrifice defense to get three-point shooting.
If Rose can get consistency from his teammates behind the arc—and it looks like he will—it will reduce the burden on him to score. That’s the good news.
It will also make it almost impossible for defenses to stop him from scoring when he decides to score. That’s the better news.
Because what the world really needs is a more effective Rose effect.
If not otherwise indicated the stats and charts here were compiled and cross-referenced from both team and game logs provided by Basketball Reference. Unless otherwise indicated they are totals from the Tom Thibodeau era, which spans the 2010-11 season to present.