With Derrick Rose returning to the court for the Chicago Bulls, the most important thing for the Bulls' championship hopes this year is to keep him healthy. In order to help protect him, his teammates will need to accomplish certain things.
Before getting into what each individual teammate must do, we need to understand how Rose plays, why he plays that way and why fundamentally, he should play that way.
After Michael Jordan retired in 1998, the NBA made a series of rule changes which were specifically designed to open up the game. They included imposing a foul on hand checks and instituting a defensive-three-seconds rule, along with some other changes.
The changes worked. The game became dominated by elite perimeter players. We could go into a lot of detail here, but the MVP award really demonstrates it best.
Since the last of the rule changes went into place prior to the 2004-05 season, the MVP award has been won by perimeter players eight of nine years. Compare that to the 12 times perimeter players had won it since the inception of the award in 1956 prior to the rule changes.
The league has clearly gone from being a post player’s league to a perimeter player’s league, and that is by design, not accident. The rules have made it such.
The role of the point guard position has changed as a result. Expecting Derrick Rose to sit back and run pick-and-roll plays a la John Stockton and the Utah Jazz is just not a winning formula anymore.
The key to any successful offense in the NBA these days is a player who can drive the lane and collapse defenses, be it LeBron James of the Miami Heat, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder or Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs.
The essence of Rose’s offense is his attacking style, and that’s not going to change, nor should it.
The problem is, when that’s your style and you’re not built like LeBron James, the aggregate effect of going in with the trees can be punishing.
Going in against the bigger players inside five, 10 or 15 times a night takes its toll, especially once you hit the postseason and the interior gets a little more menacing.
The key to Rose’s health is not so much to prevent him from taking contact in the lane, but to minimize it, or at least reduce it. There are specific things that each of Rose’s fellow starters can do to that effect.
His backcourt teammate, Jimmy Butler, might be the most critical cog here. He can help by doing two things: knocking down his three-point shots and taking the ball inside himself.
The Richard Hamilton experiment with the Chicago Bulls was an abject failure, but when Hamilton was on the court with Rose, Rose saw fewer fouls. Per NBA.com/Stats (account required), when they shared the court, Rose was fouled at a rate of 3.7 times per 36 minutes versus 4.7 times when he was on the court alone.
When Rose shared the court with Hamilton, he had a backcourt partner he could dump the ball off to when trapped. Hamilton could then either shoot it or put it on the floor.
Last year, after the All-Star break, Butler found his three-point shot, knocking down 47.5 percent of his shots from deep. If Butler maintains that range, it would be a huge help to Rose. If he can hit his shots, the opponent’s shooting guard won’t be free to come over and trap Rose.
That means two things.
First, it means Rose will face fewer double-teams.
Second, that means he’ll get into the paint that much quicker, which means that the bigs will get there that much later, which means Rose will take fewer hits per game.
If Butler can force teams to give up three to prevent two, it would mean a lot to Derrick Rose’s health. Defenses aren’t going to like that deal.
The other thing Butler can do to help Rose is draw fouls himself.
Butler has a ridiculous ability to get to the line. Last year, according to Team Rankings, he was 17th in the NBA in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt. Of the players ahead of him, only James Harden and Kevin Durant also had a higher free-throw percentage than Butler’s 80.3.
Every time Butler takes it into the paint is one time Rose doesn’t have to. He has shown improved handles this preseason, and that’s a big plus in that direction. His ability to get the line and make free throws and his three-point shooting make him a very efficient scorer and a safety net for Rose.
Luol Deng can help Rose by being a consistent option to score off the pass, whether it’s from deep on the outlet pass or cutting to the rim. While it’s safe to say that Deng has had his own issues with injuries over the last couple of years, his problems are more from attrition than collision.
Deng needs to have an attack dog’s mentality. Often on offense, he’s been complacent.
He’s been aggressive this preseason, attempting 24 shots in 49 minutes. Of course, it would be nice if he hit more than seven of those, but some of that is just rust.
Deng doesn’t need to be an elite scorer or the leading shooter on the Bulls, but he needs to have a consistent scoring mentality.
Carlos Boozer needs to be a true pick-and-roll partner for Derrick Rose, particularly as the roll player as opposed to just being a pick-and-pop player. If Boozer can be the low-post threat that he was in Utah, then Rose can deliver him the ball, and that means fewer blows on Rose’s body.
Just because you can’t win depending primarily on an old-style pick-and-roll offense, it doesn’t mean you can’t utilize it at all.
Of course, some of this will depend on Rose seeing Boozer underneath the rim and getting him the ball.
Boozer is the best low-post scoring big man the Bulls have. He needs to have confidence in his finishing ability, even if he doesn’t score in the early part of the game. He has a history of disappearing when he doesn’t score in the first two minutes. That needs to change.
Any shot Boozer can make at the rim is one shot Rose doesn’t have to take.
Joakim Noah emerged as one of the best passing big men in the NBA last year, tying with Marc Gasol for the league lead at the position with 4.0 per game. Not coincidentally, Kirk Hinrich was the best hockey-assister in the NBA. Per Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider (subscription required):
It's only a matter of time before hockey assists -- the assists that take an extra pass -- become commonplace in the NBA, and SportVU will help us get there. SportVU calls them "secondary assists" -- and according 3-D tracking, no one tallied that variety of assist more often than Kirk Hinrich, who averaged 1.9 secondary assists per game. Chris Paul (1.8) and Mike Conley (1.6) trail right behind Hinrich. The common denominator of that trio? Each of those point guards plays with an elite passing big man (Noah, Blake Griffin and Marc Gasol, respectively). Knowing this, it's hard to parse whether the ability to rack up hockey assists is a repeatable skill or just luck.
Too often, we’ve seen Rose force a shot predestined to be blocked only because there was nowhere else to go with the ball. With Noah’s new role secure in the Bulls’ drive-and-kick/flex-hybrid offense, Rose needs to take advantage of that.
When he can’t see a three-point shooter to kick it to, and when he doesn’t have a clean shot, he needs to bail it out to Noah, and Noah needs to be there to be bailed-out to. From there, he can either knock down his ugly tornado (it doesn’t have to be pretty if it goes in), pass it out to one of the three-point shooters, or feed it to Butler or Deng on a drive.
Finally, the Bulls bench can help as well just by scoring.
During the 2010-11 season, the Chicago Bulls bench scored only 15.2 points per 48 minutes, which was the second-worst in the NBA according to Hoops Stats. Rose was repeatedly required to come off the bench and bail them out because the Bulls needed offense.
Kirk Hinrich is a proven facilitator who has run the offense well. He’s averaged 11.5 points and 2.0 assists in 21 minutes over the first two preseason games. Taj Gibson has improved his scoring ability, adding new post moves and an improved baseline jumper. He’s scored 16.5 points per game.
Mike Dunleavy, who will be able to fill Kyle Korver’s old role of shooting the three, has better passing skills and defense than Korver.
In the first two preseason games, the Bulls bench has scored 44.5 points per game.
Granted, this is just preseason. But this is a group which has five new members this season.
“Just preseason” is actually an argument that works in favor of the Bulls. It stands to reason that as these players play together and get to know one another, they are more likely to get better than worse—particularly when you consider that they’ve played last year’s top two defenses, Indiana and Memphis.
Tom Thibodeau needs to let his bench play, especially his youngsters Marquis Teague, Tony Snell and Erik Murphy.
The reasoning here is simple: The better the bench plays, and the more bench plays, the less Rose plays, and that means fewer times he’s clobbered driving the lane.
If each team member can do a little bit, all those little bits can add up to a lot-of-bit and Rose should be able to play with the same mentality, but not with quite the same amount of danger.
Yes, he’ll have (and has already had) those times when he collides with the Roy Hibberts of the world. But, as he did in the Bulls’ first preseason game, he’ll be able to consistently bounce back up if they can reduce the total number of times he has to bounce.