As Derrick Rose sliced and diced his way through the preseason, the Chicago Bulls quickly shot up the list of everyone's Eastern Conference favorites.
Rose emphatically answered questions about his health and any concerns of rust, making the math seem pretty obvious: "Last season's Bulls" plus "a healthy Derrick Rose" equals "league-wide domination."
But through the opening week of the regular season the Bulls have gone 1-2, dropping games to the Heat and 76ers whileneeding a heroic clutch floater from Rose in order to beat the Knicks.
They've struggled at both ends of the floor, but their offense has been particularly abysmal, averaging just 95.6 points per 100 possessions to rank 23rd in the league. Without Rose last season, the Bulls still managed to average 100.4 points per 100 possessions.
To understand how the Bulls offense could collapse on itself, despite the reintegration of a former MVP, you actually don't have to look much further than Rose.
Rose is shooting 28.8 percent from the field, including 36.0 percent on shots at the rim and 26.7 percent on his three-pointers. As Ricky O'Donnell of SBNation points out, a lot of Rose's early struggles have come from forcing shots and seeking contact at the rim instead of utilizing his mid-range game. Throw in the fact that Rose has more turnovers than assists, and you can lay a lot of the Bulls' offensive problems at his feet.
But even with Rose struggling to find his rhythm, Chicago's good looks at the basket shouldn't be quite so hard to come by. The rest of the Bulls have also struggled to make shots and find their places within the offense.
Take a look at this play on the Bulls' first possession of their game against the Knicks. They've run a whole series of cross screens in the lane, culminating in a curl for Luol Deng. As he hits the elbow, he has Iman Shumpert on his back and Tyson Chandler on an island. It seems like this is a perfect setup to get right to the rim or pull Chandler another step and make the pocket pass to Joakim Noah.
The problem is the strange spacing on the backside. Jimmy Butler is inside the three-point line and moving towards the basket, bringing another defender. Meanwhile, Rose is hovering on the baseline, again bringing another defender towards the paint, instead of fading to the corner.
Neither player is in position to receive a pass or threaten the defense. Instead, they're making things simpler for the Knicks. Deng ends up getting a shot he can make in the paint, but with a little better spacing, there was the potential for a much better look.
These sorts of free-throw line curls have been a big part of the Bulls offense the past few seasons. With aggressive ball-handlers and mobile big men, they are a nice way of moving players and the ball to put pressure on opposing defenses. But poor spacing, indecision and making one pass too many have robbed these sets of their effectiveness for Chicago.
In this video, Deng is coming off another curl, with Butler looking to back-cut to the baseline, but Boozer doesn't make contact on a screen with his defender and the opening doesn't present itself. Noah has an opportunity to pressure Spencer Hawes by sealing him off at the rim, but he fades instead. Evan Turner does a great job of recovering on Deng, keeping him from the basket.
With all those options taken away, Deng ends up throwing the ball back out to Noah for a contested 15-foot jumper.
With sets like thia not humming along, the Bulls have ended up with a lot of cross-screening under the basket while clogging the lane and having possessions end with forced jump shots as the shot clock winds down.
According to MySynergySports (subscription required), the Bulls are shooting just 30.3 percent on spot-up possessions this season. That low number is mostly because so many of those shots have been contested.
Ideally, spot-ups will be the lifeblood of the Bulls offense this season, but they need to created by opportunity, not necessity. Pick-and-rolls, movement off free-throw line curls and Rose's penetration will be the primary means of creating those open outside shots.
However, Rose's struggles to finish and his inability to see teammates who are open have shut down that avenue. Chicago's back-up schemes just aren't working well at this point.
The video below shows a run of missed jumpers from the Bulls' loss to the Sixers. Many of the jumpers are shots that should have been made, but they are almost all contested and mostly are taken late in the shot clock. The Bulls' actions leading up to each jumper often look forced or unintentionally chaotic.
The good news is that the Bulls' early struggles don't seem to be because of anything that's fundamentally broken about their roster or system.
Chicago's offensive and defensive execution simply needs some tuning while the shots they normally make need to go down. Derrick Rose also needs to cut through the fog of having spent a full season away from the game and have his court instincts return.
As bad as the Bulls played in the opening week, its hard to find any reason why their struggles will continue to persist all season.
All statistics from NBA.com. and current as of Nov. 6.