Panic isn't the right word to describe the Chicago Bulls' (1-3) sluggish start.
Despite having the key components of Chicago's core together for the past four seasons, finding its collective groove was going to take some time. The Bulls spent all of 2012-13 learning how to play without Derrick Rose (torn ACL). Expecting them to ditch those lessons and remember how to play around him after only four games lies somewhere between presumptuous and unfair.
Concerning is a very appropriate term here, though.
A supposed championship contender has failed to show up for a pair of measuring-stick games (losses to both the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers). Even the on-paper gimmies have proved to be uncomfortably challenging (one-point win over the New York Knicks, three-point loss to the Philadelphia 76ers).
While no one's pressing the panic button just yet—there are still 78 games to be played, after all—if you listen closely, you can hear the faint whining of alarm sirens in the distance.
Even with a healthy Rose back in action, the Bulls weren't expected to completely shed their defensive identity. Prior to 2013-14, Chicago had finished the last three seasons among the league's top six in defensive efficiency.
Rose's return, though, was supposed to help the Bulls transform their offensive attack from a complementary piece into a powerful weapon on its own. Chicago had the fifth-highest offensive rating in 2011-12 (107.4) and turned in a respectable 11th-place finish the season prior (108.3).
That metamorphosis may still be coming, but the mess it will have to clean up is worse than anyone could have imagined.
If you want a single reason as to why Chicago has limped out of the gate, look no further than this punchless offensive unit (93.6 offensive rating, 27th in the league).
All angles at that end of the floor have presented issues. Whether taking aim from beyond the arc (25.4 percent) or inside of it (41.2), Bulls shooters have consistently missed their mark.
Only three players on the roster are shooting above 45 percent from the field: Carlos Boozer (58.8), Taj Gibson (53.3) and seldom-used reserve Nazr Mohammed (66.7). Just two others—Kirk Hinrich (44.0) and Jimmy Butler (42.9)—are clearing the 40-percent mark.
Notice any notable names missing from that group? Try 60 percent of the starting lineup. Rose (31.3), Luol Deng (38.7) and Joakim Noah (29.2) are all having issues finding even the slightest bit of offensive rhythm.
It shouldn't take much to get these players going. Noah's a career 50.5 percent shooter from the field, while Rose and Deng both hold career percentages above 45. Sometimes it's as simple as finding more easy shots, something the Bulls haven't been able to do this season.
The aggressiveness is evident, but the lack of success near the basket hints that this team is forcing the issue a bit.
And that's not the only number suggesting that this team is pressing. Despite having so much activity in the middle, the Bulls sit just 21st in free-throws attempted per game (22.0). The Bulls are 25th in turnover percentage (19.2), and Rose is currently outpacing his assists (3.8) with his turnovers (5.3).
As defenses continue to sag off Chicago's shooters—Hinrich (45.5 percent) and Mike Dunleavy (36.4) are the only players shooting better than 25 percent from deep—Rose will continue finding heavy crowds under the basket. That's a major issue, because he's already settling for more jumpers than he should:
Visual indication that Rose isn't back yet - he's settling. Too many jumpers, only 5 FTs. pic.twitter.com/SulD0eXetv— Tim Donahue (@TimDonahue8p9s) November 7, 2013
Right now, Rose's explosiveness is a wasted gift. He's flashed his elite-level springs at times, but he just can't get anything going toward the basket (35.3 percent shooting on drives, via NBA.com).
Rose looks healthy, albeit a bit rusty. His surgically repaired knee isn't holding this team back.
In a way, you wish that was the problem. That might be an easier fix than what's really plaguing this group's production.
Is Any Help On Its Way?
Finding a secondary star for Rose has been a priority since Bulls fans regrettably accepted the fact that Boozer wasn't going to be that player.
What's troubling here, though, is the fact that Boozer's actually putting up All-Star numbers (18.3 points on 58.8 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds per game) and this offense is still a mess:
How bad is Bulls offense right now? They made 11 field goals in the second half. The Pacers made 11 field goals in the 4th quarter alone.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) November 7, 2013
So, what's the solution?
Hall of Famer Magic Johnson says Rose needs help—from outside the organization:
The Bulls and Knicks need to make a trade if they're going to compete with the Pacers, Heat and Nets.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 7, 2013
Even if there's some truth to that statement, it seems way too early to start scouring the trade market.
Noah might be out on the floor, but he doesn't look healthy by any stretch. He was a no-show (groin) for all but one of Chicago's preseason games, and coach Tom Thibodeau told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune that his big man is still working his way back into the mix:
I still think he's finding his way. Defensively, early on he was very good. Offensively, a lot of that is timing. The more he practices, the better he's going to be. He did some good things, but he has to keep working.
Butler, who looked every bit like a rising star in the 2013 postseason, is still learning how to play with Rose. Dunleavy has a brand new set of teammates to adjust to.
Deng is still letting go of the reins he was forced to grab in Rose's absence last season. But a possible change in his future might be more damaging than what he's dealing with in the present.
Playing in the final year of his current contract, Deng admitted to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard that he's thought about his uncertainty with the franchise:
I'm a human being, so of course it's in the back of my mind. But honestly, I really don't think about it unless [the media] brings it up...I understand that's something I can't control, so I'm not going to waste a lot of energy worrying about what next year holds.
This team has championship-caliber talent, but all of these pieces have yet to form the right picture.
That day could be coming soon, but there's still plenty of time left before people need to start hoisting any red flags.
If Not Now, Then When?
The Bulls are one of the few teams gifted enough that it doesn't matter what other teams around them are doing.
The Pacers might run their undefeated start to double-digits. The Heat could embark on another lengthy winning streak. None of that would impact Chicago's championship resume.
Do the Bulls need to make any roster changes to become true title contenders?
Obviously, the Bulls don't want to dig too big of a hole early on, but these first few months hold more importance inside the locker room than they do in the conference standings.
Noah needs the chance to get healthy. Rose must find his spot among teammates new and old. The Bulls' shooters—regardless what the stat sheet says, they do indeed exist—have to better space the floor for Chicago's slashers and post scorers to better attack the defense.
Box scores take a backseat to the on-court displays for now. Win or lose, the Bulls just need to make positive strides.
If Noah's injury persists, or Rose never looks like even a shadow of his former self, then we might have a problem.
For now, all Bulls fans need to do is buckle in and ride out this turbulence. Clear skies are on the horizon, even if it takes longer to reach them than originally anticipated.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.