The Chicago Bulls are finding themselves.
After being chosen as a title contender by many in the preseason, they’ve gotten off to a somewhat slow 3-3 start, often looking confused and stagnant in their losses and wins alike. But there’s no need to panic: This team is still a good bet to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
Rose, the engine himself, hasn’t been playing at all. That's apparent in his uncharacteristic 33 percent field-goal percentage and 4.2 turnovers per game. But his physical edge—the frightening speed, the uncanny instinct and ability to gyrate mid-air—is as present as ever, and he'll be the talk of the league again as soon as he fine-tunes the particulars of his attack.
Rose has played least of all with his new backcourt partner, Jimmy Butler. And if Butler’s inspired, league-blitzing performance in last year’s playoffs is any indication, he could be the piece to take this team to the finals. His and Rose’s jelling could be the single most important factor in the Bulls’ title hopes.
But Butler looks hesitant on the court, seemingly frazzled by the hype surrounding him all summer and by finally playing alongside Rose, the basketball darling of the Midwest.
Time rides in the favor of Butler and the rest of the squad—more than likely, they’ll figure things out. Especially given that they led the NBA in wins in both of Rose's last full seasons. And perhaps even more so because coach Tom Thibodeau is around to make sure that they make corrections.
Thibodeau’s been shouting louder than ever from the sidelines this season. In the Bulls’ much-needed November 11 home victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thibs was the Beethoven of basketball, exhibiting an unparalleled madness for his team’s perfection of the game as he repeatedly bellowed his obsessive group structures. He became a more integral part of the TV broadcast than the color commentary was.
After a slow start, he won’t let the Bulls falter any longer—not in their supposed season of destiny.
And it’s only a matter of time before the ball begins to move better on offense without Thibodeau’s exhortations. Sans Rose last year, the Bulls frequently struggled to score, but they developed some exceedingly nifty action along the way. Plays would often run through Noah, perhaps the most intuitive passing big man in the league, and the ball would swing through several planned motions before the right shot was found.
Bulls prognosticators saw this as a sign that the team could play a more advanced style of offense when Rose returned, as opposed to sinking into the bad habit of watching Rose do everything—a pattern that sometimes defined the team’s strategy in seasons past.
Finding the right balance between pieces new and old is a complex calibration, though, and it will likely take all season for Chicago to find its optimum offense. In the meantime, it’ll have to firm up its vaunted defense further.
Thus far, the Bulls are behind only the undefeated, league-crushing Indiana Pacers in opponent points, with an average of 91 allowed. But you can be sure that second place won’t keep their coach happy too much longer.
The team’s defensive intensity is sure to ratchet up as the season progresses. The Bulls under Thibodeau have always benefited from the battle of attrition that is a full NBA season—they wear teams down.
One of the key challenges this year, however, is to make sure they don’t also wear themselves down while they do it. Crucial injuries have factored large in the Bulls’ last two playoff exits, and many in Chicago have expressed concern about the team’s playing style. To some, their relentless desire is as much their undoing as it is their key ingredient.
Minutes have been managed somewhat more wisely this season. The perpetually aching Noah seems to have an unstated cap on his minutes, rarely going over 30 per game.
It remains to be seen how hard Thibodeau will push his starters once inevitable nagging body problems set in over the course of the long season. But word has it that franchise management is actively telling Thibodeau to give players more rest. Chicago's bench players—led by Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich, and Mike Dunleavy—should be seeing plenty of minutes this season. You might count Nazr Mohammed among them.
A healthy Thibodeau Bulls team, at the peak of its abilities, hasn’t been seen in the NBA Playoffs since 2011, when Rose led them into a losing—but highly contested—effort in the Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Rose was 22 years old at the time of the loss, and his backcourt partner was Keith Bogans, who had a laughable 9.0 PER for the year. Since then, the team's core has improved (Deng and Noah have both been named All-Stars), and they've been through many more mental obstacles, including last year's terrific underhanded playoff run.
If the Bulls can stay out of their own way and treat themselves right until spring, we’ll finally get to see what they’re capable of. And it just could be the very best.