And right now, the Chicago Bulls are firing nothing but blanks from distance.
It's hard to panic over a .500 team, harder to still to form any conclusions in the middle of November. Yet, just six games into the 2013-14 season, a troubling trend has stormed through the Windy City, sapping Rose's effectiveness and that of the players around him.
Chicago's perimeter attack—and I'm using the word "attack" very loosely—has been more burden than beneficial. And while I've seen Rose do some remarkable things on the hardwood, even the Bulls' miracle worker can't help them out of this mess.
The NBA's analytical revolution might champion the three-point shot, but you don't need to dig too deep to understand the importance of the long ball.
Forget about the added bonus of that extra point awarded; just think about where those looks come from. By taking and making shots from the outside, defenses are pulled out from under the basket, leaving Chicago's two most potent attacks (posting and penetration) at their most lethal levels.
Right now, Bulls opponents can commit five bodies to the paint with no fear of repercussions:
Thanks to Thibodeau's typically tight rotations—only eight players average better than nine minutes a night—Chicago can only look so far for perimeter help. Reserves Mike Dunleavy (46.7 three-point percentage) and Kirk Hinrich (37.5) have done some damage from distance, but neither is seeing more than 24 minutes of floor time.
This challenge falls on the shoulders of Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng, the two on-paper ideal fits to pair with Rose. Both are long, athletic defenders, and each has enjoyed at least moderate success from three in the past.
But that past looks further away with each errant three-point attempt. And there have been plenty of those.
Chicago currently holds the second-worst three-point mark in the league (26.3 percent). Absent any reason to hug these shooters—if anything, defenses have tried to encourage them to shoot—defenses have crowded the middle and taken the strength out of Chicago's offensive punch.
With a dominant driver like Rose in the mix, the last thing Thibodeau wants to see is a crowded interior in front of him. With no shooters to keep him honest, though, here's a sampling of what Rose has seen when he's surveyed the floor so far.
Incredibly, Rose turned this play into free throws (he is a former MVP, after all), but only by stopping his drive well before help could arrive.
He wasn't as fortunate on this pick-and-roll against Cleveland. Rose received a sideline inbound from Deng, then a quick screen by Noah. But Alonzo Gee is already cheating off Deng in case Noah crashes to the rim, and Dion Waiters is ready to provide further help by sliding away from Butler.
The Cavs run two defenders at Rose, Gee squeezes out Noah at the foul line and Rose is forced to settle for that inefficient nightmare—the dreaded long two.
His shot clangs off the back iron, just one in a long line of empty possessions.
The championship hopes that Rose elicited upon his return have yet to get off the ground. The fuse has been fizzled out on his typically explosive drive game.
Shooting struggles aside, the biggest indicator of these hindrances come from looking at the areas where he's found the most success.
Rose, who carved out an MVP campaign without the assistance of a long-range shot, has done his most damage as a spot-up shooter (1.33 points per possession via SynergySports.com, subscription required).
His isolation looks have yielded just 0.45 points per possession, his pick-and-roll attacks have been good for only 0.43. Both of these sets have resulted in turnovers 27.3 percent of the time. During his MVP season of 2010-11, Rose produced 1.05 points per possession out of the isolation and 0.87 as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
What was different about that season? Chicago was an above-average team from beyond the arc (36.1 percent, 13th overall), not a long-ball bottom-feeder. The Bulls punished teams at both ends of the floor (105.5 offensive rating, tied for 12th).
It's not only Rose feeling the effects of these perimeter struggles.
Joakim Noah doesn't have space to create from the high post like he did last season. There's too much congestion for Taj Gibson to sneak behind the defense on a backdoor cut.
This Bulls team has a lot of offensive questions, and Rose can't find the solutions himself.
Assessing the Damage
So, what does this mean for Chicago's title hopes?
Probably less than it seems.
Butler was a 38.1 percent shooter from deep last season; this feels more like a slump than an ominous sign. Deng's had perimeter problems before, but he's also found a fair share of success from outside (36.0 percent from 2007-12).
Even Rose is overdue for an uptick in production. That 44.4 percent three-point mark he posted in the preseason was more the result of rigorous gym work than sluggish defense.
The Bulls have a long-range game; it's just yet to make its 2013-14 debut. If the struggles continue—broken record time, Bulls fans—then Thibodeau can always expand his rotation.
Dunleavy hasn't missed a triple for about four years now (41.2 percent since the start of 2010-11), and his defense is good enough to keep him out of Thibodeau's doghouse. Pairing Rose with Hinrich—something Chicago's done just 8.0 minutes a night so far—improves Chicago's floor spacing and eases the pressure on Rose to create.
The Bulls have options, and this Rose-Butler-Deng trio is still getting used to each other. For all of the challenges they've encountered at the offensive end, they're still forming difficult puzzles at the opposite side.
Again, a lot of this can be filed under the make-or-miss category. Once those makes start increasing in frequency, Chicago's championship resume will look every bit as clean as we imagined it would.