This year the Chicago Bulls are aspiring for a ring, and the only thing that will make or break them is the play of Derrick Rose. That goes for better or for worse, and the first nine games of the season give us a good window into both.
The Bulls opened up playing what may have been their worst stretch of basketball since Tom Thibodeau became their head coach three seasons ago. They were mediocre on defense and horrible on offense. A good part of the horrible offense was specifically attributed to Rose.
Through his first four games, Rose was putrid, averaging 15.0 points, 3.8 assists and 5.3 turnovers in 32.0 minutes per contest. His field-goal percentage was a meager 31.3 percent, and he was taking 16.8 shots a game. When your minutes are a bigger number than your field-goal percentage, that’s not good.
His last four games (with one missed), he’s been better, but hardly stellar. He’s still averaging 15.0 points, but on more than two fewer shots, 14.5. His field-goal percentage is still bad, but not as bad: 37.9 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from three. His assists are up to 5.3, and his turnovers are down significantly to 1.8.
While that’s better, it’s still not “good” by any stretch. It’s certainly a long way from all-star level performance and not even in the same galaxy as MVP.
Running the Offense vs. Dominating the Ball
Before he was injured, Rose was often relied on to “be” the offense. It’s a big part of the reason he was the MVP. No one voted for him because they thought Rose was better than LeBron James, they voted because he was more valuable. They voted for him because, as great as the defense was, the offense was horrible without Rose.
By necessity, Rose dominated the ball.
Time and time again, down the stretch, he would pick up the team by the scruff of their necks and carry them to victory. Nothing typified that more than this performance against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The need for Rose to do this is why many have been calling for the Bulls to acquire a second star to help Rose in the crunch.
After Rose went down with his injury though, the Bulls learned to win without him—they had to. More of an actual offense developed, as tortured as it ran sometimes. Joakim Noah became a better facilitator, Jimmy Butler emerged from obscurity and the front office acquired Kirk Hinrich.
This offseason they added Mike Dunleavy. Taj Gibson worked on his jumper. The “help" isn’t one superstar, but overall, the offensive ability surrounding Rose exceeds that of the 2011 or 2012 teams considerably.
Now Rose is learning how to mesh that MVP-level talent within the improved offense so he doesn’t have to do as much, but at the same time, the offense as a whole can do more. He’s learning the difference between dominating the ball and running an offense.
His scoring struggles, ironically, are teaching him to know the difference.
During the first four games, he wasn’t only horrendous in his play, but he also was in his decision making. As a result his teammates suffered as well.
In his last four games, he’s actually running an offense, learning how to find the softest part of the defense and attack that, even it means playing off the ball or passing up the ball.
He’s not forcing as many shots. He’s running through screens, sometimes even as a decoy. He’s getting his teammates open for shots, and he’s playing better within the system.
The Statistical Evidence
Rose’s individual numbers aren’t there, but there are numbers to support this assessment.
Last year the NBA introduced a new stat “Player Impact Estimation” or (PIE), which “measures a player’s overall statistical contribution against the total statistics in games they play in,” according to the official explanation.
Essentially, it’s like Player Efficiency Rating or win shares. It’s a single-number metric that takes all the various statistics into account and comes up with one number, expressed as a percentage, that shows a player’s impact.
What’s interesting about PIE is that the NBA also keeps track of it as a team stat (as opposed to win shares and PER, which are strictly individually tracked). The Team PIE gives a view of the overall impact of all the players within the squad.
Currently the Indiana Pacers lead the NBA in PIE with 60.2 percent. The San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat and Houston Rockets round out the top five. The Bulls are sixth at 55.3 percent.
Now this is where things get interesting. When you contrast the Bulls’ first four games and their last five, there’s a massive difference.
In other words, the Bulls’ players, individually, are having dramatically more impact on the game during their win streak than they were during their horrendous start.
So, is this just “pie” in the sky thinking, or does Rose really have something to do with it? There is serious reason to think it is. The chart below shows what has happened with Rose’s wings while he’s on the court.
The darker blue columns represent the first four games, the lighter blue the last four games Rose played. The percentages are the field-goal percentage, the three-point percentage and the effective field-goal percentage of each player when he is on the court with Rose.
Clearly there is something different going on since the Bulls have started their winning streak, and clearly it has something to do with Rose. His wings were shooting a collective effective field-goal percentage of 40.8 percent with him on the court in the first split. They are shooting 57.4 percent since.
So either the difference is Rose, or everyone else is collectively and simultaneously suddenly getting hot. Occam’s razor says it’s Rose.
So what’s the difference? Is there more to verify that it’s not just coincidence?
The Visual Evidence
Most of it has to do with what Rose isn’t doing. Rather than force up bad shots or trying to force the ball into packed lanes, he’s doing what he should do—taking the path of least resistance and passing out of bad situations.
To see that, let’s take a look at two games that were down to crunch time and how Rose responded differently in them.
First, the game against the New York Knicks where Rose hit the game-winning shot. While he hit the shot and won the game, there can be a little result-led justification for that play. It was a bad shot, and a bad decision. It’s the kind of thing that Kobe Bryant has been getting away with for years.
It’s the idea that if you make bad shots with the game on the line, it justifies them, even if you miss them with the game on the line later. It’s a bad habit, and “winning” too often justifies and reinforces it.
Rose has both his wings wide open, is shooting through two defenders—one of whom, Tyson Chandler, is a former Defensive Player of the Year. He can barely see the rim, was ice-cold from the field for the game and forced up an awful shot that just luckily went in. It going in doesn’t make it a good play.
Over the haul of the season and the postseason, winning isn’t determined by the shots you make, it’s determined by the shots you take. A team that loses a game because they’re just missing a lot of good, open shots is going to come around. A team that takes a lot of bad shots might get lucky and win a few games, but ultimately, the percentages will catch them.
Rose’s job is to create good shots. The problem is, if he’s creating good shots for his teammates but not getting the ball to them, it’s of little consequence.
During the first four games, Rose was making too many bad plays, forcing the issue rather than letting the defense dictate the play and give the ball up to the open shooter. He was trying to get his tear-drop going, driving into packed lanes and wasting possessions.
When his teammates did get the open shots, they were out of sync, trying to force it up too quickly because the spacing wasn’t there. Everything was off-kilter and discombobulated, so their shots were rushed and invariably missed as a result.
During the Bulls’ win streak, Rose has been doing a better job of letting the defense dictate the offense. He’s passing out of bad shots, making the defense pay the price for collapsing in on him. He’s taking advantage of the spacing by hitting his open teammates or getting it to someone who can, as evidenced by being tied for fifth in “hockey” assists.
To see that, let’s look at the game against the Charlotte Bobcats. Once again, it’s a critical, crunch-time possession. Once again, Rose has the ball in his hand. But this time he makes a smarter decision.
He goads everyone in a Bobcats’ uniform into thinking he’s going to force up the contested three. Meanwhile, in a land far, far away, Luol Deng is set up with as wide-open of a three as you could possibly hope.
Rose jumps like he’s going to shoot but passes instead. Charlotte’s Jeff Taylor closes too hard on Deng, but Deng easily sidesteps him and drains the three to seal the game. Rose doesn’t take the shot, but he makes the much smarter play. Those are the kinds of plays that determine playoff series, not just games (ask Ray Allen if you don’t believe me).
The Bulls will have times when they need Rose to step up and be “the guy,” but Rose needs the wisdom to discern when that is. He needs to also know when to not be the guy and pass out. In this case, he did.
A big part of the reason the Bulls’ offense is clicking better, even though Rose is still struggling, is that Rose is learning to play within the scope and rhythm of the offense. As that develops, his stats will get closer to the level they were at before he was hurt, but they’ll be more efficient.
If Rose and his teammates can learn to mesh his superstar playmaking within the scope of the offense by season’s end, they won’t need to worry about having a second star. The whole team will be the second star.