Can the Chicago Bulls Follow the Detroit Pistons' 2004 Championship Blueprint?

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Can the Chicago Bulls Follow the Detroit Pistons' 2004 Championship Blueprint?
Mike Dinovo/USA Today

The Chicago Bulls are leaving behind a wake of demoralized opponents in their quest for a top seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Houston Rockets are only the latest victims. 

During the 111-87 victory over the blistering Western Conference contenders, Chicago left no doubt of its intentions during the 2013-14 campaign. Gone were the conversations of the past, ones that included lingering doubts about the the future of this current Bulls iteration.

In their places were dreams of a championship. 

After the blowout of yet another elite team, Chicago moved to 36-29 on the season, leaving them just a few percentage points behind the Toronto Raptors in the race for No. 3. The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers may be untouchable, but only in regards to the regular-season standings. 

Much like another team following a similar blueprint, these Bulls wouldn't dream of giving credit to either of the East's elite squads. They firmly believe they're capable of dethroning the defending champions—they did so a few nights back, albeit during a game that doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things—and holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy for themselves. 

Ben Wallace, Chauncey "Mr. Big Shot" Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton may not be wearing Chicago uniforms, but it's not hard to conjure up memories of those standouts when watching the '14 Bulls. 

After all, the last team to follow this blueprint and win a championship was the 2004 Detroit Pistons squad, one that posted an eerily similar regular season exactly one decade ago. 

Devoid of superstar contributors and utterly reliant on a dominant defense, those Motown warriors finished the regular season with a 54-28 record. That's obviously far better than the mark Chicago will end up posting, but it's interesting that the Pistons ended up trailing only two teams in the East, one of which was Indiana. 

This is not an easy blueprint to follow, so can the Bulls successfully pull it off?

 

Defensive Excellence

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

"The Bulls lack a high-powered offense so they're not some unbeatable juggernaut, but the top-notch defense gives them a shot to win every game," wrote Jared Dubin during the middle of this Chicago run, and he's exactly right. 

As the old maxim goes, defense wins championships. That might as well be written in the locker room at the United Center. 

Even though these Bulls seemed to provide some evidence to the contrary, holding the Rockets to 87 points is not an easy task. 

Not only does Houston have the No. 6 offense in the league, per Basketball-Reference, but it had topped 90 points in 58 of its 64 outings heading into the March 13 contest with Chicago. With James Harden catching fire and Dwight Howard starting to play like, well, Dwight Howard, this is not an offense that's easy to corral. 

Yet the Bulls shut it down.

Then they stomped on it until every player was completely demoralized, convinced that even the shots he fired up while dreaming would be heavily contested by Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler or one of the other stout defenders who calls the Windy City home. 

It's the exact same mentality boasted by those '04 Pistons, who also built a terrific scheme around a dominant interior defender. Just as Joakim Noah is earning Defensive Player of the Year consideration, Ben Wallace was right near the top of the voting results, although he would ultimately finish second to Metta World Peace Ron Artest, making it the only year in a five-season stretch that he didn't win the award. 

Terrence Vaccaro/Getty Images

Hell, both centers even have long hair!

For the Pistons, winning wasn't enough, because the opponent had to feel completely and thoroughly embarrassed. Detroit wanted opposing coaches to go home and rethink their offensive schemes, much as Tom Thibodeau enjoys doing with his paint-packing defense. 

Turns out both units were pretty darn good: 

Good Luck Scoring
Team PPG Allowed DRtg DRtg Rank
2003-04 Detroit Pistons 84.3 95.4 No. 2
2013-14 Chicago Bulls 92.3 100.7 No. 2

Basketball-Reference

Now it's tough to compare these marks, simply because the league has evolved quite a bit. Even pace-adjusted stats don't quite do the trick, as the NBA constantly changes and places priorities on different facets of the game. Teams have gotten more efficient, so the numbers are naturally going to be higher in recent years. 

In baseball, there are era-adjusted stats like ERA+ and OPS+ that compare a player's mark to the league-average number that season. An ERA+ of 200 means the pitcher's ERA was half the league average, and an ERA+ of 50 would mean it was twice the league average. Conversely, an OPS+ of 200 would mean the player's OPS was double the league average, and so on. 

Regardless of the stat, the higher number is the better one. 

If we look at DRtg+, the story becomes a little more clear: 

Still Good Luck Scoring
Team DRtg League-Average DRtg DRtg+
2003-04 Detroit Pistons 95.4 102.9 107.9
2013-14 Chicago Bulls 100.7 106.3 105.6

Basketball-Reference

The gap is closer, but it's still clear that the Pistons of a decade ago were superior. That shouldn't be surprising, seeing as the pieces started coming together more recently for Chicago. Plus, the '04 Pistons are commonly referred to as one of the greatest defenses of all time. 

This is nothing to be ashamed of. 

However, when defense is the unquestioned calling card of a team, it's hard to follow the blueprint of another team when that squad was even better at its core identity. 

Can the Bulls make up for it with offense?

 

Offensive Diversity

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Before delving into the stylistic similarities and differences between these two teams, let's once more compare the raw numbers. 

Neither team was even close to elite when trying to score points, but which was better? 

Team PPG ORtg ORtg Rank League-Average ORtg ORtg+
Pistons 90.1 102.0 No. 18 102.9 99.1
Bulls 93.1 101.5 No. 29 106.3 95.5

Basketball-Reference

Now you can see the danger of looking solely at points per game. 

While the Bulls scored more than the team they're modeling their success after, that was largely the result of a faster pace. Their offensive rating, which reveals the team's points scored per 100 possessions, is lower, and it pales in comparison to the league average. In fact, only the Philadelphia 76ers were scoring at a slower rate than the Bulls heading into Thursday night's affair with the Rockets. 

The problem is the lack of a go-to scorer. 

D.J. Augustin has actually become the leading contributor, averaging 14.3 points per game to pace all active members of the Chicago roster. Carlos Boozer (14.1), Taj Gibson (13.2), Jimmy Butler (13) and Joakim Noah (12.2) all aren't far behind, which should help underscore the well-balanced nature of these Bulls. 

Usually, they just rely on one guy getting hot, as Kirk Hinrich did down the stretch against Houston. He spoke about his 19-point outing after the game, and the general theme revolved around team basketball and him taking the shots that he was given by the Rockets defense. 

That said, Mike Dunleavy paced the team in scoring in the victory over Houston, and it was one of only 10 times in 2014 that a Chicago player had recorded the game-high figure. Here's the breakdown of who's done it: 

  • Mike Dunleavy (twice)
  • Carlos Boozer (twice)
  • Joakim Noah
  • D.J. Augustin (twice)
  • Taj Gibson (three times)

That's balance, and it's also interesting that the Bulls have had the top scorer in only 10 of 34 outings over the relevant stretch. For a team that's gone 23-11 since the calendars flipped to 2014, that's a bit strange. 

The Bulls don't go into games with an idea of who's going to emerge as the top scorer. It's an organic process, and Thibodeau is a good enough coach that he can adjust his plays on the fly to feed the hot hand. 

Thursday night, that just happened to be Dunleavy and Hinrich. 

Well, the Pistons functioned in similar fashion. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Rip Hamilton led the team in scoring by averaging 17.6 points per game, and Billups' 16.9 weren't far behind. Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince joined them in double figures, and Detroit could usually rely on consistent output from Mehmet Okur, Corliss Williamson and Ben Wallace. 

The first two aforementioned names were both more dominant scorers than anyone on the Bulls' current roster, and the overall product was more impressive as well.

But the blueprint, once more, was identical. That's why regardless of which side of the court we're discussing, the Pistons are the idealistic comparison for the Bulls. 

Offensively, they build a workable scheme around limited talent, thriving with a team mentality that engenders scoring performances from what you might consider secret weapons.

"I don't like it, because our MVP is not playing. We have one MVP and that’s Derrick Rose," Noah recently told Bulls.com's Chuck Swirsky after he was showered with MVP chants by the Chicago faithful. 

Can't you just hear a member of that old-school Pistons team saying the exact type of thing?

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Defensively, both teams anchor things in the paint with a dominant rim-protector and pour all of their energy into the less glamorous end of the court. 

However, the '04 Pistons were better in both areas than the '14 Bulls, and that's why they're the idealistic match, and not just a one-to-one comparison. If Chicago can keep improving to the point that it matches Detroit in all aspects, it'll be in great shape to take advantage of a weak Eastern Conference with a run to the NBA Finals. 

More improvements are necessary, though. 

Detroit has shown Thibodeau and Co. the path, and now it's up to this current squad to keep walking in the proper footsteps. 

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