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How Chicago Bulls' Scheme and Ceiling Adjust to Derrick Rose's Return

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How Chicago Bulls' Scheme and Ceiling Adjust to Derrick Rose's Return
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Derrick Rose's two lost seasons taught the Chicago Bulls a tough lesson in an even tougher way: It's not enough to merely hope for the best.

Preparing for the worst is just as important.

Now, with Rose looking healthy and optimism higher than it's been in years, the Bulls head into the 2014-15 season wiser for their struggles. Because in addition to a fully functional Rose, they've shored up the supporting cast in a way that makes the former MVP's return less of a necessity than a cherry on top.

There are contingency plans now. Fallback options. Scheme adjustments that mean a wilted Rose won't totally spoil the Bulls' plans.

Make no mistake: Chicago cannot be great without Rose in peak form. But unlike the past two seasons, it can still be pretty darn good.

 

Scenario 1: Rose Rises

If Rose is in top form and ready to lead the Bulls with MVP-level skill, they're the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Full stop.

The rebuilt frontcourt is absurdly deep, boasting Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott alongside mainstays Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah.

You want defensive dominance? Trot out Noah and Gibson.

If shooting's your preference, use McDermott and Mirotic at both forward spots and slot either Gasol or Noah at the 5 to facilitate.

And if old school inside-out basketball is your thing, dump the rock into Gasol on the block and watch him score or locate open options all over the floor.

Determining what kind of scheme a club this deep (We haven't even mentioned Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell, Mike Dunleavy or Aaron Brooks yet) is a tougher task than it would be for most normal teams. Usually, coaches have to tailor their plans to personnel, tinkering in ways that maximize strengths and obscure weaknesses.

For Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls, it'll be more about choosing between a bevy of good options.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Rose is obviously the key figure here, as he'll be at the tip of the spear. With weapons like Chicago has around him now, he could be a dominant force—even more imposing than he was before injuries shelved him two years ago.

A beast in Chicago's more constricted offenses of the past, Rose figures to be even more ferocious in all that space the Bulls' replenished stable of shooters and passers will create. Remember, the last season in which Rose played significant minutes, 2011-12, the Bulls had the league's fifth-best offense, per NBA.com.

Just imagine what might be possible now.

It's easy to get carried away when discussing the Bulls' ceiling with a healthy and hungry Rose, but if we're being objective, the talent and versatility of the roster make this team a shoo-in for the top seed in the East and a worthy foe for any potential NBA Finals opponent from the superior Western Conference.

 

Scenario 2: The Middle Path

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

If Rose is something less than his former MVP self, Chicago's scheme and ceiling changes a bit. No longer lucky enough to have a dominant point-of-attack figure running the show, the Bulls would have to rely more on Gasol and Noah to initiate the offense from the elbows—something both do very well, but probably not an approach that will create a top-five offense.

More shooters on the floor mean the Bulls will almost certainly feature a better, more balanced attack than they did last season, and a limited Rose is still better than no Rose at all. But without someone to penetrate the middle of the floor and get the defense out of position, it'll be more difficult for the Bulls to generate consistently good shots.

Brooks would have to play a bigger role, and it's possible Thibodeau could add his new point man to the list of cast-off guards—Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin and even Kirk Hinrich to a degree—whose careers he has rehabilitated.

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No matter what happens to Rose, the Bulls will lean on their defense. And the only reason that side of the floor hasn't yet been mentioned is because there's almost no scenario in which it won't be elite. Chicago defends, and it defends well.

Always has under Thibs. Always will.

The team's overall ceiling is harder to gauge if Rose is merely a contributor this year and not a star. Much will depend on the quality of the handful of question-mark contenders in the East. If the Cleveland Cavaliers are as good as many think they'll be, even mild slippage means Chicago will lose the top seed.

If the Indiana Pacers bounce back, the Washington Wizards take another step and the Atlanta Hawks surge with Al Horford healthy, it's easy to see the Bulls falling into the middle of the playoff pack.

Still, with the talent added this summer and some strategic adjustments, Chicago could still finish the 2014-15 campaign with something like 50 wins—even if Rose isn't a superstar anymore.

 

Scenario 3: The Darkest Timeline

Brock Williams-Smith/Getty Images

All of Chicago's additions protect it from the kind of worst-case scenario it endured last year, when Rose broke down just 10 games into what should have been his comeback season. Now, playing without Rose—or with a version of him that is greatly diminished—won't be fatal.

If Rose is only a minor contributor this year, injured again or merely a less effective version of his old self, Chicago should expect to battle it out for a spot in the bottom half of the East's playoff picture. Title contention would be out of the question entirely, and a first-round elimination isn't hard to envision either.

It's a credit to the Bulls' summer, though, that missing the playoffs doesn't seem possible—even if Rose were to provide next to nothing. If that worst-case scenario were to happen, the Bulls would simply have to turn the dial up even higher on everything mentioned in the previous section.

Gasol and Noah would have to become the offensive focal points, pressure would mount on McDermott and Mirotic to be deadly from the perimeter and Butler would have to take that next step toward stardom many have been anxiously awaiting.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

The other upshot of an ineffective Rose would be the premium on health throughout the roster. Losing Noah or Gibson for a long stretch would hurt more, and even with the added depth, Thibodeau would have to take care not to overtax his key players.

It's probably not accurate to say a Rose-less version of this year's Bulls would simply look like (and have the ceiling of) last year's team. There's more offensive punch and depth this time around. But because hopes are so high for this year's team, another gut-it-out, mid-tier finish would be a greater disappointment.

We should mention that the chances of D-Rose falling flat seem slim; his play with Team USA this summer has offered only promising signs.

But everyone should know by now that any optimism surrounding Rose should be of the cautious variety.

 

Keeping It Simple

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It might seem like a "good, bad and ugly" breakdown of the Bulls' possible futures is too simple. After all, there's a broad spectrum of possibilities in play, along with far too many variables (pertaining to Rose and other players on the roster) to count.

But the truth is, there are really just two possible scenarios for Chicago in 2014-15: Either Rose is a superstar, or he isn't. And depending on which of those two possibilities comes to pass, the Bulls are either a legitimate title contender, or they're not.

For Chicago, 2014-15 will take on a binary quality.

That's fine. the Bulls should be lauded for getting themselves to a spot where success means a title and failure means anything less. Other teams should be so lucky to live with those kinds of elevated expectations.

The past two seasons taught the Bulls the value of backup plans, and while it makes sense to look at their offseason additions as exactly that, there's another way to view that talent infusion.

The Bulls believe Rose is healthy enough to make optimal use of his new weapons. They're going for it.

Forget hoping for the best. Chicago is planning on it.

 

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