Scottie Pippen reportedly told the Bulls that, even without Derrick Rose—the hard luck star who’s now minus a functioning left ACL—they’re the league’s top team.
“You’re still the best team in the NBA … so go out there and play like it,” Pippen wrote the disheartened bunch, in an open letter that was published on the Bulls’ website.
Still the best? Without Rose? This is a partisan, Pollyannaish, and flat ridiculous notion for the former Bull to advance. And it also might be…true?
To crib a point from Zach Lowe, which we do as often as we can get away with, the Bulls without Derrick Rose are the second best unit in the NBA…second only to the Bulls with Derrick Rose:
Playing without Rose won’t be anything new for the Bulls, who went 18-9 when he was out this season. They also outscored opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions when Rose was on the bench, according to NBA.com. Only one team put up a better figure: the Bulls, who outscored opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions for the full season and a whopping 10.6 when Rose was on the court. In addition, point guard John Lucas III emerged as a reliable backup to the backup (C.J. Watson), and the Bulls’ defense is so good that it at least keeps them in almost every game.
When we view the Bulls on the level of the individual player, the reason they’ve been able to so successfully withstand the absences of their reigning MVP becomes apparent: Rose just didn’t have that great of a season.
He finished eighth on the team in total wins produced (this comes with two large caveats of course: 1.) Rose missed 27 games and 2.) lots of people hate wins produced.) and eighth again in per minute productivity. Whether it was injuries, small sample size, or just a consequence of 2012’s peculiar bunching of games, the 23-year-old posted the lowest effective field goal and total rebounding percentages of his career, got to the line less frequently than he did in his MVP campaign and connected less often when he was there.
As Lowe mentioned though, the Bulls do suffer a dip in performance when Rose is out, but this is mostly a function of who takes his minutes. C.J. Watson and John Lucas, favorable press aside, are sub-average point guards.
Both Watson and Lucas are marksmen from deep (they shot an identical 39.3 percent from 3 in the regular season), but struggle enough from two (Lucas shot 40.3 percent on two-point field goals in 2012, Watson 35.2 percent) that they’re liabilities when they shoot. But while Rose—who isn’t always a paragon of efficiency—makes up for his inconsistency as a shooter by getting to the line, Watson attempts just a league average, for a point guard, 4.3 FTAs per game, while Lucas manages just 2.1.
Dip aside, these Bulls are still formidable. Contra most narratives, the strength of this team has been its frontcourt (Noah, Boozer, Gibson, and Asik control the paint the way Limbaugh controls Republicans) and its depth (eight rotation players posted above-average per minute productivity).
What it all adds up to though, in this particular series, is a marginal increase in the Sixers’ chances of upsetting the Chicago. The Sixers, who went 15-22 down the stretch, were saddled with playing the NBA’s top regular season team. Now they’ve got to take four of six from its second best.