Thursday, March 1, 2012

Can This Bulls Team Win the Championship?

In last night's big road win against San Antonio, the Bulls played their usual game. They kept the game close against a good team by playing good defense, and for the most part, relying on Derrick Rose. This is the formula that the team has used to tremendous regular season success for almost two years now. More encouraging were signs at the end of the game of just what consistent contributions from other players could bring to this team. In the 4th quarter, after 3 quarters of a game reliant solely on Rose, the Bulls awoke. Ronnie Brewer started to land his jumper. Joakim Noah solidified his defense and crashed the boards even harder than he did before. Luol Deng came out of his slumber to land a couple clutch 3's. And Carlos Boozer, well, he still sucked.

Rose can't do it himself
The point behind all of this is that the Bulls might not win with just Derrick Rose. They found this out the hard way last year in the playoffs, and not just against Miami. If we think back, the Bulls truly struggled to put away both Indiana and Atlanta before moving on to face Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. This is because in the playoffs, when the game slows down and the game gets much more physical, opposing defenses knew that they could double Rose and try to make the rest of the team beat them. Couple this with the major concern that the Bulls, aside from Rose, are a primarily jump shooting team. There isn't anyone else on the roster that can consistently create their own shot. It seems basic, but it means that when the Bulls aren't landing shots, like they weren't for a big chunk of the third quarter last night, teams either claw their way back from a deficit or take off with a lead.

This is a huge deal going forward, because when the Bulls match up with great defensive teams, like San Antonio last night, they're relegated to launching jump shots the entire game. If those shots don't fall, the Bulls struggle. We saw this last year against Miami, an outstanding defensive team, when the Bulls would struggle to score. Now, the Bulls counteract this same thing with great defense of their own. This means that they will still win plenty of games simply by out-defending the other team and relying on a few clutch shots from Rose or someone else. But that strategy won't work against a few of the elite teams in the NBA, and really, that's what we should be thinking about right now.

Imagine what he could do for the Bulls?
Personally, I love a player like Luol Deng. He does so much for the team, offensively and defensively. He's been adept at creating his own shot in the past, but after his wrist injury this year he's much more tentative than he has been in the past. And moreover, he takes much of his shots from outside. He's not a slasher, at least not nearly as much as we sometimes think. We also have Rip Hamilton, another player who takes more outside shots than inside. If you compare these players to someone like LeBron James, the comparison isn't even close. Of course, LeBron isn't a fair comparison really, but how about someone like James Harden? He's the third option for Oklahoma City, and he takes about half his shots close to the rim, suggesting that he balances his jump shooting and penetration game quite well. And it's working out for him, as he's having a career year.

What does this mean? Besides Derrick Rose, the Bulls do not have one player who consistently takes the ball to the basket by creating his own shot. Creating your own shot and taking the ball to the hole is so important because it puts so much pressure on the defense. Think about it. Most of the reason these guys get so many open looks is because D Rose crashes the lane and forces the defense to collapse and open up looks. Just imagine if the Bulls had one more player who could do that. Not only would it force the defense to compensate for yet another penetrating player, but it would make D Rose's job easier. Not to mention the fact that in tight, physical games against good defensive opponents, it would allow the Bulls to spread the floor better and create more offense.

I realize that these players don't grow on trees or come out of nowhere. But man, would it make things easier. Which brings me back to my original question, can this Bulls team, with the educated guess that they don't bring anyone else in, win the NBA Championship?

It's going to be tough, but I think it's at least possible. If the Bulls get through the much tougher than usual Eastern Conference to face Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals again (assuming they do the same), Tom Thibodeau is going to have to get creative and develop game plans that force the defense to ease the pressure off Derrick Rose. This could mean that Brewer and Deng will have to take the ball to the basket more, Rip Hamilton will have to step up and nail that mid range more, or Boozer and Noah will have to set harder and better screens to clear space for Rose. Granted, Boozer could solve a lot of problems and help open up the offense by turning into a legitimate post player when it counts, not just against teams like New Jersey and Washington, but I'm not holding my breath. At the very least, we're going to have to either make jump shots or hit the offensive glass hard. This all comes in conjunction with great team defense as well.

The point is, a team led by the reigning MVP and Coach of the Year will always have a chance to win. They have leadership and great defense that guides them through close games against good teams, especially on the road. Rose has shown the ability most of the time to somehow, someway, create his own shot even against the toughest of defenses at the end of games (much tougher to do against Miami when they switch LeBron onto Rose in the 4th quarter though). Through all of this, I know it's really just nitpicking when I want someone who could create their own shot in addition to Rose. Don't get me wrong, I love the way the Bulls play and seeing them take down great teams like San Antonio shows how great a team the can truly be. Really, all I want is consistent contributions from supporting players. Here's looking at you Rip, Brewer, Deng, and Boozer - you guys could be the difference from a season ending with a raucous celebration in Grant Park or another emotionally draining loss to Miami. Make it happen.