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Derrick Rose & The Bulls – Stacked Contenders?

Garbhan Madigan discusses one of the biggest talking points of the year – the Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose and the stacked squad in the Windy City. 

It’s no secret that the Chicago Bulls’ title hopes were always going to go as Derrick Rose and his surgically repaired knees went.  Rose will never be able to escape it – he can only hope to manage it.  We have all been witness to what has happened to the unluckiest of MVPs, so much so that it is depressing to discuss ACLs and MCLs for everybody since. Now, Rose career will involve tough decisions about when not to play and when to play, and those decisions are not always going to be popular.

It may be unfair at times for the local Chi-town hero, but at times you have to be careful;

“I feel like I’m managing myself pretty good, I know a lot of people get mad when they see me sit out or whatever, but … when I sit out, it’s not because of this year. I’m thinking about long term. I’m thinking about, after I’m done with basketball, having graduations to go to, having meetings to go to. I don’t want to be in my meetings all sore or be at my son’s graduation all sore just because of something I did in the past, so it’s just learning and being smart.”

Bad move DRose.  Rose has developed a bad habit of being controversial with a lot of his recent statements, even when it is not his fault.  On the surface, it appears as though he is completely reasonable.  Rose (and all NBA players) are not gladiators.  However, to say he is concerned about meetings and sitting down at graduations in the future is a stretch too far for a man earning twenty million dollars a year in salary alone.  Derrick could have dealt with this a million other ways, a lesson he will hopefully learn for the future.

Rose has more reason to be careful than any other star. As it is, knee injuries have robbed him of two full years of his prime. The Bulls have a lot of money ($95 million ) invested in Rose over the next three years, and it’s also in their best interests to maximize his long-term potential.

If there has been any misstep in the handling of Rose’s knee injuries, it was the Bulls’ bizarre reluctance to declare him out for the entire 2012-13 season, when he was rehabbing a torn left ACL. Their refusal to get out in front of his timeline opened Rose up to unnecessary talk-radio and social-media criticism and a belief that he was mentally soft or somehow letting down his teammates, when playing before he felt ready would have made him even more vulnerable to re-injury.  A simple press release would have averted all of these headaches.

Still, the uncertainty surrounding the initial ACL tear created a bizarre uncomfortable vibe around Rose whenever the subject of his health is raised. He can’t win no matter what he does. When he sits for a sprained ankle, he is soft. If he plays through an injury and not up to his usual level, he’s putting himself at risk.  The only thing Rose can do that will win back the trust of a fanbase is stay on the floor and lead the Bulls to a deep playoff run after two years of also-ran status.

But he can’t shortcut the process, and the only thing he can do in the meantime is make the best decisions for his long-term future. He shouldn’t have to apologize for that – he just needs to be more coy about it.  Rose is the local hero – he is a son of Chicago.  The pressure is only going to rise in the city that Michael Jordan built because of that, plus, this team is scary good.  The only question remains, how long is their Championship window?

This team is loaded.  A combination of savvy offensive veterans are too much to cover if Rose is playing at 80% of his MVP level.  On the less glamourous side of the basketball they have an obsessive, never say die defensive pioneer in coach Tom Thibodeau. I feel very confident in saying that the only team in the Eastern Conference even close to stopping the Bulls in a seven game playoff series is the Cleveland Cavaliers.  No one else even comes close – that is how deep this team is.

There is a good chance that with only an average point guard the Bulls would still get to the Eastern Conference Finals (sorry Toronto!).  But, for how long will this last?   Upon looking at the team’s short-term offseason prospects, age and other factors, a two-year window seems to be its circumstance. The 2016 offseason is when Joakim Noah’s contract expires, and also when Pau Gasol will be turning a hefty 36 years old. If the Bulls haven’t gotten their best shot at a championship in with this crew by then, it will probably be too late.

I would submit however, that the Bulls’ best chance is now.  They can tinker around for the season with different line ups that allow them to rest and restrict Rose as well as injury pariah Noah.  They have an awesome bench and those guys will want to be paid soon enough.  The fair procedures of the NBA ensure parity through the salary cap which always eventually ruins contending teams.

This isn’t the first year the Bulls have done this – Thibodeau ran players like Deng into the ground to ensure the Bulls overachieved and got a high seed before someone dumped them out after the usual injuries derailed their hopes.  But, the team has looked top notch.  Forget the record (11-7) because:

(i) they have already played a handful of games without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson, (and it hasn’t really mattered)

(ii) They have played a league-high 12 road games, and they’ve come through that stretch at 9-3

(iii) Jimmy Butler has exploded out of the gate looking like an All-Star, and when the Bulls have all five starters healthy, they’re 5-0.

Really, we shouldn’t be surprised though – Thibs manages this every year regardless of who is in his team.  He has made players who couldn’t get a gig elsewhere some of the top guys in his rotation (Augustin, Watson) and that is why we were all so excited when he got his hands on young guys like McBuckets (Doug McDermott) and the mercurial European Nikola Mirotic.  Aaron Brooks was a starting point guard in this league only four years ago and now he is only a role player on this bench, albeit an effective one.

Let’s put it in perspective, there were talks of Tony Snell being offered a decent contract elsewhere soon, now he can’t even crack the rotation – that is the depth of the Bulls.  The current “bench line up” consists of the intriguing pair of McDermott and Mirotic, joined by Snell, Brooks, defensive dynamo Hinrich and all world under rated Taj Gibson.

They are eleven men deep which is phenomenal. That bench might actually beat a lot of starting NBA teams in the league.  In a recent podcast for Grantland, Zach Lowe remarked how it is criminal how the Bulls get to bring Gibson in off the bench, it’s not fair on opposing teams.  In fact, he and Hinrich are effectively all-defensive contenders league wide.

Losing out on Carmelo Anthony was supposed to put a ceiling on what this team could do, but this alternative is probably better.  Some doubted Gasol from the day he signed in Chicago, but he’s been fantastic as a scorer and a passer next to Noah (plus the two seven footers are racking up defensive stops), and with Gasol in the mix, the team is moving the ball better than ever. For the first time in forever under Thibs, the offense is almost as impressive as the defense.

Gasol is finally out of the toxic situation in Lakerland (which I covered on Wednesday) and is rejuvenated, playing like 28 year old again.  Pau is such a flexible back to the basket big man that it allows the Bulls to run the offence through him or Noah and no other team has that flexibility in their big men.  That means that they don’t just have to run a pick and roll for Derrick Rose to injure himself every play, they can throw the ball in for post ups, motions offenses and flex plays – which they have been superb at this early in the season.  I haven’t even mentioned that if you can deal with that, Gibson and Mirotic are coming off the bench as an afterthought with different looks and three point shooting.

They can all shoot and play in space now – Gasol can stretch the floor at the four spot, Dunleavy has always been a flat out shooter, the bench rookies are beastly three point guys and Rose is always going to improve his ranged shooting to conserve his knees.

Most importantly of all though is Jimmy Butler. He’s the talent at the centre that makes all the other usual role players twice as dangerous.   He’s averaging 21.9 points per game, shooting nearly 50 percent (including a much improved perimeter and three point shooting game), and adding 5.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists to go with defense that was always his and Thibs calling card.  Nobody was prepared for Thibs to have this Jimmy Butler. His and Rose together are lethal and Butler is benefitting from the former MVP’s presence.

Problems with Butlers contract are on the horizon however as you can’t play as well as Butler and not have a max-contract thrown at you. One thing that could derail the potential juggernaut is that Butler rejected the four-year $44 million dollar contract before the October 31st deadline as the notoriously cheap (but ridiculously profitable) Bulls sought a “hometown discount” from the player “they created.”

The team would most likely have to go into the luxury tax to re-sign the surging Butler. That all depends on how much the salary cap jumps in connection with the league’s new TV deal. But going into the tax is a likely prospect, not something the Bulls have done in a long time, creating a reputation for being stingy.

Owner Jerry Reinsdorf will have to swallow that financial pill to keep a contender together. He’s said he’ll pay up for a title contender despite avoiding the tax for years, but his word is only good when he backs it with actions.

The first month of this season has been clouded by the endless melodrama over Rose, and that’ll probably continue for most of the year.  That might be the biggest blessing in disguise for Chicago; because of all the suffering the franchise has done with Rose over the past two and a half years, the pressurising media and especially the city of Chicago are going to follow Rose.

The team is so stacked that the offense is no longer a problem with or without Rose – of course he helps as is mentioned above, like any former MVP would, but they no longer will flare out in the first round in his absence. The team that could never really score is averaging 100 points per game.

The team that was supposed to live and die with Rose’s knees now has Butler and Pau to add to Noah and the starter quality Gibson and his bench crew, the best suited to a playoff series in the NBA.   Cumulatively, this is scarier than what the addition of Carmelo Anthony (defensive sieve) would have given them.

It’s a superstar league but it’s still a team game. The Spurs gave everyone the blueprint last year with a team concept and now the Bulls are perfectly positioned to run roughshod over the Eastern Conference.  No team (bar Detroit) has won a Championship without at least one superstar player – Rose is that guy surrounded by the best team he will ever be on.

As always, it is all down to health.  This stacked squad has a two-year window to dominate the NBA and give a fitting storybook ending to the city that has craved for its own son to repeat what Jordan did.

Garbhan Madigan, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.