The Chicago Bulls sit at a surprising 9-4, having generally underperformed on offense despite bringing in an offensive-minded coach. They’ve been almost stunningly good on defense, but some have attributed that to teams missing a disproportionate amount of open shots. However, there could be another reason for the 56-win pace.
The combined record of the Bulls’ opponents in their nine victories is just 62-75, and that’s bolstered by their opening-night win over the 11-4 Cleveland Cavaliers. They’ve beat up on several of the bad teams in the league like the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Portland Trail Blazers. The schedule over the next few weeks won’t be as forgiving, as the combined record of the next seven teams Chicago will play is 58-46. But at least the Bulls have Derrick Rose back from injury, right?
Well, maybe? There’s been a lot of chatter, mostly among fans and cynical members of the media, that the Bulls have been better off without Rose. It was written about last February at Sports on Earth and in the Chicago Sun-Times last March. This idea seems relatively insane, given the dynamic abilities of Rose when healthy and the fact that when he’s out, Kirk Hinrich plays more minutes.
But I thought it wouldn’t be fair to just assume, so it’d be worth looking into how the Bulls have performed over the last few years with Rose on and off the court. I’ve compiled the differences on a few key advanced stats, represented as the Bulls numbers with Rose on the court minus the Bulls numbers with him off the court.
There are a few notable points here. I went as far back as 2010-11 — Rose’s MVP season — to give a look at the difference between then and now. I also went ahead and included the 2013-14 season despite the fact that he only played 10 games that season prior to his meniscus tear.
In general, the Bulls were clearly much better with Rose on the floor prior to his ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs. That isn’t a surprise for anyone who has a reasonably well-functioning memory. Ignoring the small sample size of the 2013-14 season, the numbers from last season are fairly neutral. Rose’s main backups were Hinrich and Aaron Brooks, and the eFG% and offensive rating changed nominally with Rose on the floor. The opponent’s offensive rating went down just a tad with Rose on the court, which makes sense as he’s a better defender than Brooks.
Then came the 2015 playoffs, in which Rose drastically outperformed his backups. In short, the Bulls were terrible with Rose on the bench. Rose played 37.8 minutes per game in 12 playoff games last year against the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers, averaging 20.3 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.8 rebounds on 39.6 percent field goal shooting. In contrast, Brooks only played 11.0 minutes per game, shooting 34.4 percent from the field and 30.8 percent on three-pointers.
Despite a quality performance in the playoffs, Rose still didn’t shoot well from the field and still was susceptible to taking bad shots. He certainly looked better than he had early on in the year, but if Brooks had performed like he had during the regular season, the numbers wouldn’t have been quite as skewed in the playoffs. So while Rose did perform a bit better, the massive dip in team performance when he was off the court was more a function of Brooks being awful than it was Rose being great.
Which brings us to this season. Rose has played all but two games, averaging over 32 minutes per game to this point. He’s actually been taking less outside shots, which is a good thing because he’s an awful three-point shooter. But a big portion of that has to do with the fact that he’s practically blind, having dealt with blurry vision from an eye injury in training camp. He knows he can’t be jacking up threes left and right, so most of his shots have come between three and 16 feet from the basket.
His shooting percentages are down, for the most part. Between three and 10 feet from the basket, he’s shooting just 31.9 percent from the floor — he shot 51.9 percent from the same range last season. Again, the blurry vision can be attributed to this problem. But on the whole, Rose’s backups have outperformed him so far this season, and the team offensive rating is down with him out there.
So are the Bulls better off without Rose? It’s a complicated question. Until Rose’s blurry vision is a thing of the past and he starts shooting better with more regularity, he’s an average player at a position that’s relatively deep around the league. Maybe a case can’t necessarily be made that the Bulls are better with the combination of Brooks and Hinrich on the floor, but finding an upgrade wouldn’t be all that complicated, in theory.
It sounds like such a simplistic plan, but we need to see Rose in a stretch of games where he remains healthy before we can begin to judge him fully. That means no more tweaked ankles, no more blurry vision and certainly no more knee surgeries. If that’s just not the reality of Derrick Rose as an NBA player anymore, then I’d conclude that the Bulls are a better team without him. Constantly searching for continuity isn’t a recipe for success when the goal is to build toward winning a championship.
If Rose can get healthy, stay healthy, cut down on the outside shots and hit the close shots with higher regularity, the Bulls will be obviously better with him on the court. But until then, like Rose has been known to say, who knows?