Derrick Rose's season-ending torn ACL is in many ways representative of Chicago's year on the whole. The Bulls -- owners of the NBA's best regular-season record, along with San Antonio -- have dealt with injuries to Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Richard Hamilton, Joakim Noah and Rose's groin over this truncated 2012 season. But losing the reigning MVP for the playoffs is a massive blow; Chicago must now turn to its premier defense and backup point guard (and X-factor) C.J. Watson if it has any hope to make a deep postseason run.
The good news is that the Bulls were 18-9 during the regular season without Rose, including victories over Miami, Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia. With Rose, however, Chicago was 32-7, an .821 percentage that projects to 67 wins (in an 82 game season). Their blueprint for success, though, is defense, and defense, even without Rose, doesn't just go away. Allowing just 88 points per game, Tom Thibodeau's crew ranks first in the league in points allowed. They also rank first in overall team defensive efficiency, as measured by the number of points allowed per 100 possessions. With Noah and reserve Taj Gibson guarding the rim, Chicago will still be able to thwart drives and easy buckets, and it can still rebound, where it also ranks first in the NBA.
"We're not going to start backing down now," Noah said following Chicago's 103-91 Game 1 win over the 76ers. "We're a team of fighters. We're going to keep fighting and make the city proud."
The real issue for the Bulls moving forward is obvious: How will it score? More specifically, how will it execute in the half-court? Perhaps no lead guard is better or more dynamic in the open floor than Rose, so the transition game will undoubtedly suffer. But half-court offense always trumps transition offense in the playoffs, especially over a prolonged series.
While John Lucas III will surely garner minutes at the point, the keys of the Chicago offense are now turned over to Watson. At a wiry 6-foot-2, Watson is less of an attacker and more of a jump shooter than Rose. In 25 starts this year, he averaged a respectable 9.7 points and 4 assists while converting over 39 percent of his threes. Like any point guard, Watson's main role when filling in for Rose this season was to initiate the offense -- something that he often failed to accomplish.
One of the concerns for Chicago now is whether its ancillary parts can consistently score in the half-court. The Bulls ranked just 18th in the league in total scoring this season, which is a misleading statistic because they play at such a slow pace, fifth slowest in the NBA. So this is not a team that runs a great deal, even with Rose in the line-up, but instead relies on quality half-court offense. Their overall offensive efficiency -- the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions -- is also fifth best in the league.
Deng, Hamilton and Kyle Korver are very productive players, but all rely heavily on Rose's dribble penetration and passing ability, and 18.5 percent of the Bulls' total offense is off of spot-up situations, per Synergy Sports. The Bulls' best low-post scorer, Carlos Boozer, is usually used in pick-and-roll, as is Noah. Very few players in the league are better operating screen-and-roll than Rose, who ranks in the 87th percentile in such situations (per Synergy). Therein lies the problem with Watson, who is near the bottom third of the league in these scenarios, shooting under 32 percent and turning the ball over nearly 21 percent of the time, an unacceptable number for a lead guard.
For a franchise that hoped to win its first championship in the post-Michael Jordan era, Rose's torn ACL is a brutal blow. The hometown native is Chicago's best player and its heartbeat. Putting the onus on Watson to deliver the goods is a venti-sized order of insanity. For the Bulls even to consider making a run past Philly in these playoffs, the crucial factor will be its top-ranked defense. Points will now be at a premium without their all-world point guard, so locking up becomes that much more significant.
But at least there is this, Bulls fans: Chicago is actually a better defensive team without Rose, according to ESPN Stats & Info. They allowed roughly 5 points fewer per 48 minutes with him off the court this season, holding opponents to a lower field goal and three-point percentage, while forcing opponents to commit more turnovers.
Perhaps there is hope after all.
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