For the second straight season, the Chicago Bulls finished with the best record in the NBA. The players were mostly the same, but there was one striking difference: due to injury, Derrick Rose played in just 39 of 66 games, or less than 60 percent of the Bulls' regular season. He didn't make it through Chicago's first playoff game without suffering the worst injury of his career: a torn ACL.
Now, Rose is recovering from that, and the Bulls have to do it all over again. But this time, a number of the players have changed. Can Chicago still end up on top?
FEATS OF STRENGTH
The Bulls were just incredible last season. The team finished No. 5 on offense and No. 2 on defense and, again, Derrick Rose -- the 2010-11 MVP -- missed 40 percent of the season. The Bulls only lost the defense crown to the Celtics by 0.001 points per possession. If Rose hadn't gone down against Philadelphia, I'm not sure everyone would have picked Miami to win the East. The Bulls were the best team in basketball from Day 1 on, with the Spurs being the closest challenger. Chicago had only one weakness, really: terrible luck with regard to injury.
Two factors landed the Bulls at No. 5 on offense: the top offensive rebounding mark in the league and the No. 8 turnover rate. Chicago was roughly average (No. 14) in shooting and, owing to Rose's injuries, only No. 26 in foul drawing. The Bulls had the league's best shooting defense, landed No. 8 in defensive rebounding and No. 3 in foul rate. Chicago only finished No. 28 in turnover creation -- this is not a team that plays the passing lanes.
How did the Bulls do all of this despite missing Rose so much? Chicago might have been the deepest team in the league, especially up front. The Bulls brought Taj Gibson and Omer Asik off the bench almost entirely -- they had two starts in 129 games between them. Asik will be the opening day starter for the Houston Rockets this season (see the Grievances below) and Gibson is good enough to start on a great many teams. (He's good enough that otherwise reasonable Bulls fans have openly advocated that the team use amnesty on Carlos Boozer, start Gibson and bring in a high-dollar wing.)
The Bulls also had the luxury of a first-class back-up point guard to keep the team alive during Rose's absences: C.J. Watson. You'll want to see the Grievances on that, too.
A good indication of just how good the Bulls are can be found in their three-point percentages. The team was No. 4 in three-point shooting, with Kyle Korver, Watson and John Lucas III providing the best conversion rates -- Korver hit almost two per game averaging just 22 minutes -- and with Rose and Luol Deng backfilling. But the team also finished No. 3 in three-point defense; Deng is the team's best defender, but Ronnie Brewer and the three point guards (Rose, Watson and Lucas III) are certainly good, too. That's pretty amazing: the strong three-point shooting accounted for 1.4 points per game over league average (assuming Chicago would have maintained its rate of attempts), and the three-point defense accounted for 0.6 points. So the Bulls' three-point stylings on both ends were at least a two-point difference over opponents. That's huge! (Chances are the impact is underrated by this exercise: opponents took far fewer threes against the Bulls than against other teams. Chicago was the only team whose opponents took fewer than 1,000 threes on the season.)
Three-pointer domination, rebounding domination, the best shot defense in the NBA: no wonder the Bulls are so darned good.
Now what about this year?
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
Three of the team's four most critical bench pieces from the last two incredible seasons are gone. Watson is a Brooklyn Net, and Asik is a Rocket. Gibson is still there -- he's eligible for an extension before the season begins; if he doesn't get one, he'll be a restricted free agent on July 1, 2013. Korver was traded to the Hawks for cash. Ronnie Brewer might count in this tally if he hadn't been called on to start in Rip Hamilton's absence much of last season: he's joined the Knicks. Lucas III is now with the Raptors.
What was once a luxury in boom times and a safety net in lean times is now a giant question mark. The Bulls have quite possibly gone from having the best bench in the league to one of the worst ... all while Rose recovers from ACL surgery and Deng nurses a wrist that hasn't been repaired due to the Olympics. This is not good.
January is probably the earliest that Rose will return. Until then, the point guard spot will be manned by Kirk Hinrich (!), Nate Robinson and rookie Marquis Teague. Hinrich, a familiar face in Chicago, had the worst season of his career by far in Atlanta last year (his PER was 9.2) and he's 31 years old. This is not good. Robinson played well last year, but he's Nate Robinson. Teague is a rookie. None are the playmaker that Rose is, to say the least.
The back-up plan behind Rip Hamilton and Luol Deng -- who, let me remind you, has an injured wrist that reportedly needed surgery but which did not get repaired because Deng had committed to star for Great Britain at the London Olympics -- last season was Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver. This season it is Marco Belinelli and Vlad Radmanovic. This is not good.
Last season, Tom Thibodeau could spell Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer with Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. This season, it's Gibson and Nazr Mohammed. That's actually wouldn't be so bad if Mohammed hadn't recently turned 35. Still: this is not the problem that the wing and guard positions are.
In short: Rose cannot get back soon enough. Until then, all eyes will be on Deng's wrist. If he can't shoot, that No. 5 offense is going to plummet. If he can't play, the defense is going down with him.
It will be miraculous if ...
Chicago finishes with the league's best record again.
Anyone in their right mind says, "Pfft, who needs Derrick Rose? We've got Kirk Hinrich!"
A @DengsWrist Twitter account is created.
Joakim Noah escapes all mouth-related controversy.
"I'm sure glad we kept Carlos Boozer!" is a common refrain among Bulls fans.
The most hardcore Bulls fans (who are surprisingly crazed) don't giggle with glee when Omer Asik struggles early in his Houston career.
C.J. Watson gets booed in his return to Chicago.
Tom Thibodeau smiles once.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Team MVP: Derrick Rose, assuming he returns. If not, Joakim Noah, assuming Luol Deng is hobbled. If not, Luol Deng. Mystery!
Team X-Factor: See above. Choose the best player that is not the team MVP.
Team Finish: 2nd in Central | 4th in East
Best Championship Hopes: A medical miracle or two.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.