In the era of two- and three-star NBA teams, the era of the Boston Celtics' Big Three, of the San Antonio Spurs' triptych, of the Los Angeles Lakers' inside-out tandem, the era of -- of course! -- the Miami Heat's "superteam," two teams stick out for bucking the trend and putting all of their considerable eggs in one basket: the Dallas Mavericks of Dirk Nowitzki, and the Chicago Bulls of Derrick Rose.
The Mavericks will return to the NBA Finals, having dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. The Mavericks are 12-3 in the NBA Playoffs; since Brandon Roy's miracle, Dallas is 10-1. The Mavs have a six-game home win streak under their belt -- it was broken by OKC in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals -- and are currently riding a five-game road winning streak. This is the most complete playoff run since the 2011 Lakers swept their way to the Finals and dropped just one game in the entire postseason.
Meanwhile, the Bulls are on the precipice of dismissal, one loss away from defeat at the hands of the Heat. Rose has been kept under wraps by a swarming and effective Miami defense, and the Bulls just have no other options to give the ball to.
It's in this contrast that the difference between the Mavericks and Bulls become clear, and it's in this contrast that we can see Donnie Nelson's triumph for what it is, and the Bulls' path from here for what it should be.
These teams are dead ringers. The offense is predicated on a solitary star, a single fulcrum from which everything spins. For Dallas, it's obviously Nowitzki, a player who dropped 40 twice in the conference finals and who is averaging 28.4 points per game on ridiculous .640 True Shooting in the playoffs. For Chicago, it's Rose, a kid who soaks up almost 35 percent of the Bulls' possessions when he's on the floor.
Their defenses are lovely. Chicago's is better, likely because coach Tom Thibodeau is completely obsessed with that side of the ball and because the Bulls have younger legs and average-or-better defenders at every position in the rotation but starting power forward. (Even that player, Carlos Boozer, is a strong defensive rebounder.) The Mavericks have an amazing defender in Shawn Marion, the best 1-2 punch defensively at center in Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood, and solid roleplayers (DeShawn Stevenson, still-strong-but-slow Jason Kidd) at other positions. Chicago is a complete defense, but Dallas isn't far off.
The difference in these teams, here in the nails-and-glass playoffs where strengths are tested and weaknesses magnified, is in offensive pressure relief. It's in distributed generation. It's in help.
Rose has help -- Kyle Korver's had a bad series against Miami, but he's among the best three-point shooters ever. Boozer wasn't an All-Star in Utah for nothing. Joakim Noah's offense doesn't get enough shine -- he's a fine passer. Luol Deng and Taj Gibson are solid mid-range shooters. Half of Rose's MVP case was that he was the overwhelming reason Chicago finished with the NBA's best record. But he had help, an incredible defense and decent scorers.
But not one of those decent scorers creates offense on their own. That's the difference between Rose's supporting cast and that of Nowitzki. Jason Terry, Kidd, J.J. Barea -- these teammates can create shots for themselves and for Dirk. Who's creating a shot for Derrick Rose? There's only one answer: Derrick Rose. And while some would blame Thibodeau for failing to creatively paper over the problem, the roster just doesn't have any other answers.
Deng isn't a playmaker. He can create ... for himself, a little, inefficiently. He's best as a catch-and-shoot option or getting hit with the ball on the way to the basket. Boozer and Noah can pass in the interior, but they need to be set up in the first place. Keith Bogans? Ronnie Brewer? Korver? Even C.J. Watson, Rose's back-up, is one of the least playmaker-like point guards in the NBA.
Rose's burden is magnificent not just because he is the best playmaker on his team. It's because he's the only playmaker on his team.
Dirk doesn't have the luxury Paul Pierce, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili have -- like Rose, he doesn't have an All-Star scorer or passer next to him. But he has capable playmakers on the floor with him. That's the difference between pressing to make something happen every time down and being able to thrive in the flow of the game. And, in the conference finals especially but really all through the postseason, that's been the difference between Rose and Dirk, the Bulls and the Mavericks. That's a huge reason Dallas is preparing for the Finals and Chicago is preparing for their last rites.
Chicago's Gar Forman won a share of NBA Executive of the Year. He could take a page from one of the guys he beat, the mastermind Donnie Nelson. If the Bulls can't nab a Dwyane Wade, a Ray Allen, a Tony Parker, a Pau Gasol for Rose, they ought to emulate Dallas and find some Terrys, Kidds or Bareas. In the era of the superteam, the Mavericks have made the case for a different paradigm, the solar system method. Chicago can copy it and be right where they want to be, which is right where the Mavericks are.