CHICAGO, IL - MAY 26: Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls stands with his head down against the Miami Heat in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2011 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Now that Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls have been sent packing by the Miami Heat, what lessons did they learn? More than anything, the Bulls must realize that their roster needs to be upgraded.
The Chicago Bulls were viewed all year as the perfectly-constructed team, with role players that sacrificed, played hard and created a very clear pecking order to go along with MVP Derrick Rose. Ultimately, they were really just the polar opposite of the Miami Heat, with structural flaws of their own that were exposed in the playoffs. Unlike the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Bulls' five-game series loss in the Eastern Conference Finals cannot be explained exclusively by inexperience. Despite the Bulls' late-game collapses in the final two games or the series, you got the vibe that there wasn't all that much they could do differently.
So as the Bulls enter their offseason, they must face the reality that there are structural problems with their roster that need fixing. Miami exposed Chicago's lack of secondary scoring, but they were not the first team to do so. The Bulls' issues can directly be traced back to the problems they faced in tougher-than-expected series against Indiana and Atlanta. Ultimately, the fix is a mixture of player development, roster changes and some different alignments and lineup choices by Tom Thibodeau.
Without further ado, here is the Bulls' offensive checklist, in no particular order.
Find a two-way shooting guard with some playmaking ability
The Bulls almost got us believing that they could win the title with Keith Bogans starting aside Derrick Rose. Almost. In the end, though, the Heat, like the Hawks and Pacers before them, locked in on Rose and limited him without having to worry about his teammates beating him. Without any alternatives, the Bulls kept putting the ball in Rose's hands, making them entirely predictable.
With Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah firmly entrenched in the frontcourt for different reasons, shooting guard becomes the obvious upgrade. The problem the Bulls face is that every existing option on their roster is a specialist. All Bogans can do is shoot threes and defend. Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver would combine to form an awesome player, but on their own, they too are specialists. Ideally, the Bulls would find someone who can give a little bit of what all three players sometimes provide, so that they don't lose anything when they have to make lineup decisions.
But the one thing that none of those three players provide is something that the Heat exposed: the ability to create offense. The Bulls have only one person who can create off the dribble for anyone, and that is Rose. That has to change going into next season. If the Bulls have a shooting guard who can soak up offensive possessions himself and is at least average as a passer for his position, they win the championship. It prevents teams from keying in on Rose and gives the Bulls a secondary initiator when the offense breaks down.
Free agency seems to be the most obvious route, but it has its problems. One issue is that the options aren't great. Jason Richardson, Nick Young, Leandro Barbosa, WIlson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Arron Afflalo are all guys the Bulls should consider, but I'm not sure any really move the needle significantly. Of that group, I like Chandler the best, but he's not much of a passer. The other issue is that the Bulls already have $65 million tied up for next season, and with the new labor arrangement, it's unlikely they will receive a mid-level exception to sign someone. That leaves the draft or trade as their best options, and they may not have high-enough picks or good enough trade assets to get a deal done.
Nevertheless, it's a problem they must fix, unless they want to burn Rose out again.
Improve their perimeter shooting
I'm separating this from the previous point because there are a few different ways to fix this. One of the issues Chicago had was that they relied a bit too heavily on good defensive lineups that lacked shooters. The Bulls do have shooters on their roster, so it may be a matter of just playing them more. Other than his awful series against the Heat, Korver had a good playoffs and probably merits more minutes than he got. Rose, too, can improve his perimeter shot, something that didn't really get that much better last season despite the hype. Deng turned himself into a more valuable player by turning a lot of his long two-pointers into threes, but he must do better than 34 percent from downtown.
The Bulls also should think about signing a swing forward who can shoot over the summer to help with small lineups. Deng played that role at times this season, but I don't think the Bulls can afford to play him so many minutes going forward.
Get Rose off the ball sometimes
Rose is a tremendous scorer, but because of the way he was deployed, he was ultimately very one-dimensional. He does so much of his scoring off the dribble, and teams in the playoffs were able to slow him down and force him to shoot a much lower percentage. One easy fix would be to have him work more off the ball in different offensive sets. Rose could punish smaller defenders by isolating in the pinch-post (i.e. the free-throw line extended), where all he needs is one step and he's at the rim. He also should be deployed more through off-ball screens that lead to catch-and-shoot jumpers, a trick that could prevent teams from guarding him with longer small forwards like LeBron James.
These are all different looks Thibodeau should incorporate more next season to get his star the ball in easier spots to score. A lot of them require finding that off guard who can take some of the ball-handling burden off Rose. But a lot of them are also doable with the players already on the roster, especially when the Bulls have an elite passing center like Joakim Noah.
Work with Rose to fix those jump-passes
Rose's pick-and-roll play improve in 2011, but he developed a bad habit of jumping to pass, especially when being trapped. Miami really exposed that bad habit by sending hard double teams at Rose and cheating off the man in the weakside corner to anticipate Rose's jump passes. That led to a lot of turnovers and deflections. Granted, the size and speed of Miami's defense is second to none, and Rose probably needed to jump to give himself a passing lane when James was guarding him, but this was also a problem all season.
Rose is incredibly self-critical and will notice this on tape, so I suspect he'll be able to fix it.
Get more out of Carlos Boozer
This is the elephant in the room that does not have an easy fix. In his first year after signing a $75 million contract, Boozer was not nearly the player the Bulls needed him to be. Some of it was injuries, but Boozer was also dreadful in the playoffs. His array of moves around the basket ended far too often in missed shots and turnovers, and if Boozer isn't scoring in the paint, he doesn't have a ton of value because he is an abysmal defender.
Here is where Chicago is really stuck. The quick-fix solution is to play Boozer less and get Taj Gibson on the floor more. The second-year forward arguably outplayed Boozer in the playoffs, providing much better defense in particular. But as good as Gibson played, he is still not a major scoring threat beyond 18-foot jumpers and offensive rebounds. The Bulls need offense from their power forward desperately, and if Gibson were to start and play 35 minutes a game, they wouldn't get it.
So the only hope is that Boozer can turn it around next year, because he in theory provides exactly what they need. But what indication is there that Boozer can do that? He's turning 30 next year, and already, he's seen some of his lift go in the past couple years. A return to health (Boozer played through a turf toe in the playoffs) may mean that more of those layups he missed will be converted, but that doesn't solve the problem of his declining post-up skills. Boozer will likely forever be undersized when he is matched up against the best post defenders this game has to offer, and that will always cost the Bulls unless Boozer really turns it around and proves us wrong.
There's no easy solution to this problem, besides Boozer himself becoming a better player. The Bulls have little choice but to hope that happens.
Stay aggressive with the roster
As currently constructed, the Bulls are pretty much as good as they get. This team overachieved so thoroughly to win 62 games, and management can't expect that to happen again without some changes to the roster. We think of the Bulls as a young team, but whereas the Thunder have four core players under the age of 22, the Bulls will have just one player under the age of 25 next season: Derrick Rose. There is no waiting around for this team to "learn how to win" in the playoffs. If the Bulls want to win a title, they can't continue to play the "chemistry" and "flexibility" card. The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals proves that can only take you so far.
That puts a lot of pressure on general manager Gar Forman. The culture that he helped foster with his moves in the summer of 2010 played a huge role in the Bulls' rise, but if taken too far, it can also stunt it. Now that the Bulls have a foundation, Forman must find that X-factor that can spice things up and push the team to a new level. It will be his toughest challenge yet.