When Derrick Rose went down on Saturday, our thoughts didn't stick on the series between the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers for long. We immediately looked longer-term, granting the Miami Heat the Eastern crown and expressing sorrow for Chicago in what was a devastating turn of events. It's just assumed that the Bulls will still make it past to Sixers, or that if they do or do not, it's otherwise inconsequential, because the reigning MVP is just too important to Chicago's chase of the title.
Yet the Bulls thrived all season despite Rose missing 27 games with various maladies. If Chicago was accustomed to playing without any one player this season due to a lack of reliable health ... well, then it'd be Rip Hamilton, who was really a part-time player. But Rose is a close second: The Bulls learned not just how to win without their point guard, but how to thrive in his absence. The Bulls were 18-9 in games that Rose missed. That .667 winning percentage would have landed the No-Rose Bulls in the third seed in each conference. Without Derrick Rose completely, the Bulls would still have been a No. 3 seed.
It's a weird thing to accept, that Derrick Rose is amazing and that his team has been pretty good without him. That he won his 2011 MVP award based on the fact that he allegedly had such little help doesn't help matters. The fact is that Chicago has a brilliant defense with or without the point guard, because the defense is led by Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and the indefatigable Tom Thibodeau. Rose is a good defender, but his back-up C.J. Watson is solid, too, and Chicago has plenty of help behind the point guard.
To get a clear picture of how good the Bulls really are and what Rose brings to the table, you have to break it down to a granular level. With or without Rose, Chicago has a defense so good that even average offensive output makes the team a legit title contender. Think 2008 Celtics here -- that defense kept Boston in every game, every series, no matter how many turnovers or bad shooting nights came along. The Bulls' current defense is about at that level. But with Rose, the Bulls' offense is excellent, one of the best in the NBA. Without Rose, it slips a good bit. Ergo, with Rose, you have a dominant defense with a powerful offense, which is the recipe for an overwhelming title favorite. Without Rose, you have dominant defense with an inconsistent offense, which is the recipe for a legit contender that nonetheless needs some breaks to get past other teams.
The numbers back this up. The Bulls defense was actually about 1 points per 100 possessions better this season when Rose sat. Opponent shooting, turnovers, foul rate -- they were all similar in both cases. Losing Rose didn't leave some window in Chicago's defense open for opponents to fly through. All windows remained tightly shut, locked and barred. And cemented over. But on offense, the Bulls dropped about 3 points per 100 possessions when Rose sat. The difference came almost entirely in the shooting percentages:With Rose, the Bulls' effective field goal percentage was .500 (which would have been No. 8 in the NBA), and without Rose, it was .475 (No. 22 in the NBA). Assist rates remained level, and free throw rate and turnover rates didn't change too much. Rose's own eFG is pretty close to the .475 level, and his primary replacement C.J. Watson shoots a good clip worse (.446). But Watson doesn't shoot much. In Rose's absence, taking on extra shots put offensive burdens on players like Deng, Noah and Carlos Boozer.
So without Rose, Chicago is a team with an elite defense that struggles to shoot well. That sounds exactly like their current opponent, the Sixers. The metric comparisons are almost uncanny: Philadelphia's overall effective field goal percentage is .480, close to the Bulls Minus Rose's .475 and far below the Healthy Bulls' .500. Without Rose, the Bulls' offensive efficiency is just under 1.04 points per possession -- the Sixers are at 1.039. Meanwhile, both versions of the Bulls carry a defense that gives up 0.98 points per possession; the Sixers gave up 0.99 this season.
The Bulls should still win this series: They have one game in the can, they'll have an energy boost fueled by anger at the Basketball Gods for taking Rose away, they have home court advantage and their defense is slightly better. They won't likely beat a team as good as the Heat (who are basically the Bulls With Rose in terms of performance) or Spurs, but that's not news to anyone. Perhaps what the injury tells us most about is the fate of the 76ers, who have a nice little team that is equivalent to the conference's No. 1 seed missing its best player. That's not comforting, to have built to a level where it'll take a player the caliber of Rose to accede to the top of the ladder. Derrick Roses don't grow in gardens, and should Philadelphia go on to lose this series, a long look in the mirror and into the crystal ball will be in order.
The Hook is a regular NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.