Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Can Bulls Contend For the East?

By Ross Lancaster

One of my favorite sports commercials from the past year or so is Adidas' "Return of D Rose" spot.

It begins with TNT's Kevin Harlan saying, "Holding on to his knee, holding on to his knee, and down...," amidst a forlorn, dark Chicago skyline with storm clouds overhead. It continues with the black and red-clad residents of the city in a slow-motion shock after the news that Derrick Rose had torn his ACL in the fourth quarter of the first NBA playoff game of 2012 against Philadelphia. Then the point guard is shown rehabbing his knee, leading to the point of his triumphant return to the United Center court.

The ad is quite the dramatization. All of the residents of the nation's third-largest city and metropolitan area didn't stop what they were doing to mourn the injury of the city's best athlete. But subtext underlying the ad is clear – and accurate: without Rose on the Bulls, the team was a fraction of its former self with its title chances extinguished in a split-second. And without Rose for the start of the 2012-13 season, the Bulls would need to be saved by the high school product of the Windy City.

Another fictionalized part of the ad is that it debuted about a month before the season. To an uninitiated viewer of the NBA or someone who knew little about the extensive rehab related to an ACL tear, one would be led to believe that Rose would be ready for the start of the upcoming campaign. As of yet, Rose hasn't returned to practice for the Bulls.

Therefore, the Bulls should be a mess at the midpoint of the season. Without Rose, one would figure Chicago would barely have enough offense to compete with the Sacramentos and Charlottes of the world, much less established Eastern Conference teams like Miami and Boston. Before the season, a general consensus among NBA experts and commentators was that the Bulls would do well to tread water at or around the last couple playoff spots in the East.

Yet here they are, through 40 games of the season at press time with a 24-16 record, good enough for fifth place in the conference and a mere three games behind Miami. When Rose is cleared for full contact practice in the coming days and has his inevitable return soon after, expectations will rise for Chicago.

But will Chicago's level of play with Rose jump to the point where the Bulls can compete for the Eastern Conference title?

Of course, it's impossible to tell for sure right now. Rose, when healthy, was the league's premier player at beating his man off the dribble and finishing at the rim. His explosiveness was unparalleled, as was his ability to change direction at impossible angles. Conventional wisdom says, at the very least, Rose will be more cautious with his often-helter-skelter style. The 2011 MVP might even come back with his much-maligned jump shot and 3-point shot improved in anticipation of being a less explosive player.

However, I have to wonder if perhaps the actual ACL injury in sports is becoming less of a catastrophic event than it was even half a decade ago. It used to be the case that a player was certain to miss a full calendar year with an ACL tear, and then would very unlikely be the player he was before the injury. But in 2013, sports fans have just watched Adrian Peterson, a player at a similar level of his sport with comparable prodigious gifts to Rose, complete perhaps the greatest full-season performance an NFL running back has ever delivered. Furthermore, Peterson came back from his injury in roughly the same number of months as Rose will ultimately come back from his.

Sure, basketball is a game with more jumping and direct vertical movement on the ACL than football, but Peterson was just one awkward and/or dirty forceful hit on the knee from being injured again. The fact that Rose is ahead of schedule from his originally prescribed post-All-Star break return also bodes well.

As big a boost as Rose should provide, some of the focus when discussing the Bulls needs to be on the team that is nearly on pace for 50 wins without Rose. And while Rose in many ways has defined the Bulls of the last few seasons, it's been Chicago's team identity that has spurred an 8-3 record in January.

As one would expect from a Tom Thibodeau-coached team, the Bulls have one of the best defenses in the NBA. Chicago allows just 1.01 points per possession, good enough for fourth in the league behind only the Pacers, Grizzlies and Spurs. Their field goal defense is where the defense has shined the most, registering a 46.2 effective field goal percentage (a measure that weights 3-pointers accurately as opposed to traditional field goal percentage).

On offense, the Bulls struggle a bit relative to the rest of the league, but their extremely low points per game average can be largely attributed to playing at the league's fifth-slowest pace. Still, the team gets to the line often, and successfully shares the ball more without Rose.

Joakim Noah has been as ferocious as ever and the cerebral Luol Deng has upped his scoring output this year. But the once-frustrating Carlos Boozer is playing as well at an all-around level as he ever has in a Bulls uniform. While the power forward is averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds in games played in 2013, his defense has improved from its sometimes indifferent past. Nate Robinson has been a spark plug off the bench and Marco Bellinelli, the hero last Friday against the Celtics has also been valuable.

The Eastern Conference still goes through Miami, Chicago's predominant nemesis in the league for the past two-and-a-half seasons. But if the Bulls can play at their physical best, and Rose comes back and can return to a superlative level of play, Chicago stands a strong chance at being a contender in 2013.

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