Recently, I was talking to a Chicago Bulls fan about the team’s current struggles — or utter collapse bordering on self-annihilation, if you pay attention to local sports coverage.
I had entered the conversation with my own presumptions as to why the team wasn’t playing to its championship-contending potential: Derrick Rose’s return to the team was disrupting the chemistry, and the defense, once the staple of the Bulls, was now its Achilles’ heel.
But it was this fan’s response that really got me thinking about the team dynamic of basketball.
For him, the problem wasn’t necessarily only the return of Chicago’s superstar, but more so that he returned just as Jimmy Butler was rising to stardom. As a result, the Bulls fan described Rose and Butler as clashing claws like two “eagles.”
While I don’t believe the two guards are intentionally butting heads on the court and also don’t think it is the main factor for the team’s struggles, I do believe it contributes.
The Bulls currently possess one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. They have talent at every position and are particularly deep in the frontcourt. Many of their players are strong on both sides of the court, excluding Pau Gasol perhaps, eliminating any glaring weakness.
Yet the team is far from a cohesive unit.
Part of that is due to Derrick Rose finally staying healthy long enough to actually have an effect on the team.
The trademark Tom Thibodeau help defense is not even a shell of what it has been in recent years. Rather than teammates rushing to “help” a beaten defender, the Bulls’ lackluster defensive performance leaves fans desperately crying for “help,” averting their eyes from the shaming mediocrity.
For the past two-plus seasons, the Bulls managed to thrive in the regular despite being an under-talented and depleted squad. Because there was no true star on the team, Chicago had to be a perfectly well-oiled machine, meaning the chemistry and the reliance on each other had to be unquestionably impeccable.
Now that DRose is back, both on the court and in superstar status, the Bulls revolve around him. The ball is in his hands the majority of the game and his 18 shots a game lead the team. Down the road and even as soon as this season’s playoffs, this may not be a bad thing.
But right now it isn’t working. Though physically he seems to be close to 100 percent, Rose is still catching up to NBA game speed, and mentally he still seems to be reluctant to drive the lane like he used to. As a result, the point guard is taking a lot of jump shots and they are only going in 40 percent of the time.
Combine this with the rest of the team still getting used to playing with a possession-dominating player again and you have a team unable to maximize its offensive potential.
This is where I see the aforementioned fan’s opinion enter the equation. Rose needs to realize two things.
One, he is not the dominating player he used to be and needs to change his style of play to fit Thibodeau’s game plan.
And two, Jimmy Butler is a rising star in his own right. In fact, ultimately, he may be a more efficient player both offensively and defensively than Rose will ever be.
While I don’t believe that one is actively trying to outperform the other, they certainly don’t complement each other either.
However, there is no reason to believe they can’t thrive together.
Take the Golden State Warriors, for example. On paper, they are very similar to the Bulls. They have an extremely deep roster, built an extremely successful defensive system and, most importantly, an established star point guard and a rising star shooting guard.
The Warriors are the best team in basketball and the Bulls are stumbling through the doldrums of mid-season play.
The reason for the difference?
Golden State created a new definition for the phrase “team chemistry.” I truly believe a microchip was inserted into each player’s brain resulting in the team becoming a multifaceted single organism. Trust me, it makes sense. The Warriors play just miles away from Silicon Valley, where cutting edge technology is commonplace.
On a less ridiculous note, not a single player on the team puts himself above another. On any given night, a different Warrior is the most influential player on the court, and that includes Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Rose and Butler equivalents.
The Splash Brothers perfectly complement each other. One night, Thompson goes off for 52. A few nights later, Curry pours in 51. What’s more, they support each other and are more than willing to take a backseat to the other. This is what makes them the most prolific backcourt in basketball and possibly ever.
Here’s the thing.
There is no reason Butler and Rose can’t do the same. In fact, apart from not being otherworldly shooters like the Splash Brothers, the style of play of the Chicago guards is similar to the two on Golden State.
Like Curry, Rose is a possession-guard who is a lethal scorer off the dribble. Like Thompson, Butler is a two-way offensive guard who is among the best perimeter defenders in the league.
First, the Bulls need to regain their defensive identity. Second, they need to get used to playing with Rose again. And finally, like the wise fan said, Rose and Butler need to learn to play together.
Then, and only then, will the championship chatter continue and the Tom Thibodeau trash-talking terminate.