Can the Bulls Rise Without Rose?

A look at the fallout from Derrick Rose's latest injury.


That’s about the closest approximation we can get to the sound generated by Derrick Rose's latest injury that occurred last Friday night. The sound was a combination of many things: the tearing of a medial meniscus, the breaking of the hearts of NBA fans, the dashing of the Chicago Bulls’ championship hopes, and the fretful tapping, scratching, and pacing we all immediately started doing once the thought of having possibly watched Rose’s last NBA game crossed our minds.

After patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for Rose to return from an ACL surgery that kept him out for 18 months, it was hard for us not to assume the worst. Social media instantly exploded with speculation that Rose had torn his other ACL. People began grouping him in with names like Grant Hill, Greg Oden, and Brandon Roy; players whose seemingly limitless potential was prematurely capped by career-altering or career-destroying injuries.

Rose looked destined to be the new poster boy of what-if scenarios.

Then, as MRI results came out and surgeries were preformed, people actually started uttering things like, “Thank goodness it was only a meniscus tear,” or “I’m so happy he opted for the season-ending surgery.” It seems odd to think that people were using words like “happy” in the same sentences as “meniscus tear” and “season-ending surgery”, but the truth is that it could’ve been a lot worse.

If Rose had torn his right ACL after having already recovered from having his left one repaired, the resulting physical and mental toll would’ve likely been insurmountable. Speaking from personal experience, an ACL tear is something you never completely forget about. No matter how much people want to throw around phrases like “fully recovered” or “100% healed”, it’s nearly impossible not to think about it or favor it. I had a reconstructive ACL surgery 14 years ago at the age of 16. More than half my life later and I still think about it every time I walk, run, jump, kneel, stretch, bend down, or simply stand up.

A meniscus tear is no walk in the park, but comparatively the road to recovery is slightly less treacherous and demoralizing. Thankfully, Rose had the support of the Bulls front office to take the option that will help prolong his career. A meniscus removal is faster and can get a player back on the court sooner, but the long-term effects are generally not positive. A meniscus repair, on the other hand, requires about six months of rehab, from which a player is likely to have a full recovery.

One must remember that Derrick Rose is only 25 years old and can still salvage a long and productive career. Don’t forget that Michael Jordan had a foot fracture at the age of 23 that nearly cost him a whole season, and it’s safe to say that he ended up with a decent career out of it. Some might even say a pretty good career (Am I underselling it? I'm underselling it...).

No matter how much we try to will it otherwise, we’re in for another season without Rose. The Bulls were nice enough to announce that he’ll miss the rest of the year this time, saving us from the months of speculation and discussion we suffered through last year regarding when he would or should come back. Now we can safely assess the fallout and the impact on the Bulls, their players, and the league as a whole.

The Bulls With Rose

The Bulls core of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and coach Tom Thibodeau has been together since the 2010-11 season. They went 62-20 that year, finishing with the best record in the league. Thibs won coach of the year and Rose won MVP, but the Bulls were bounced from the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Miami Heat in the first year of the Big Three. It was a great turnaround season, considering the team finished seventh in the Eastern Conference with a record of 41-41 just a year prior. The future looked bright.

The next year was more of the same. The Bulls finished the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season with a record of 50-16, tied for first in the league with San Antonio. Their 75.8% winning percentage that year was nearly identical to the 75.6% accomplished just a year before. The promise of a competitive playoffs and another run at the Heat was infamously killed when Rose went down with the torn ACL in the first round against Philadelphia. The Bulls lost that series and entered a summer of questions.

The Bulls Without Rose

The 2012-13 season was one of heart and determination. With coach Thibodeau at the helm and grinders like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng leading the charge, the Bulls continued to prioritize defense and teamwork in attempt to stay competitive without Rose. The results were a respectable 45-37 record and the fifth playoff seed in the East. They gutted out a win in the first round versus the Nets in seven games, but were bounced in five by the pesky Heat in Round 2. They exceeded most expectations, but no one ever believed in them as contenders without Rose.

To see the difference Rose made to the team, one need look no further than the offensive and defensive ratings of the Bulls those three seasons:

Year Off Rtg League Rank Def Rtg League Rank
2010-11 108.3 11th 100.3 1st
2011-12 107.4 5th 98.3 2nd
2012-13 103.5 23rd 103.2 6th

The team’s defensive prowess stayed strong with Rose gone, but the offensive game struggled mightily. The Bulls missed Rose’s explosiveness, ability to draw double teams and pass out of them, and his penchant for getting to the free throw line. He had a personal offensive ratings of 113 and 112 over the two years leading up to the ACL injury, and usage rates of 32.2 and 30.5 (good for second and seventh in the league respectively).

He finished 2010-11 with a nERD of 14.0 (6th in our rankings) and 2011-12 with 7.6 (22nd). Their whole team was built around him and his abilities and it was simply asking too much of Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson to fill that void at PG.

This year, the Bulls were off to a slow start, even with Rose. Understandably, Rose was working his way back into game shape and had yet to shake off the rust of an 18-month layoff from competitive basketball. They’re currently 6-7 and coming off a game that they lost to the team with the league’s worst record, the Utah Jazz. It’s hard to consider them a contender without Rose. Not because of their defense, which should remain solid, but because of the lack of a difference-making offensive weapon.

So, where do they find one?

The Next Man Up

Unfortunately, the NBA does not function like a fantasy basketball league, where you can replace an injured player with someone who gives you similar points, assists, steals, etc. and expect to have the same result (although, if that’s your thing, I’ve got you covered). It takes more than just replacing the raw stats to stay in the championship hunt.

For now, the onus falls on the shoulders of the other guards in the Bulls lineup. Kirk Hinrich will step up into the starter role that he occupied for most of last season and Marquis Teague will become his primary backup, as Nate Robinson has moved on to Denver (much to the liking of the no-nonsense Tom Thibodeau, no doubt).

Rose was not having a great season to start the year, so Hinrich doesn’t look like too much of a downgrade at the moment:

Player PER nERD TS% eFG% Reb% Ast% TO% Usage ORtg DRtg
Derrick Rose 10.7 -8.5 .446 .402 5.6 26.8 16.0 30.4 89 104
Kirk Hinrich 10.2 -1.0 .500 .431 5.1 26.8 20.5 15.3 100 102

Some numbers, like the PER, rebound percentage, assist percentage, and defensive rating are eerily similar. The big difference, of course, is in the usage rate. With Rose being the primary option on most possessions, his other numbers were bound to rise as he became more comfortable on the court again. That offensive rating, for example, was as sure a bet as any to see an increase. His true shooting percentage of .446 and effective field goal percentage of .402 were likely to creep closer to his career numbers of .532 and .483 respectively.

For now, however, the numbers don’t necessarily condemn the Bulls to perform worse than their current level without Rose. They currently have an offensive rating of 98.6 (26th in the league) and a defensive rating of 99.7 (3rd in the league). Those ranks are similar to last year, when they didn’t even have their franchise player. On paper, replacing this rusty version of Rose with Hinrich might even qualify as an improvement (even if Rose has a certain je ne sais quoi that someone with equivalent or even better stats can't necessarily replace). Our own nERD player metric (which gives an estimate of how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would win with that player as one of their starters) has Rose at -8.5 and Hinrich at -1.0.

Of course, no one actually believes that an aging and injury-prone Hinrich or a slow-developing Teague (not worth analyzing as a viable replacement option until he gets a PER over -7.0) are the answer. If the Bulls want to even think of staying in contention this year, they might need to consider making a trade.

Compete Now or Later?

The only two teams from the Eastern Conference that currently place in the top 10 of our NBA Team Power Rankings are the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat. With the Knicks and Nets reeling at 3-10 apiece and the Bulls without Rose, it’s hard to imagine anyone else even sniffing at the Finals but the Pacers and Heat. Beyond those two, the next highest percentage our metrics place on championship likelihood is the Bulls and Hawks at 1.6% each (disgusting fact: one month in and the Pacers, Heat, and Hawks are the only teams in the East over .500). Is there a way for the Bulls to even challenge the Pacers at 10.2%, let alone the Heat at 47.4%?

The most likely answer is no. History has been telling us that superstars win championships (dealt with in depth in our weekly Championship Watch) and the Bulls are without their superstar. The only real hope they have of making a run this year might be through a trade.

To Deal or Not to Deal?

Luol Deng has an expiring deal this year and Carlos Boozer the year after. Any deal for a difference maker would likely require Deng as a piece, but Thibs loves how he plays too much to let that happen (Deng led the league in minutes per game the last two years). Not to mention, it would be conceding the end of this particular core group of players and all the championship promise it had before Rose’s injury. It’s doubtful that Bulls management is ready to do that.

For argument’s sake, let’s say they tried to replace Rose’s nERD of 7.6 from 2011-12 (his 14.0 from his MVP season is unrealistic, considering the only PG that comes close to that this year is Chris Paul). The only PGs that fit the bill without being untouchable are Kyle Lowry (7.1) and Jeremy Lin (6.7) (Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry all qualify, but their teams are very unlikely to trade them).

The Raptors are said to be willing to trade any player outside of Jonas Valanciunas. A deal of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan for Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich would work in terms of money. Masai Ujiri, new GM of the Raptors, would get two expiring deals that he craves and over $18 million coming off the books this summer. The Bulls would get the offensive boost they need, with hope that Thibs’ system would keep the defensive hit from doing too much damage.

With the emergence of Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin becomes a moveable piece for the Rockets. The Rockets could move Omer Asik and Lin for the package of Deng and Hinrich. The Rockets get away from the mess they’re in with Asik and the Bulls get a player back that they didn’t really want to let go of in the first place.

The Rockets would get a serviceable backup PG in Hinrich and a defensive stopper and mentor in Luol Deng. Both are expiring deals, which would give Rockets GM Daryl Morey a shot at landing a third star for his own Big Three to go with James Harden and Dwight Howard in Houston.

An actual rumor that has emerged is a potential deal with the Orlando Magic that would send Jameer Nelson to the Bulls. What the pieces of the deal would be has yet to be made clear, but it’s hard to see how Nelson’s offensive rating of 99, PER of 12.5 and nERD of -5.6 would help the Bulls in the short term.

The Verdict

Would either of these players put the Bulls over the top? A deal might keep them in the conversation for third- or fourth-best team in the conference, but they would still be relegated to the kids’ table while Indiana and Miami fight over who gets the last drumstick. The 2014 NBA Draft promises to be the best in possibly decades (plural). Perhaps a lost season and an extra piece added through the draft would make the Bulls an even scarier team when Rose comes back.

Most likely though, it probably won’t be a very high pick. With Thibodeau at the helm and Joakim Noah assuming the role of leader, there’s no way this team slacks off. They just don’t work that way. Jimmy Butler should continue to develop steadily and become more of a factor while the rest of the crew picks up the slack in the same way they did last year. They might not be a contender without Rose, but they will fight for every win and that’s the most that Bulls and NBA fans can hope for these days.

Get well soon, D-Rose.