Somewhere along the way, a fundamental truth became clear in Chicago: The Bulls are a team made better by the absence of their superstar.
Derrick Rose's impermanent place in Chicago's lineup leaves – and left – an unfillable void. Kirk Hinrich and a rotating cast of guards are no real substitute, which leaves the Bulls scrambling for every desperate bit of offense they could find.
What resulted was genuine evolution. Last season, Joakim Noah was pulled into a prominent playmaking role that inverted Chicago's offense. Jimmy Butler was handed the ball and asked to make hay. Taj Gibson gradually became a bigger part of things as he transitioned from pick-and-pop specialist to post-up powerhouse. None of this was quite enough to transform the Bulls into a top offensive team. It did, however, democratize Chicago's system in a way that would optimize talent added down the line.
This is where we find the 2014-15 Bulls, who not only returned Rose but introduced Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks, and Doug McDermott into an offense fully ready to receive them. The results are striking: Chicago, which has already played without Rose for six of its 11 games, ranks eighth in the league in points per possession. Gone are the days of giving full control to Rose and getting out of his way. Circumstances have demanded that this team be able to fend for itself, and in doing so made a layered, complex attack from one so exceedingly simple.
The substance of Chicago's offense should be familiar to those who tuned in to watch the Bulls last season: A parade of dribble hand-offs and curl cuts, some choreographed opposite one another for maximum effect. Even more straightforward isolations and post-ups are in themselves the result of something elastic, from which a collection of bright players can read and react to the opportunities presented them.
What's changed are the implications of Chicago's offensive flow. The Bulls force opponents into a near-constant stream of defensive exchange and – through a mix of acquired talent and organic development – have the potency to makes those exchanges agonizing. Watch this sequence with an eye to how many times a Sixers defender has to quickly prioritize potential threats:
By the possession's end, Chicago had its pick of three potential shots: a corner three from Mike Dunleavy, a straight-away three for Butler, or an interior look to Gasol. Philadelphia being Philadelphia allows for some of that operational freedom, though it's impressive how easily the Bulls are able to replicate quality shots through smart, simple action:
This is the Bulls' new default. Before Chicago built a top-10 offense, it relied on strapping possessions to Rose and subsisting on the returns. Not only is that kind of approach less feasible now that Rose needs to be more cautious with his body, but it would be imprudent given the events of the past few seasons. It's in Rose's case that pessimism and realism intertwine: If the Bulls are to be trustworthy championship contenders, they must play in a way that allows for the brilliance of their star guard without becoming reliant on it.
Much to the chagrin of the league at large, Chicago appears to have struck that balance. Even if the Bulls eventually fall out of the top 10 on offense, their days of slumming it with the Sixers (one of just two teams to score less efficiently than Chicago last season) are over. Beyond its fluidity, it helps that Chicago now draws on a more talented roster. Gasol is not Carlos Boozer; his trips into the post yield solid scoring opportunities rather than hopeless fadeaway jumpers, and already the Bulls are comfortable in setting him up on the block when things begin to stall. His work isn't that of a traditional star but a safeguard. Gasol is the buffer on those nights when the greater offense just isn't producing as intended, to be stretched to his limits only when necessary. For now he averages a comfortable 18 points per game – more than any player on the Bulls' final roster last year.
Pouring in even more nightly scoring is Butler, who has either dramatically improved his offensive game or is in line for eventual regression. Shades of both are likely true. We can't safely assume that Butler will keep up in scoring better than 20 points a game while making more than half his shots given that 1) he had troubles as a shot creator as recently as last season and 2) only three perimeter players in the league (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Goran Dragic) met that standard in 2013-14. Still, one can track definite growth in the way Butler handles himself with the ball. Take, for example, his increasingly proficient footwork:
Details such as these might not keep Butler scoring quite so much or quite so efficiently, though they should allow him to shake free enough to score as the Bulls need. A year spent grinding through limitation is starting to pay off. Butler is a more willing driver (and setup man, evidenced by his 3.9 assists per game) than he was last season and those trips toward the rim have generally been more fruitful. Even if the numbers take a turn for Butler at some point, it bodes well for the Bulls that his creative endeavors have yielded tangible, consistent results.
The skills of Gasol and Butler intersect with the rest of the roster in a way that highlights Chicago's brilliant construction. There are few specific dependencies. This is a group that can roll and adapt over the course of a game or even an individual possession, channeling through any of its principals (including Gibson and Noah, ever relevant contributors) to find the best course to an open shot. Rose is an incredibly valuable component in that, but the demands he carried as an MVP winner have relaxed considerably. With Rose sporting business casual, these Bulls are already a stout offensive team. When he's incorporated fully, they could be legitimately great – if only for how his absence changed everything.