Derrick Rose's triumphant return already has been reduced to a riddle six games into his comeback season.
Despite sitting out all of 2012-13 with a torn ACL, the Bulls' point guard seems to be moving as well as before. His first step remains deadly, and he's quick to generate momentum as he hurls himself up the court. His shooting mechanics appear unchanged, too. Rose's jumper is as smooth as ever, with good vertical extension and a peak release point.
Why is it then, if Rose is indeed in full command of the physical and technical aspects of his game, that he's played such dreadful basketball? The 2011 MVP has been mired in terrible shooting (33.3 percent from the field) and a rash of turnovers (4.2 per game), a combination that leaves Rose in somewhat concerning form.
It was inevitable that Rose would need time to get his bearings after being sidelined for so long, particularly in matters of timing and muscle memory. But Rose's woes run deeper than that. One of the better shot creators in the game has struggled to generate any offense whatsoever. All's well when Chicago spots up Rose on the perimeter or allows him to work off the ball to make catches on the move, though neither of those dimensions is very representative of his previous value. At his best, Rose was an off-the-dribble dynamo, a ball handler who could turn basic movement into pure electricity. This iteration, however, lacks such transformational capability, as Rose's endeavors fail to ignite that same spark.
Pinning down why that's the case is a bit complicated, though it undoubtedly starts with Rose's distressing pull-up jumper. Such shots constituted a third of Rose's total field-goal attempts through his first five games, as can be expected of a dribble-drive player looking to create space and attack overcompensating defenses. In the past, Rose has done well with establishing the balance and consistency necessary to make his pull-up jumper a weapon, but that aspect of his game has gone up in flames this season. Whereas the league's best pull-up shooters have set the bar with shooting percentages in the mid-to-high 40s, Rose has made an unthinkable 9.7 percent, according to SportVU. That mark is the worst in the league (among players who average more than two pull-ups a game), making players like Philadelphia's Tony Wroten and Boston's Avery Bradley look like Kobe Bryant in contrast.
There's a cyclical effect at play here: Rose's troubles seem to motivate him to take tougher shots. His shot selection reeks of a player desperate to break through. When in a drought, he settles for bad, early shots that preempt the flow of the offense -- often without much regard for the position of his defender. Take this play against the Knicks, for example:
If Rose had lost Raymond Felton completely on the play, then a clean look from this range would be considered a quality shot. But Felton gets around the screen almost instantly and is already in position to contest a jumper when Rose decides to kill his dribble. There's time on the shot clock, there's room to challenge New York's interior defense and there are easy outlets available to both Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler. But Rose elects to take a shot he shouldn't, an all-too-common theme in this young season.
That habit is particularly troubling farther out on the perimeter, where Rose has been racking up attempts a full step or two beyond efficient shooting range. Rose has never been an effective three-point shooter -- his career-best season came in 2010-11, when he shot a well-below-average 33.2 percent -- but that hasn't stopped him from taking a quarter of his field goal attempts from beyond the arc. Several of those attempts have come before the Bulls are given any chance of executing offense, as Rose has looked to jump-start his own game by forcing up long-range shots in semi-transition:
That's a crummy attempt for even a decent shooter, much less one of Rose's lesser credentials. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Rose has actually converted a surprising 46.2 percent of his spot-up three-point tries this season -- a career-high mark if it holds. He's a capable shooter when working from a standstill and shooting in rhythm. The difficulty comes when he tries to create those looks for himself, as has happened frequently in the pick-and-roll this season. Defenses have enabled his three-point-shooting habit by largely (and wisely) electing to go under most any ball screen set for Rose. They still fear the threat of his drive and welcome these attempts:
Rose has yet to connect on such a shot this season. Each of his six three-point makes have come in spot-up situations, and he's 0-for-12 on long-range shots off the dribble. The basic motivation here is understandable: With his pull-up jumper horribly errant and his double-clutch finishes -- his primary weapon against shot-blockers -- in need of further calibration, nothing is really working for Rose. Still, that shouldn't be seen as an invitation to take a shot that was never in his wheelhouse to begin with. This isn't to say that Rose should never take threes, but simply that they aren't likely to right his game and alleviate his frustrations.
That said, it's difficult to say what will. Rose's shot selection has left something to be desired but hasn't been destructive to a degree that would explain his 22.9 percent shooting on jumpers (per Vorped). His shooting motion has appeared rushed at times but is generally consistent with his better-shooting seasons. His passing has been a bit sloppy but is still informed by the same playmaking style that brought more appealing assist-to-turnover ratios in previous years. That's what's most perplexing in all of this: So much of Rose's game remains unchanged, save for that crucial, brutal make-miss binary.
There are plenty of nits to pick with his judgment, but this likely isn't even a conversation worth having if Rose were hitting a healthy amount of makeable -- if challenging -- shots. Rose, after all, built his empire on making the difficult look easy. Should we really be so surprised when the probabilities -- on those pull-up jumpers, impossible floaters and contorting layups -- come home to roost? The balance on where and when he's shooting is off. But there's nothing so concerning as to suggest this won't pass, nothing damning to indicate that he can't be the player he once was.
• By some strange twist of fate/arbitrary statistical turn, Jordan Crawford has emerged as the lone remaining qualified free-throw shooter to make every attempt (14-for-14). Plenty of others -- including Jose Calderon, Manu Ginobili, Jeremy Lamb, Mike Dunleavy, Kelly Olynyk and the inimitable Travis Outlaw -- could make a run at this imaginary throne as they pick up more attempts, but for the moment Crawford can claim sole domain over the charity stripe.
• Just as we all expected, Western Conference Player of the Week* Markieff Morris of the Suns ranks second in shooting at a blistering 62.7 percent. This shot chart -- showing Morris' field-goal percentage from in the paint, mid-range, and beyond the three-point line -- is a thing of beauty:
*We may need to make that his official epithet, if only for the sheer improbability involved in Morris snagging the honor.
• It's oh so early, but something to keep an eye on in light of Kevin Martin's jaw-dropping shooting: The Timberwolves' guard is currently in the running for the all-time highest three-point percentage among players who averaged at least five attempts per game. Steve Novak set that mark by making 47.2 percent of his 5.2 attempts in 2011-12. Martin (55.8 percent), Kyle Korver (54.3), Steve Blake (48.8), Calderon (48.6), and Bradley Beal (47.6) are on pace to challenge the record, with Klay Thompson (46.8), Damian Lillard (45.5), and Stephen Curry (44.9) in striking distance.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Roy Hibbert's brave new world
There was a time not two or three seasons ago when the thought of Hibbert sprinting down court to erase a shot in transition was more or less unfathomable. Hibbert, for all his talents, was a stiff; he faced an early cap on his minutes and was limited in his mobility to the point that he was essentially a half-court specialist. But he's worked on his flexibility and range of motion as diligently as any player in the league over the past few seasons, opening up entirely new possibilities for what we can expect, physically, from the 7-2 giant.
That Hibbert was able to stay on the court, remain active and deny elite opponents at the rim throughout the 2013 playoffs was a testament to his hard work. That's all well and good, though I'm even more interested to see what comes next for a player who's only beginning to test his new athletic limits. For years, Hibbert was a player defined by his plodding movement, but he's legitimately redefined himself in a few years' time through intensive offseason work.
Dallas has long dug deep into statistical analysis of lineup combinations. Dating to the 2010-11 season, the Mavericks found that there was much to be gained from subbing Dirk Nowitzki out of games relatively early in the first quarter in order to reinsert him later in the period along with Barea -- a ball-pounding reserve point guard who needed room to get to the rim. Nowitzki's presence gave Barea just that; with Dallas working the two in pick-and-rolls together, defenses had no choice but to cling to Nowitzki and surrender driving lanes to the ultra-quick Barea (who would sign with Minnesota in 2011).
Since then, the Mavs have relied on the same rotation to make things easier on their reserve ball handlers -- a tradition that continues with rookie guard Mekel. His game isn't much like Barea's, as Mekel drives with an intent to pass rather than eke shots over the arms of interior defenders. Still, the effect has been more or less the same. When sharing the floor with Nowitzki, Mekel is assisting more, turning the ball over with less than half the frequency and getting to the free-throw line far more often, per NBA.com.
3. A hard fall for D.J. Augustin
In a few months' time, Augustin has gone from (much-maligned) backup point guard for an Eastern Conference finalist to playing behind an undrafted rookie (Dwight Buycks) as the third-string ball handler for the Raptors. What likely hurts most is that it's deserved; Augustin has followed up a miserable season with the Pacers by playing even more dreadfully for the Raptors. It's understandable that Dwane Casey would find him more or less unplayable. Along with being a defensive liability, Augustin is shooting 23.8 percent from the field, including 0-of-9 from three-point range, and has a 25.3 turnover rate. The living embodiment of "Oof."
4. Chandler Parsons, pump fake enthusiast
A good ball fake can go a long way, but Parsons might lead the league in pump fakes as he looks to turn every spot-up three-pointer into a counter drive. It's honestly gotten to the point where I'm mildly surprised when the Rockets' forward makes a catch on the perimeter and doesn't feign a shot attempt.
5. Evan Turner: Pulling it all together or making the most of a mirage I'm naturally skeptical of a player shooting the lights out after struggling for three seasons, but I can't fully explain away or ignore just how excellently Turner has played for the Sixers. It's even more fascinating and perplexing that Turner seems to be turning things around on his own terms; he still can't shoot from long range, still dominates the ball and still thrives on an in-between game that should be inherently inefficient. But he's off to a wonderful start for a Sixers team that's far more competitive than expected, two outcomes that are very much related and have been highly enjoyable.