Rare is the preseason game that gets the hallowed “absolutely must DVR” status. I can recall reserving precious DVR space for both Chris Paul’s debut with the Clippers and the Lakers’ first preseason game last season, which within the first two minutes featured a Steve Nash–Pau Gasol–Dwight Howard passing sequence on a pick-and-roll that ended with a Howard alley-oop dunk. It was terrifying. The Lakers were terrifying. We know how that turned out.
Add Saturday night’s Chicago-Indiana clash to the preseason DVR list. It marked the return of Derrick Rose, the (not really deserving) 2011 MVP, one of the league’s 10 best players, the piece that can lift Chicago’s offense to the place it must reach for the Bulls to win the title. And that’s the ceiling here. This is the year for this iteration of the Bulls. They’re starting the year as healthy as they’ve been in this mini-era, and after cycling through a Rolodex of one-dimensional shooting guards, they’ve developed the complete package in Jimmy Butler. Depth could be an issue, especially if the Bulls, an unprecedented (for them) $7.5 million over the tax line, send out a Kirk Hinrich type in a midseason salary dump.
But this team is loaded — if Rose can be something like Rose again. The Bulls finished with the league’s best record in two seasons with a healthy Rose and Tom Thibodeau bellowing on the sidelines. They fell to Miami in five games in the conference finals in 2011, but those games were insanely competitive; the Heat needed overtime to secure Game 4 and an improbable streak of crazy jump-shooting from LeBron James to clinch Game 5. Carlos Boozer was dealing with turf toe, and Chicago lost Omer Asik to a broken leg late in the series. And it returned better than ever in 2011-12, with the league’s no. 5 offense and (by far) the best point differential.
Point is: This team is damn good. And on Saturday, in a meaningless preseason game against a major rival, Rose looked about as good as the Bulls could have hoped. He was the same combination of sprightly and powerful that makes him an impossible cover. He finished one-man fast breaks. He worked his tail off on defense, shading pick-and-rolls the right way on the ball, clogging the lane in a hyper-aware help state off the ball, and generally doing what Thibodeau wants. He had bits of sloppiness — four turnovers, some shaky attempts in the lane, getting lost under a couple of high screens for George Hill.
But the general evidence was fine. Creating shots without Rose was arduous, five-man work for the Bulls last season. Thibodeau and his staff crafted motion-heavy sets involving Luol Deng and Butler popping off near-simultaneous screens (but not exactly simultaneous screens) on opposite sides of the floor, clever interior passing from Joakim Noah and Boozer at the elbows, and expert cutting. But it was a slog, it was predictable, and it involved lots of moving and screening and dribbling that soaked up a ton of the shot clock. The Bulls finished 24th in points per possession. You can’t win a title that way; you can’t really even sniff one.
But all that heavy lifting will come in handy this season. Chicago knows how to play when Rose hits the bench, and it can toss in more wrinkles when Rose is on the floor. Rose adds the dose of speed and unpredictability Chicago needs to wade through a loaded top half of the Eastern Conference. The Bulls can run again, selectively. They can lean on simple high pick-and-rolls, letting Rose make choices on the fly, to ease the collective mental and physical burden on some possessions.
And there’s just no accounting for stuff like this, from Rose’s preseason debut:
That’s a run-of-the-mill thing at first glance. Rose and Boozer run a high pick-and-roll, and Rose senses an opportunity to cross over, split two players, and make a beeline for the rim.
Only, look more closely: When point guards “split” a pick-and-roll, they almost always do so by slithering through the space between the guy setting the pick and the opponent defending that screener — Boozer and David West here. But Rose, fast and impatient, decides he doesn’t have time to wait for Boozer’s screen, and slices through the space between Boozer and Hill. He splits his own screener!
It doesn’t work especially well here. Rose pulls up too early, short-circuits a play, misses Deng wide open on the right wing, and bonks an awkward floater. But it was a reminder of the irreplaceable dimension Rose brings to this particular set of Bulls. It made me rewind my DVR, just to make sure I had seen what I’d thought I’d seen.
Derrick Rose makes you rewind your DVR, several times per game. Derrick Rose is back.