The Chicago Bulls are limping into the playoffs with a respectable record and a winnable first-round matchup, but would this team really be transformed into championship contenders if Derrick Rose played alongside a limping Joakim Noah?
Noah has been battling plantar fasciitis for well over a month now, being diagnosed with the lingering foot pain back in early February.
Since then, Noah has played in just 22 of a possible 37 games, and the Bulls have had to make due without him for stretches at a time, just as they've done all season long with Derrick Rose.
Chicago without Rose is a very simple team, although very difficult to beat. To put it plainly, Chicago's game is predicated on defense, and Chicago's defense is centered around Joakim Noah.
Chicago's pace of play is very indicative of the team they are, wringing out just under 90 possessions per game for one of the leagues' slowest paces. Meanwhile they score just 103.5 points per 100 possessions but give up just 103.2 (23rd and sixth in the league, respectively).
Noah is key to the defensive presence that they bring, as he is constantly active and able to grab practically any rebound in his vicinity.
What makes Noah such a formidable defender is both that he's such a smart player and also quick and athletic enough to close out on shooters, step up into a pick-and-roll, and use his long, strong body to defend in the post.
Without Noah, their defense slips and ends up giving up 102.9 points per 100 possessions.
It's easy to then reason that without Noah, the Bulls are a much more vulnerable team. However, even with a limping Noah you can call them a less frightening bunch.
Chicago is 8-7 without Noah in the lineup since his plantar fasciitis diagnosis, which is actually right on pace with them winning 55 percent of their games for the entire season, but when Noah plays with his gimpy foot, Chicago is just 9-13.
Most frightening for the Bulls is that Noah has played in just three of their last 15 games (they're 9-6), and when he has played it's been in very limited minutes.
With a 2-1 record in Noah's last three games, it's hard to confidently say that the Bulls will be able to cope, especially since they scored wins over the Wizards and Orlando Magic, while losing to the Detroit PIstons.
So would Derrick Rose make that much of a difference if he were to be out on the floor with a hobbling Noah? That is to say, would they go from an angry, jagged potential bump in the road for the Miami Heat to being championship contenders thanks to just one player?
Obviously they are a better team with Rose. Instead of starting Nate Robinson or Kirk Hinrich, they get to start Derrick Rose.
That's a few moments fewer that Robinson has to put up 30-footers, and it gives the Bulls a guard that, unlike Hinrich, is actually a threat to score.
Taking a look at the Bulls in the past two seasons, in which Rose played in a majority of the games, it's evident that there's not much difference in how many possessions they rack up, but they do score more efficiently.
2011 saw the Bulls at 89.1 possessions per 48 minutes (actually fewer than this season), while scoring 107.4 points per 100 possessions.
2010, in which Rose played every game but one, Chicago locked in at 90.4 possessions per 48 minutes, while scoring an impressive 108.3 points per 100 possessions.
Knowing that, it becomes incredibly obvious what the Bulls' game plan has been ever since Tom Thibodeau showed up to give them some direction. They keep the game at their own slow pace, focus on getting the most out of their defense and then aim to have an efficient offense.
While Chicago's offense is more potent and much more efficient with Rose healthy, the impact on their defense is not as big as the impact of Noah being out.
Basically, where Noah is the gear of their defense that drives the machine, Rose is the same with the offense, both doing what they can to help each other out along the way.
If Rose were coming into the playoffs at full health, it's likely that the Bulls would be a much more formidable opponent. However, it's gotten to the point where Noah is nearly as important to the team's success as Rose.
Could they make a run at a title with a healthy Rose and a hobbling Noah? Possibly, but they're a vastly improved team when both players are completely healthy.
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