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Thursday, February 28, 2013
Updated: March 1, 9:17 PM ET
Defense has carried Bulls all it can

By Michael Wilbon
ESPNChicago.com

Reggie Rose did get one thing right: The Bulls absolutely have to upgrade their roster to even think about becoming a postseason threat to teams such as Miami, Oklahoma City … even the Indiana Pacers, particularly as it pertains to offense.

Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah carried the Bulls against the 76ers on Thursday with 23 points, 21 rebounds and 11 blocks.

This latest slump, seven losses in the past 10 games and three straight at home before beating Philly Thursday night, offered plenty of proof to anybody paying serious attention that the Bulls simply don't have a potent enough offense at a time when the rules, style of play and players coming into the league all favor offense.

There are too many nights when non-playoff predictors like the 76ers push the Bulls further than should be the case. Joakim Noah's prolific, even historic triple-double of 23 points, 21 rebounds and an insane 11 blocked shots, is easily the big story coming out of Thursday's game. But it still shouldn't obscure the bigger issue that offense didn't come easily against a Philly team completely on the ropes and on the road. The Bulls shot 38.6 percent from the floor, and just 21.3 percent from the 3-point arc.

You know where the Bulls rank on offense? Twenty-eighth in the 30-team league. You know who else ranked 28th in offense this season? The Bears. How's that for civic symmetry? We're looking at the same team, the Bears and Bulls, good enough to contend for championships on defense, stinky on offense.

The Bulls' defense, even with trouble lately against high-octane teams such as the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs, is third in the NBA in defense, fourth in the advanced metric of defensive efficiency. Even after losing impact defender Omer Asik and another defensive ace in Ronnie Brewer, the Bulls are about as nasty defensively, relative to the league, as they were last year.

No matter how much Tom Thibodeau obsesses over defense, practically speaking, the Bulls simply aren't going to get much -- if any -- better on that end of the floor. The defense has carried the Bulls about as far as it can.

Offensively, they're barely in the game. When you're so challenged to function at a high level offensively, the defense suffers, as has been the case with the Bears all fall and now the Bulls all winter. Part of the problem is personnel; it's not an indictment of management, not this season, because this roster was wisely put together to be competitive, yet stall for time until Derrick Rose gets back -- I mean really back -- in the lineup. But the lack of offense is still a matter of what the Bulls don't have.

During one of the recent Bulls game, as they struggled to score 70 points -- which Steph Curry might have done by himself in Madison Square Garden Wednesday night had that game gone to overtime -- Magic Johnson offered the simplest of all reasons as to why the Bulls have these long scoring droughts.

"They don't have scorers," Magic said. "They have role players who all their NBA careers have complemented scorers. You're asking them to do something they don't get paid to do, for the most part can't do. They're out of their comfort zone. It doesn't work … almost never."
Derrick Rose
The potential return of Derrick Rose, who shot for an hour before Thursday's game, won't fix all the Bulls' problems.

Even the guys who get paid to score are taxed because Luol Deng is a No. 2 scorer, not a lead scorer. Carlos Boozer, on a good team, is a No. 3 scorer at best. Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli are guys who some nights can really carry a team for a quarter, maybe even a half, but are most effective playing off a bona fide No. 1, 25-points-per-night scorer, which the Bulls don't have in uniform right now. Noah isn't and never will be "a scorer," and neither is Taj Gibson. They're valuable pieces of a championship contender, but not to be confused with load-carrying scorers.

So everybody is playing a spot or two higher than he should be, and eventually it catches up with a team, which is what started happening just before the All-Star break. And with 24 games remaining and playoff-caliber teams finally starting to play as hard and as desperately as the Bulls do every single night, it's going to be even harder for the Bulls to score from here on out. And if the guys who can score, such as Boozer and Robinson, go into a simultaneous slump, the losses will mount.

In the month of January when the Bulls were rolling, Boozer averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds. In February, he's down to 14 and 7. Robinson, whose energy whether subbing or starting was critical to the way the Bulls played in January, is down to 10 points per game on 30 percent shooting, 23 percent from beyond the arc. Jimmy Butler, after averaging 15 points a game while playing for an injured Deng, is averaging six points since the All-Star break. Thibs rejects the notion of his team being tired and he might very well be right. Perhaps offensively they're just overmatched.

Right now the Bulls have the second-worst home record versus teams in playoff position today, and are 16-14 at home. They were 2-3 at home since the break going into the game against Philly Thursday night, and some nights the defense doesn't look all that imposing, either. The Bulls shouldn't lose to Cleveland if the Cavaliers are minus Kyrie Irving, as they were Tuesday.

But there were hints this was coming even before the All-Star break, that teams were starting to solve them. Last year, even when Rose didn't play, there was the feeling that playing harder was going end a slump and put the Bulls right back on track. This year? Not so much. The Bulls are further from the Thunder than they've been, further from Miami, further from Indiana, further from the Spurs.

And anybody who thinks D. Rose riding to the rescue is going to quickly fix this isn't paying attention. Dwyane Wade didn't have anything nearly as seriously wrong with his knees as Rose did, yet it has taken Wade the first half of the season to play his way back to form.

You know what Thibs would say to this -- that better defense will lead to turnovers, which will lead to offense. Except, the Bulls aren't particularly good right now even at converting turnovers. Who do they have who can explode the way Paul George does, or Rudy Gay, or James Harden? Yes, J.J. Redick would have been an upgrade, but if using part of your assets to acquire Redick prevents you from going after an A-list scorer over the summer, what would be the point of that long term, if the goal is to challenge for a championship?

The men who get paid to scout the Bulls right now seem to see a team that might have peaked a few weeks ago and who are hanging on right now, hoping regardless of what is said publicly to get Rose back in the lineup. Short of that, the Bulls look to be in a struggle the remainder of the season/postseason, to do the thing that all the good teams do with both consistency and certainty: put the ball in the basket.