The game of basketball is ever-changing. We've moved away from the half court, post orientated offensive sets, in favor of pace and space dynamics predicated on the breadth of quality guard and perimeter play. With this shift, the narrative of "best backcourt" has grown strong in the modern era, with player's themselves taking great pride and notice of this fictitious badge of honor.
It almost seems silly that such a contest even exists given the continuous excellence of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but nonetheless, routinely you will see NBA broadcasts discussing the merits and rankings of the best guard combinations around the league via fancy graphics, basic metrics and mundane analysis.
Often finding themselves in the conversation, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose garner high praise, particularly for their ability to be two-way caliber players in a largely downhill league.
As a fan of the team, it's nice to hear their names mentioned among the best, if for nothing more than unashamed bragging rights. Though we welcome these superlatives, are they actually fact driven?
Comparing Rose and Butler to the backcourt duo's around the league, it's difficult to suggest that their combination is as seamless as their peers.
John Wall's dribble penetration and thirst for playmaking has blended perfectly with Bradley Beal's ability to shoot, thus cementing the two on Washington's perimeter for the next decade; Toronto is able to score in a variety of ways thanks to the mid-range game and foul drawing ability of DeMar DeRozan and the volume three-point shooting of Kyle Lowry; Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum electrify Rip City with their combined 13.9 attempts from deep, together forming one the best shooting backcourts in the league, whilst Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, despite their lack of height, more than make up for it with their abilities to master pick-and-roll sets from all angles.
Then, of course, you have the demigods of Golden State, who appear flawless at present with Stephen Curry becoming the best player in the game and Klay Thompson continuously bombing from deep, making him the best shooter in the game not named Steph.
So much talent exists that it almost seems unfair to compare Chicago's backcourt to those around them, especially when Derrick Rose has yet to improve his 9.7 PER, leaving Jimmy Butler to do he majority of the heavy lifting on the perimeter. Nevertheless, we hang onto the notion that at some point, Rose will work out his early season struggles, and will propel the Bulls from mediocrity to contention.
Derrick finally recovering back to a quality starting level point guard should lift the production of the Bulls' backcourt, which has suffered greatly, but as we wait, have we been wrong to assume that Butler and Rose - when healthy - really fit together like many of the best NBA backcourts already do?
Sharing an offense is easier said then done. You need enough possessions for both players to use and feel comfortable in the hierarchy. One of the two guards needs to have elite dribbling and passing skills to run a competent offense, whilst the other needs to be a supreme catch-and-shoot finisher who can make the most of their opportunities in limited time. Looking around the league, the best guard combos do this.
In Chicago, can we make the same claim?
As players, fundamentally, the two are very similar. Ideally, both crave to showcase their talents in isolation, using their incredible physical gifts to surpass those who dare to stop them. Given both players aim to individually beat their opponent, in order to ensure a semblance of balance exists, sharing of the ball is critical. Unfortunately, this is something neither have yet to master.
Since his return, Rose has lost his lateral movement, rendering his killer crossovers as nothing more than a forgotten relic. Never a strong or instinctive passer, this inability has heightened as his athleticism begins to wain. Similarly, though Butler's ball handling skills have improved mightily, they're not elite, neither are his passing abilities, despite a thirst to be known as a point guard.
Even if they could build a cohesive partnership in a "take it in turns" offense, neither are credible off-ball threats. Jimmy will sky for the occasional alley-oop slam, but his slashing game has taken a back seat to the on-ball shot creation he so willing wants to develop.
In his breakout season, Butler showed that he had extended his range, shooting 37.8 percent from three on 3 attempts a game, but this has fallen considerably in 2015-16, down to 32.6 percent on 3.5 attempts per game. When Rose has the ball for his shot on offense, are team's really going to worry about Butler's deep ball?
Of course not.
Compounding this, is the tribulations of Derrick Rose's broken jump shot. In 2014-15, the volume of attempts was crazy, particularly when shooting 28.0 from three. Now, even though the volume has come down to respectable levels, his percentage has followed, only connecting on 22.4 percent of his three-pointers. Put simply, that's god awful.
Rose is also being forced to learn what his basketball life looks like as his athleticism abandons him. Never needing to know how to play without the unrivaled physical traits he entered the league with, the very thing that made him so brilliant, is also that which is crippling his play today.
Ask yourself this; If you could jump out of a gym and dunk on players a foot taller than you, would you really bother extending the range of your jumper? If you were quicker than everyone else and get to the hoop at will, why bother mastering the nuances of pick-and-roll basketball?
Sadly, without his incredible athleticism, Derrick's game has yet to find away to contribute if dribble penetration is not possible, and without the ball, the lack of fundamentals and ability to read off-ball action has left Rose completely ineffective.
As each guy auditions for the lead guard mantle on any given possession, all too often you will find one or both simply standing around, waiting and watching. This would be fine if either could shoot well enough to command the respect of the defense, but as already established, that's just not happening.
In the following examples from the Nets blunder, you will notice both Rose and Butler limit their off-ball movement to a near stand still, sans a few lifeless cuts through the paint. Given Fred Hoiberg's offense is predicated on smart and timely reads away from the action, this is troubling.
Perhaps it's unfair to lump all the blame of a stagnant offense on Rose and Butler, particularly when the examples used are focused on post entries and establishing position on the block. But, therein lies the problem.
If you have two guards who are very similar to each other, with both wanting to immerse themselves in the lanes, playing half court basketball with two big men who find themselves in the way, is suboptimal.
It's the same problem Chicago faced during Rose's peak years, and the issue continues to plague the team, even if focus on improving these flaws has increased. As of now, both players are better suited with their backcourt mate being a gunner from deep. Pairing Rose with Klay Thompson or Jimmy Butler with Damian Lillard, these fits are far more logical, and though only examples, those combinations make more functional sense from a balancing of skillset standpoint.
So then, if the question being asked is can the Bulls' backcourt co-exist going forward, the answer is no given the construct of the team at present.
With Hoiball being a mirage and the archaic offensive schemes of Tom Thibodeau filtering their way back into the playbook, Chicago will not be able to build a competent offense with this iteration of Derrick Rose, who needs as much space as possible, and Jimmy Butler, who is very publicly making his mark as the team's leader and No. 1 option.
Can the pair make it work if the roster is re-tooled? Yes, this is entirely possible, but it will require a lot of shooting assistance within the frontcourt to make it work.
The small and power forward positions must contain shooters who are viable and legitimate threats from deep. The organization had this in mind when drafting Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, even if the latter has been largely disappointing this season.
The center in this rotation doesn't need to be a shooter, though it would be preferable if they had a reliable 16-footer. At a minimum, acquiring a big who can dive on pick-and-roll plays and finish above the ring on alley-oop catches will allow the offense an element they've yet to feature, thus allowing for less predicitable pick-and-roll sets as opposing defenses will need to think twice about hedging on the Bulls' ball dominant guards. Currently, this player doesn't exist in the Bulls' locker room.
The roster needs work, we all know this. Blaming the roster as the primary dysfunction of the team, though, is easy, limited and flawed.
Gar Forman needs to do a better job of managing and balancing the roster around his star guards, but this shouldn't absolve Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler from any struggles they may face. Together, they need to be better.
Both need to improve their games individually, but also as a pairing. A healthy and cohesive attitude needs to be established, and agendas must fade if these two are to lead Chicago back to the Conference Finals.
Rose and Butler will never be Curry and Thompson. Stylistically, it's not possible, but someday, hopefully they can replicate the obvious passion that the Splash Brothers invoke within each other each time they share the floor, as well as developing the required fit needed for success to ensue, both of which have been lacking to date.
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