By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) There’s a reason why Derrick Rose shriveled in the loss to the Cavaliers that ended the Bulls’ season last Thursday, and it’s not good, no matter how you look at it.
It made little sense that Rose attempted only four second-half shots, scored just one basket and attempted no free throws as his team surrendered meekly on its home floor in a 94-73 setback in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. After a blistering first quarter in which he shot 5-of-9 and handed out three assists, he would score just four more points after that and seemed reluctant to attack the basket in what was the biggest game of his career.
Rose was never asked directly why he disappeared when his team needed him most, but sources tell 670 The Score that a common NBA problem affected the Bulls at the worst possible time – two alpha dogs and only one basketball.
It looked strange when wing Jimmy Butler kept flashing to Rose’s side of the floor, calling for the ball, as the Bulls’ offense was drying up. Rose was all too happy to oblige instead of waving Butler off and taking charge, either resetting the called play or taking his man – often the undrafted Matthew Dellavedova – hard to the rim for at least a likely foul.
Sources describe a passive-aggressive reaction from Rose that was the culmination of tensions building in recent weeks with Butler’s emergence as a primary scorer. Butler is very aware that he won his bet on himself and is poised to reap the reward of a maximum contract from the Bulls, whether or not it takes an offer sheet from another club in restricted free agency this summer. Butler’s emergence was validated by the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, and he’s now feeling every bit the star, with all that entails.
If one were to try to give Rose the benefit of the doubt, seeing a selfless point guard willing to cede the spotlight and responsibility to the hotter hand in the best interests of winning, it would be a tough case to build. Even though the Bulls trailed by two after the first quarter, the offense was clicking, scoring 31 points of 56.5 percent shooting and catalyzed by Rose’s active, determined play. It was Butler trying to force the issue in the miserable second quarter, missing four of his six shots and his two 3-point attempts as the Bulls managed 13 total points. Butler then had free run of things in the second half, shooting 4-of-12 while Rose drifted aimlessly.
A lead guard is supposed to lead, not follow. If Rose were really doing what was best, he would have continued to act as the primary thrust for an offense that was working, but he just … stopped. If he thought that was the better strategic choice, it’s terrible judgment. If it’s the alternative that sources describe – more of a three-quarter pout, with Rose’s play saying, “You want to be the man, go ahead, knock yourself out” – that’s even worse.
Where Tom Thibodeau was through all of this is unknown, but that this dynamic was allowed to play out isn’t surprising for a coach so entirely focused on what happens when his team doesn’t have the ball. Defensive issues are noticed immediately and corrected, with timeouts, assignment changes or substitutions. On offense for Thibodeau, not so much.
Whoever replaces Thibodeau soon must solve this issue right away, because Rose and Butler will soon account for $36 million next year and $38 million the year after, making them the NBA’s most expensive backcourt.
It can work, for sure. Their styles can complement each other, with modern pro offenses more creative than ever in using floor balance, cutting and ball movement to force bad matchups and difficult choices for opponents. See the Warriors for an example, and note that the four remaining NBA teams were four of this year’s top five in 3-pointers made, and the fifth was the just-ousted Clippers.
Whatever tension has grown between the inconsistent Rose and the fast-rising Butler needs to be harnessed for the better. Without their games harmonizing instead of conflicting, this isn’t going to succeed no matter who’s in charge.