Chicago Bulls Notebook: Surviving A Condensed Season, Luol Deng's All-Star Bid, The Welcomed Return Of C.J. Watson

SB Nation Chicago's Ricky O'Donnell looks back at an eventful week for the Bulls that included Derrick Rose missing two games with a toe injury, Luol Deng's ill-fated All-Star Game campaign, and the much needed return of C.J. Watson.

1.The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat are playing a basketball game in south Florida right now, and Dwyane Wade is on the bench, dressed in a finely tailored suit. Wade is officially listed as out on the injury report with a bum ankle, but that's merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to injury concerns for Miami's dynamic shooting guard. Wade missed three games earlier this season due to a sore left foot; just last week, he strained his calf. The game against the Lakers is the 14th this season for the Heat, and the fifth they will play without Wade.

Wade was born near Chicago on January 17, 1982, which means he turned 30 on Wednesday. He celebrated the same way most of us celebrate another year of existence: hanging out with Rick Ross in a high-end Miami nightclub, receiving a $230,000 sports car -- air-lifted into the party without a scratch, naturally -- as a gift. But the TMZ coverage, red carpet entrance, and plethora of celebrity attendees may have buried the lead, and that's the number atop the cake.

After their 118-97 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday at the United Center, our Chicago Bulls were blessed with two days off. Blessed. That word is used genuinely: All-Star break aside, the Bulls will only get more than one day off between games just three more times the rest of the season, not again until March 23 and 24.

The win over Phoenix was the third game this season Chicago has played without reigning MVP Derrick Rose -- they are 2-1 in Rose's stead. The rigors of this season's uniquely condensed schedule will affect every team, even the best ones. The Bulls and Heat, seemingly set on a collision course for another conference finals showdown, are no exception. What's becoming obvious not even a full month into the regular season is just how much this one differs from the standard 82-game affair. This season is about one thing: survival. Statement wins and playoff seeding can sit this one out. In 2012, those things appear to be trivial at best; maybe non-existent and useless.

When indomitable SB Nation NBA scribe Tom Ziller issued his power rankings from the heavens at the beginning of the week, the Bulls were first and the Heat were 8th. The entire concept behind power rankings renders them totally inconsequential, even if they are nothing but a fun, breezy read. Ziller is tasked with ranking NBA teams in the here and the now; long-term projections aren't included in the SBN's top secret and totally exasperating power rankings algorithm. No one thinks the Heat are the eighth best team in the NBA. You want to talk about a "big three"? By all accounts, Miami is a member of the NBA's own exclusive big-font trio, occupying the same space as the Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder to form the NBA's elite tier.

Rose and Wade each missing extended time this week only reinforces the oddity of this particular regular season. Normally, a week-long injury could mean a player misses two or three games. This season, he's probably missing five.

One of the endearing things about the NBA is its lack of parity: every team has a hope and prayer of winning the entire thing at the start of each NFL season; if a baseball team can find its way into the post-season, each playoff series is little more than a coin flip. In the NBA, the best teams usually win -- though last year's Dallas Mavericks title run certainly qualified as a bit of a surprise. This season is going to be different, though, at least in terms of seeding. Last time there was a lockout, the New York Knicks went to the 1999 Finals as an eight-seed. Again: survival. Get to the playoffs in one piece, hopefully with enough time together to find a groove.

Wade and Rose are two of the league's five or ten best players, but Rose's youth and history of durability put them on completely different plateaus. Wade needs to be resting right now; Rose could theoretically drop 30 every night, turf toe be damned. But the Bulls' willingness to bench their ultra-competitive superstar is secretly reassuring. They know this regular season doesn't really matter. They know they'll be fine. So long as Rose is free of nagging injuries by the time the playoffs roll around, the wins and losses in January that go a long way towards determining seeding will likely be an afterthought.

2. "I think we're the deepest team in the NBA."

These are the words of Bulls center Joakim Noah after Tuesday's win against the Suns. It's the type of bold, blunt statement you can make after beating a team by 21 without the efforts of the MVP.

It's true: the Bulls' depth is part of what makes them a serious title threat, even if they may be the only legitimate contender without a second star. In playing two games this week without Rose, Chicago's depth received a chance to flex its muscle. The two results were wildly different.

A day game in Memphis against a talented Grizzlies team wasn't going to be easy even with Rose; when John Lucas III was announced in the starting lineup, a loss could have been reasonably assumed. But it was the way Chicago got beat in a 16-point thumping by Memphis that was so disconcerting: the Griz scored at will as the Bulls' defense played like a deflated unit the entire game. They weren't fighting for rebounds, the rotations weren't crisp. The Bulls oozed an aura of defeat from the opening minutes, and it only multiplied when the offense simply couldn't keep up without its best player.

The next night, everything changed. Which is to say, the Bulls defended the way the Bulls are accustomed to defending, while the offense caught fire.

C.J. Watson, fresh off the injured list, opened the game with seven straight makes in his first start of the season. Carlos Boozer played what may have been the best game of his Bulls career, knocking down jumper after jumper en route to a 26-point first half. The rest of the Chicago's acclaimed depth did its part, too: Omer Asik scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, Kyle Korver dished out an uncharacteristic six assists, and Taj Gibson provided a few highlights for the evening news shows.

The Bulls without Rose are screwed. The Bulls without Rose are fiiiine!

Depth is a hell of an asset, but the NBA will forever be ruled by its gaudiest stars. Depth will only take a team so far; without that top dog, a 40-point loss comes just as easy as a home victory over an inferior squad. With Rose in tow on New Year's Day, Chicago beat the Grizzlies by 40 points. Without him, they weren't in the game from the opening minutes.

It speaks again to how this regular season must to treated with kids gloves: a decisive win sans Rose emits false hope as much as anything else. Rest and survive, rest and survive. The rest of the Bulls are here to win games while their superstar gets healthy. Because when it really counts, they'll need him as much or more as he'll need them.

3. Fan voting for February's All-Star Game ends in 12 days, and if you've watched a Bulls broadcast at all in recent weeks, you know that the organization is doing everything in its power to get small forward Luol Deng on the team. It makes sense: more than anyone, Deng epitomizes the intentions of Tom Thibodeau's Bulls. He does whatever is asked of him.

  • Defend the opposition's best wing scorer.
  • Defend the power forward when the Bulls go small.
  • Develop a three-point stroke.
  • Play 40-plus minutes every night.
  • Act as the primary scoring option when paired with the "Bench Mob", while Rose et al. grab a breather.

Luol Deng is a great player, and certainly deserves more attention than he receives nationally. He makes the Bulls go; without him, they would be significantly worse off. Fellow Eastern Conference small forwards such as Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith and Danny Granger potentially have loftier reputations, but the Bulls would turn down a trade involving Deng for all three in about two seconds. He is integral to everything Tom Thibodeau hopes to accomplish, and if he ever sustains a serious injury, the Bulls' title dreams will go up in smoke.

With that being said, Luol Deng (probably) doesn't deserve to be an All-Star this season.

We've been over the pros and cons of PER before, but I still think it's a valuable tool. Right now, Deng's PER is 15.3, which makes him a perfectly league-average performer. All-Stars are supposed to be around 20.

Deng's efficiently numbers have been sank by the small sample size thus far, as well as carrying the extra burden coach Thibodeau puts on his favorite player. But Deng simply isn't shooting the ball well this year, and it might cost him a trip to Orlando. Deng is shooting just 41 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three-point range in the Bulls' first 16 games. His defense has been typically outstanding, and he's had a few big offensive nights. But if Deng isn't on the All-Star roster, don't pretend it's a crime. Just because he's a great player doesn't mean he's an All-Star.

4. Derrick Rose played in 81 regular season games a season ago. The game he missed proved to be one of the year's most memorable contests.

The Bulls were in Denver on a Friday night in November -- yes, we used to play basketball in November. Rose was out with a sore neck, so C.J. Watson -- a newly signed reserve guard -- stepped into the starting lineup to fill the eventual MVP's shoes.

Watson is a bit a volume shooter, the type of player advanced metrics do no favors for. But for one night, everything Watson was throwing up was going in. Watson scored 33 points on 22 shots, a performance that included the type of highlight reel plays we're used to seeing from Rose. The Bulls would lose when John Lucas III missed a pair of crucial free throws late in the fourth quarter, but Watson's approval rating was secure. If Rose can't go, Watson proved he had the potential to sporadically do a pretty good impression of the Bulls' star.

Fast forward to Monday afternoon in Memphis. With Rose out, the Bulls activated Watson for the first time since he injured himself against these same Grizzlies on New Year's Day. Once again, Watson was fairly fantastic: after all that time off, he scored 17 points on 10 shots. The next night he scored 23 on 12 shots against Phoenix.

In games Rose has missed with an injury, Watson is averaging 24.3 points per game. He may not be a great player, or even a great reserve, but after watching John Lucas III jack up shots at will in his absence, Watson's return is certainly a welcome addition. He adds professional NBA competence at guard, something Lucas III, for all of his effort, just isn't capable of providing.

The hope is that Watson won't have to be the focal point for too many more games this season. But with Rose only really needed for the playoffs, Watson may find himself with a few more 20-point opportunities than he anticipated.

5. I put together a quick post last week on Tom Thibodeau's very own efficiency statistic, and ESPN Chicago's Jon Greenberg was able to get the Bulls coach to speak on the metric a bit for a column that ran yesterday. The best anecdotes from the story come from, who else, Brian Scalabrine, who truly seems to cherish his role as a 'good quote'.

"I've been here for two years, and he changes the culture of your organization, OK?" Brian Scalabrine said. "I've been other places where players -- Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett -- changed the culture of the organization. That's an unbelievable thing for a coach to do."

"He watches every game two or three times, and he knows every percentage of what a guy may do," he said. "Like does Kobe shoot a pull-up jumper inside a 3 at a high percentage? If he does, we guard him a certain way on the pick and roll. If he doesn't, then you can mix it up. Then bigs have to protect and other guys have to protect them. Really, it's just five guys all being on the same page."

Good stuff, but nothing will top Scal speaking on Rose to SI's Lee Jenkins a season ago:

"They are the guys who get you the need baskets," says Bulls reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, referring to the vital hoops that stop runs and close out games. "I have a different word for killers. I call them mother-------. And right now, Derrick Rose is the baddest mother------ in the league by far. He is the reason we win."
....
"I'm way cockier than he is," says Scalabrine, "and I never play."

6. Speaking of Scal....

PICTURE OF THE WEEK

Scal_medium

For as embarrassing and ultimately unfortunate as I find the rampant Scalabrine cheering, something about the Earth-bound, red-headed forward tearing off his warmups like Clark Kent in front of 20,000 adoring fans is too good to bypass. We're still laughing with him, but just barely.

Ricky O'Donnell is a writer and editor in Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. He is always very much available for hire. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at richardpodonnell@gmail.com.

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