Let's consider Team A. It's 17-8 on the season, a winning percentage that translates to about 56 wins over the course of a full season. That's a good team, one well within the range of a championship contender, at least insofar as regular-season won-loss record carries over to the postseason.
Team A is solid on offense, with an efficiency of 108.8 which would rank seventh in the league. It plays a a slow pace and isn't a great shooting unit, but it takes excellent care of the ball and pounds the offensive glass. It's not quite the prototypical offense for a title contender, but it's close.
Team A is definitely championship level on the defensive end. Its 100.5 defensive efficiency is just a hair behind Philadelphia atop the rankings. It plays smothering perimeter defense without fouling, seals the defensive glass and disrupts passing lanes. Team A's defense would be quite an obstacle for any team that faces it in the playoffs. It has beaten some good teams lately too, like New York and Boston.
Team B is even better. It's 30-7, which is a 66-win squad in a typical NBA regular season. It's not quite as good as Team A on the defensive end, with an efficiency of 101.5, but it's still plenty good -- third in the league, in fact. On offense, it's a juggernaut, averaging 111.4 points per 100 possessions, a mark that only Oklahoma City and San Antonio have surpassed. Overall, Team B has outscored opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions; Team A is at 8.3.
These are two awfully good teams, but whereas Team A might be a borderline title contender, Team B is a title contender. Time to lift our painfully-extended attempt at clever subterfuge: Team A is the Chicago Bulls sans Derrick Rose; Team B is the Bulls with the reigning MVP, if not quite at full strength.
Full strength is something the Bulls have not enjoyed much this season. Chicago's preferred starting five f Derrick Rose, Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah has taken the floor together just 13 times this season, and just six times since the beginning of March. The Bulls are 11-2 with all players available, but their efficiency margin of nine points per 100 possessions doesn't stand out from the Rose/non-Rose splits.
In other words, all the injury-related fits and starts to the season have led to a Bulls team that is not at its best with their top players all available at the same time. With the playoffs almost here and Rose and Deng ailing, time has run out for the Bulls to develop the optimum level of cohesiveness that you want for a playoff run. Tom Thibodeau -- who has done another masterful coaching job with his oft-repeated mantra of "We still have enough to win with" -- faces an enormous challenge for a dangerous playoff draw that could consist of the Knicks, Celtics and Heat. That's what a No. 1 seed gets you nowadays.
THE VARIOUS FACES OF THE BULLS
OEFF DEFF NET PACE W L
Full Strength 111.2 102.3 9.0 89.2 11 2
No Rose 108.8 100.5 8.3 86.6 17 8
With Rose 111.4 101.5 10.0 88.3 30 7
The scary thing is that the Bulls appear to have fully adapted to playing without the defending MVP. Over their last five games without Rose, they've outscored opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions with a defensive efficiency of 97.9. There was a bad loss to the Wizards mixed in there, but they also handled the Knicks and Celtics at home. The recent high-profile road loss to the Knicks came in Rose's return, during which you will recall that Chicago was much better without him on the floor.
That game was a microcosm of recent trends. Over Rose's last seven games, the Bulls are 5-2, but they've only outscored opponents by five points per 100 possessions, with a startlingly-bad defensive rating of 110.4 points. While the focus has been on Rose regaining a semblance offensive efficiency, the real problem has been the disintegrating defensive cohesion.
This is why the bottom of the playoff seedings have taken on added relevance for Chicago. The Knicks have been playing much better of late, with Carmelo Anthony putting up his best numbers since he came to New York. His performance has given focus to a disparate Knicks roster even while key rotation players Amar'e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin sit on the sidelines. New York may not be championship material, but it has the potential to be a tough out in the early rounds of the postseason. It's not a team that you want to be playing with a starting lineup that is in advanced training camp mode.
On the other hand, the Sixers have been in a steady nosedive over the last half of the season. The defense still leads the league, but its margin moves closer to the pack every week. The offense is a mess, however, which affords the Bulls a chance to spend at least one series whipping its defense back into shape. The Knicks finish with three roads games in four outings, though two those are against the tanking Cavaliers and Bobcats. They also face the Clippers at home. Bulls fans should keep their fingers crossed that New York finishes with the seven-seed, ending up in a first-round matchup with Miami.
Right now, the Bulls are better defensively, and overall, without their best player in the lineup. Nevertheless, only a fool would suggest that they would be better off if Rose can't get healthy for the playoffs. To navigate the murderer's row Chicago may face, they'll need all hands on deck. And when they are finally together, Thibodeau is going to have to merge his two teams together, and he's going to have to do it on the fly.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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