Thursday, October 11, 2012

Our First Glance at the New Look Bulls

Our image from last season
It hurts to think about where we left off with the Bulls last season. Derrick Rose had blown out his knee, Joakim Noah was suffering through a bad ankle injury, and the beloved Bulls bench mob had coughed up a Game 6 in the final minute to lose to the 8th seeded Philadelphia 76ers. From there we entered an off season that saw the jettisoning of several players, including CJ Watson, Kyle Korver, Omer Asik, and Ronnie Brewer. When some of the faces that were brought in to not only supplement the loss of Rose for the majority of the year, but also replace those key figures of the bench mob, were, how should I say this, rather unfulfilling, reports of the Bulls' demise this upcoming season dominated the reports of Bulls beat writers and the Bulls blogosphere.

I already outlined why I thought the Bulls made a couple reaches in their approach to free agency this year, even though they told fans that they would be making basketball, not financial, decisions this summer. The Bulls could quite possibly have gone and signed the players that will make up the new bench mob merely because it makes sense not to commit too much money in the short term when Derrick Rose will miss most of this season anyways. In that sense, the Bulls will be able to clear some cap space up next summer and try to position themselves to acquire a top flight player to play next to Rose.

Or, we can look at it another way, a more optimistic way. I prefer this way because it gets me excited about the upcoming season, with or without Rose. Think for a minute how the Bulls have succeeded so well for the past two years. Team defense, individual defense, rebounding, coaching, leadership, and more defense. The Bulls' excellence in these areas was even evident during the chunk of games that Rose missed during the regular season last year. So what makes us think it will be anything different this year?

I love the addition of Hinrich
I rest my conclusion that the Bulls will still be a top team in the Eastern Conference, even throughout the loss of Rose, on the acquisition of Kirk Hinrich. We all know Kirk from the first 7 years of his career spent with the Bulls. Now, Hinrich doesn't bring the explosiveness or scoring ability of Derrick Rose, and that will certainly hurt because Rose was often the only scoring option for the Bulls, and this was certainly the case when the Bulls were exposed in the playoff series against Miami two years ago. But what Hinrich does excel in, and Rose does not yet, is defense. Hinrich was always known as one of the better perimeter defending guards when he played for the Bulls, and I expect that this will become that much better as part of Tom Thibodeau's defensive system.

This does mean that the Bulls could struggle to score until Derrick gets back. Hell, they struggled to score at times when he was playing. But what has kept the Bulls successful (to the tune of back to back best records in the NBA) has been their team defense. Presumably, the defense could be even better this  year, with Hinrich, a healthy Rip Hamilton, a healthy Luol Deng, a healthy Joakim Noah, and (hopefully) an improved Carlos Boozer. If it means that the Bulls have to grind games out and win with defensive battles, so be it. Those types of teams are always tougher, more physical, and seem to be more playoff ready than others. It would be the perfect team for a fully healthy Derrick Rose to step into later in the year.

The x factor for this team, though, is going to be how the new players perform on the bench. We all know that one of the biggest strengths for the Bulls the past couple years was depth. It allowed Thibodeau to stick with a rotation and beat teams into submission with key players off the bench. It'll help that Taj Gibson is still the leader of the bench mob, and he looked great last night. I do think that he'll eventually supplant Boozer at the starting PF spot, unless by some miracle Boozer starts to consistently perform this year, and the Bulls are going to pay up for him. Taj looks like he's going to be even better this year, and I can't wait to see him try and lead this new bench group. But as I mentioned earlier, a lot of those old players are gone. I'll do a full preview once we see more of the preseason unfold, but let's go through the new guys real quick.

The new bench mob?
I already mentioned Hinrich, and he's obviously going to be the biggest addition. He's a leader, a good, tenacious, and physical defender, and a great facilitator on offense. I think he's going to keep the starting five together until Rose gets back, and then he'll be a perfect 6th man off the bench. Behind him at PG is Nate Robinson, the short athlete extraordinaire who will be the sparkplug off the bench. Robinson has an infectious personality, a great work ethic, and athleticism that will bode well for igniting the new bench mob around him. I really like the acquisition of Nazr Mohammed, who I think can be more valuable to the Bulls' bench than Asik was. He's a solid rebounder and defender, and will be even better under Thibodeau, and brings much more on the offensive end than Omer ever did. Nazr is also a veteran, and knows exactly what is expected of him. I know it's been one game, and projecting forward Omer has more "potential" and "skill" than Nazr does, but I like him as Noah's backup more right now.

I also like Marco Belinelli as the sharpshooting replacement for Korver, supplemented somewhat by Marko Jaric. Both are shooting guards who have for a career shooting percentage lower than Korver. I figure that Belinelli will get the majority of the looks to replace Korver, and I think he can fill in for him well. Belinelli is a career 39.3% shooter from beyond the arc, whereas Korver is a career 41.3% three point shooter. Korver has performed slightly better in the same area the past couple years, but Belinelli is younger and can do something huge that Korver could not - create his own shot. It's for that reason that I think the dropoff from Korver to Belinelli will not be as big as some think. It remains to be seen, however, if he can replace Korver's clutch shooting ability.

The other leading guard on the bench is going to be Jimmy Butler. You could tell that he's been asked to take on the role of Ronnie Brewer this year, because he came out against Memphis and was pressing hard, shooting from all over the court. But he definitely has the skill set on both ends of the court, and looks like he's much more comfortable in the system this year. His added minutes, combined with his new aggressiveness, should help provide the needed scoring on the bench. With Butler, then, you have the final five guys that I think will come off the bench. We know that Thibs likes to make mass substitutions and stick to a routine, so I expect that Taj, Butler, Robinson, Mohammed, and Belinelli will come out first. I think Thibs will ride Hinrich and Deng with lots of minutes this year, but it helps to have some depth there to ease their burden.

The rest of the new bench is iffy. You have Vladimir Radmanovic, Marquis Teague, Kyrylo Fesenko, Andre Emmett, and Ryan Allen in addition to the guys above. That brings the total guys on the team right now to 17. Knowing that NBA rules dictate a team cannot have more than 13 active players, four of the players on the team right now must be cut before the season starts. I think that Fesenko, Emmett, and Allen will all be cut, and I think the additional cut will come down to Jaric and Radmanovic. Fesenko has some size, but really just looks lost and destined to ride the bench for another team that doesn't have a backup center like the Bulls do in Mohammed. Emmett and Allen happen to be additional depth at positions that the Bulls are already full in, especially considering the Bulls are likely to keep three PGs at first. Teague looked erratic and lost in his first game, but he's an undeniable talent, is super quick, and could eventually become a key contributor. That leaves Jaric and Radmanovic, and the decision will likely come down to what positions/size the Bulls need depth at the most.

Like I said, it's going to be an interesting season. This is a patchwork Bulls' bench, but the core remains largely intact. The Bulls are going to have to rely on, as they always do, defense, teamwork, coaching, leadership, rebounding, toughness, and their bench to keep them in games. I'm confident they can do it and keep the seat warm for when Derrick gets back. Looking at it that way, it gets me really excited for the upcoming season, and that's more than most could say when last season ended.