Chicago Bulls: Is the New Bench's Ceiling Higher Than the Departed Bench Mob's?
During the 2010-11 and 2011-12 NBA seasons, Chicago finished the regular season with the top record in the league. This achievement was due, in no small part, to the Bulls' second unit's ability to demolish opponents' benches.
The "Bench Mob", as the Bulls second unit was nicknamed, routinely outscored opponents' benches and either closed deficits or extended leads while on the court. That group was primarily made up of C.J. Watson, John Lucas, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik.
Gibson will be the lone member of the Bench Mob on Chicago's 2012-13 roster. One could argue that last year's first round pick, Jimmy Butler, was part of the bench mob too, but I do not think he played enough of a role to be considered a key piece.
Butler will see much more playing time this season and should find his role on the bench. It looks like he will fill the wing defensive stopper void left by Brewer's departure. However, Butler looks to be much more offensively skilled considering his recent play during this season's NBA Summer League and his selection as part of the All-Summer League team.
To replace the departed members of the Bench Mob, Chicago has reportedly agreed to contracts with this year's draft pick, Marquis Teague and free agents Marco Belinelli, Kirk Hinrich and Vladimir Radmanovic. The team is also reportedly on the verge of signing Nazr Mohammed and we can anticipate that Chicago will look to sign Butler's fellow Summer League standout Malcolm Thomas.
Not considering the injury to Derrick Rose, and penciling Rose, Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah in as starters, I would argue that this year's bench players have a higher ceiling than the former Bench Mob.
While the new squad will not have the same chemistry and defensive synchronicity as the departed, the new bench has much more offensive ability and could eventually become almost as strong of a defensive unit as its predecessor.
If coach Tom Thibodeau can work his magic and convince the new bench players to buy in to his defensive philosophy, then the new bench has a higher overall ceiling than the Bench Mob.
Point Guard: C.J. Watson V. Kirk Hinrich
Captain Kirk returns to Chicago for a second tour of duty.
Kirk Hinrich was once a fan favorite who held down the starting point guard role in Chicago for a number of years until a little known player named Derrick Rose's arrival, when he lost his job and became expendable.
While Hinrich is not the player he once was during his first stint in Chicago, he is still a savvy veteran and can play both point and shooting guard. Listed at 6'4" he is bigger than Watson (6'2") and can guard both guard positions. Though he is not the lock-down defender of old, he is still a very good defender and will help ease the defensive loss caused by Ronnie Brewer's departure.
It is debatable who is the better defender between Hinrich and Watson, but I give Hinrich the advantage because of size and experience. While Watson got a lot of steals gambling on defense, Hinrich will get nearly as many steals playing solid man defense.
Offensively, both have career three-point shooting percentages of around 37 percent and free throw shooting percentages around 80 percent. While Hinrich has a slightingly better career mark (37.8%) than Watson (37.2%) from behind the arc, Watson had a better season last year (39.3%) than Hinrich (34.6%).
C.J. has the ability to be a more potent scorer, but Captain Kirk should provide more overall offensive balance than simply a shooter. Hinrich is a better ball handler and will be able to play alongside Rose much more effectively than Watson.
Offense Advantage: Watson
Defense Advantage: Hinrich
Overall Advantage: Hinrich (slight advantage due to his experience and intangibles)
Point Guard: John Lucas V. Marquis Teague
The legend of John Lucas grew throughout the season last year and probably peaked during a win against the Miami Heat when LeBron James took the assignment of guarding Lucas one-on-one in the fourth quarter and Lucas took James off the dribble and seemingly scored at will over the NBA's reigning MVP.
While Lucas' offensive momentum grew all year as his confidence built, the defensive liability he presented while on the court was exposed during the process. By the end of the season, teams would simply send their point guard down to the post for said player to back Lucas to the basket for an easy bucket.
For that reason alone, Marquis Teague already has an advantage over Lucas defensively. Due to Lucas' size, he also has a limited ceiling offensively and is only slightly ahead of Teague in that department.
At the beginning of the season, Lucas will have a slight advantage over rookie Teague on the offensive side of the ball. However, Teague will be the better player by the end of the year, especially considering all of the playing time he will receive with Derrick Rose out for a good portion of the year.
Teague may still be raw after only one season at Kentucky, but his potential ceiling is higher than his brother, Jeff Teague, who is a very good player and the starting point guard for the Atlanta Hawks. Marquis could become that second playmaker that Chicago needs on its bench and that offensive spark that was missing from the Bench Mob.
Offense Advantage: Lucas
Defense Advantage: Teague
Overall Advantage: Teague (should have a decent advantage by the playoffs)
Shooting Guard: Ronnie Brewer V. Jimmy Butler
Behind Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer's departure will be felt second most by the Bulls. Brewer was the team's defensive ace against wing players and always seemed to navigate the baseline beautifully on the offensive side of the ball.
Unfortunately, Brewer took his talents to the Big Apple and signed a veteran minimum contract to play for the Knicks after Chicago declined to pick up his option. Fortunately, however, Brewer's departure opens up more playing time in the rotation for second-year man, Jimmy Butler.
Its anticipated that Butler will step in and fill the void left by Brewer on the defensive side of the ball. Chicago hopes that Butler can become the same high quality wing defender as Brewer was for the team. If he can continue developing defensively, then Butler has a much higher overall ceiling than Brewer because of his offensive skills.
Butler was not used very often during last season, but exploded during this year's NBA Summer League. Butler earned honors as part of the All-Summer League team due to his standout performances and offensive prowess. While the Summer League is hardly the NBA, his improved play at that level will help build confidence that he can bring with him into the NBA regular season.
Offense Advantage: Butler
Defense Advantage: Brewer
Overall Advantage: Brewer (Butler could surpass Brewer by the end of the year if the Summer League is any indicator of Butler's potential)
Shooting Guard: Kyle Korver V. Marco Belinelli
There is no denying that Kyle Korver is one of the best sharp shooters in the NBA from behind the arc. When hot, he can knock down the three-ball right beside the all-time greats.
However, Korver is almost useless when cold (I say almost because he still presents a threat and decoy anytime he is on the court even when cold). He cannot drive to the basket, he cannot create shots for others and is a defensive liability (though he was vastly improved in the department after two seasons under coach Thibs).
Belinelli is a very similar player to Korver and adds above-average shooting from behind the arc (career 39.3% from downtown). Unlike Korver though, Belinelli has much more ability creating his own shot and to shoot off of the dribble. Belinelli is more of a scorer than just a shooter, averaging almost 12 points per game last year in nearly 30 minutes of playing time.
Belinelli is not a great defender, but has been serviceable throughout his five-year career. Considering the improvements to Korver's defense while in Chicago (he was regarded as one of the worst defenders in the NBA before joining the Bulls), one would anticipate that Belinelli should make similar strides on the defensive side of the ball under Thibs.
If Belinelli's defense improves and if he provides Chicago with the type of offense he displayed the last two years for the New Orleans Hornets (10.4 points, 41.4% three-point shooter in '10-'11 and 11.8 points, 37.7% three point shooter in '11-'12) then he has a chance to be much more than Korver for Chicago.
Korver was one trick pony. He could shoot lights out. That's it. Belinelli can be nearly as good in the shooting department while adding much more overall game. If Belinelli plays well, he could even see more minutes at shooting guard then incumbent starter, Rip Hamilton by the end of the year.
Offense Advantage: Belinelli
Defense Advantage: Belinelli
Overall Advantage: Belinelli
Small Forward: Jimmy Butler V. Malcolm Thomas
Both Jimmy Butler and Malcolm Thomas were selected to the All-Summer League team this NBA offseason. The duo were the only highlights of the Bulls' Summer League roster that was otherwise lackluster (including a disappointing performance by Marquis Teague).
Thomas spent part of last season as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. He never made an impact and only saw very limited minutes, however, Summer League has made general managers around the league take notice of his potential.
Thomas is a combo-forward, but is best suited to thrive at small forward. He would be an end-of-the-bench player this season, but is young and could have a bright future as a bench player with the team. Thomas could also be a valuable member of the bench as early as this year if Luol Deng goes down with injury whereby he and Butler would absorb minutes defending the small forward spot with Butler rotating on smaller players and Thomas matching up with larger opponents.
Butler is probably a better overall player and is more NBA ready now. However, if you are comparing Butler from last year as a member of the Bench Mob and Thomas as a member of the new bench, then the players are probably equal and their impact cancels each other out.
Offense Advantage: Butler
Defense Advantage: Thomas
Overall Advantage: Tie
Power Forward: Taj Gibson V. Taj Gibson
Lets be clear, the key member and best player on the Bench Mob was Taj Gibson. He is the sole returning Bench Mob member (other than Butler) and that is one of the primary reasons this year's bench has the ability to be better than last year's.
Gibson returns as the most important part of the bench. He will be the defensive anchor and the player to rebuild around. He is the only player on this year's, or last year's, entire roster, other than Rose and Noah, whose play can excite other members of the team and spark a big run by the Bulls.
The Houston Rockets did the Chicago Bulls a favor by offering Asik such big money because if they offered him anything less than Chicago may have matched the offer and not had enough money next season to re-sign Gibson.
If losing Asik means the Bulls have a better shot at retaining Gibson after next season then I think losing Asik was the best move of Chicago's offseason.
Offense Advantage: Gibson
Defense Advantage: Gibson
Overall Advantage: Gibson
Power Forward: Brian Scalabrine V. Vladimir Radmanovic
Since arriving in Chicago with coach Thibs a couple seasons ago, Brian Scalabrine has been a fan favorite. He is what I like to call the "human victory cigar." Scal would only check into the game when the Bulls were way ahead and the game was in the bag (or the opponent was way ahead).
However, Scalabrine was, and will never be more than, a victory cigar. He is more of a coach on the bench than a player. Chicago never used Scal when the game was on the line or the score was close (unless of injury or severe injury problems), whereas Radmanovic can actually be used in real game situations.
Although Radmanovic is not a great player or even the player he once was when drafted over a decade ago, he is still a much more offensively skilled player than Scalabrine. He can stretch defenses from the power forward or center spot with his ability to knock down the three-ball (shot 40.5% and 37% the past two seasons) and mid-range shots.
Radmanovic can actually contribute to the Bulls winning or losing unlike Scalabrine.
Offense Advantage: Radmanovic
Defense Advantage: Radmanovic
Overall Advantage: Radmanovic
Center: Omer Asik V. Nazr Mohammed
Omer Asik will be the toughest member of the Bench Mob to replace. His defensive presence is nearly irreplaceable throughout the entire NBA due to his sheer size at seven feet tall and his overall defensive aptitude.
However, for everything Asik adds on the defensive side, he is inversely as successful on the offensive side of the ball. He has horrible hands and drops many of the passes that are sent his way.
Asik is probably one of the top five worst offensive players in the NBA. He is a terrible free throw shooter and can only score by dunking the basketball.
His replacement, Nazr Mohammed, is nothing to write home about. He has always been an average to above-average defender. Although he is more of an average to slightly below average defender at this point in his career.
Mohammed is not much better on the offensive side of the ball than Asik, but he does have a few more low post moves and much more experience. He is also a slightly better free throw shooter, although still very poor.
At this point in their respective careers, Asik is slightly better than Mohammed. Asik has a much higher ceiling, but it is unlikely that he reaches that ceiling within the next two to three years, if ever. That is why Chicago could not match Houston's offer for Asik and why Mohammed makes more sense for the Bulls' current roster.
According to Chris Broussard of ESPN The Magazine, there is a three-team trade in the works that is not finalized, but that would send Brad Miller to the Phoenix Suns. Miller's contract is only guaranteed for $848,000 so the Suns will likely waive him if the trade is completed.
If that scenario plays out, then Chicago should make a strong push to sign Miller if he is willing to play for the veteran minimum. He still has a solid mid-range game and is willing to do the dirty work down low.
Signing Miller would be a great addition and help minimize the impact of Asik's departure. Miller would be an immediate upgrade over Mohammed. Plus, he is a fan favorite and would return to Chicago at the same time as his former Bulls teammate Kirk Hinrich.
Offense Advantage: Mohammed
Defense Advantage: Asik
Overall Advantage: Asik
Results: New Bench Better Than Bench Mob
Much to the chagrin of Bulls fans everywhere, Chicago has done very little to improve its roster this offseason. However, I would argue that the Bulls' bench may have actually improved in spite of the cost saving maneuvers associated with dismantling the Bench Mob.
While the new bench will not be as good as the Bench Mob at the beginning of the season, there is potential for it to be as good as, if not better than, the Bench Mob towards the end of the year when Rose returns from his knee injury.
PG: Watson < Hinrich
PG: Lucas < Teague
SG: Brewer > Butler
SG: Korver < Belinelli
SF: Butler = Thomas
PF: Scalabrine < Radmanovic
PF: Gibson = Gibson
C: Asik > Mohammad (Asik = Mohammad/Miller combo)
Bench Mob: 2
New Bench: 4
Last Season's Roster:
PG: Rose, Watson, Lucas
SG: Hamilton, Brewer, Butler
SF: Deng, Korver, Butler
PF: Boozer, Gibson, Scalabrine
C: Noah, Asik
This Season's Roster:
PG: Rose, Hinrich, Teague
SG: Hamilton, Belinelli, Butler
SF: Deng, Butler, (hopefully Thomas)
PF: Boozer, Gibson, Radmanovic
C: Noah, Mohammad, (hopefully Miller)
The biggest talent discrepancy between any Bench Mob member and his replacement player is at the center position because of Asik's dominating defense. While not re-signing Asik and bringing in Mohammad for the veteran minimum was the correct move, the defensive step-down is considerable (as noted before, signing Brad Miller to a veteran minimum contract if he is traded and released would help minimize the loss and step down in talent).
Hinrich, Teague and Belinelli will all be defensive improvements over their predecessors even if some of the other replacement players will be downgrades. The new bench will not have the same defensive prowess that the Bench Mob possessed, however, coach Thibs could meld them into a very strong defensive unit around defensive stud, Taj Gibson, before the playoffs begin.
Ultimately, the new bench has a higher ceiling and could be better than the Bench Mob because of the unit's offensive abilities. Every replacement player (except maybe for Thomas) is an upgrade offensively over his counterpart.
Hinrich, Belinelli and Radmanovic should help replace the void left by Korver and Watson's three-point shooting. Hinrich and Teague will serve as the additional ball handlers that were missing from last year's bench (Watson is a poor ball handler for a point guard). Most importantly, Teague should provide Chicago with another slasher who can put pressure on defenses by making things happen with the ball in his hands.
In my opinion, Chicago's new bench has the ability to be as good as, if not better than, the Bench Mob, especially if coach Thibodeau can get the same kind of defensive intensity and teamwork out of the new bench as out of the old.
I guess only time will tell.