Are the Chicago Bulls Falling Behind the Changing Times?

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Are the Chicago Bulls Falling Behind the Changing Times?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The explosion of player hyphenates—guys able to master more than one position—is a trend that seemingly has cut across all sports, including the NBA.

Unfortunately for the Chicago Bulls, the changing times are passing them by, particularly with exquisite combo guard Derrick Rose missing a huge chunk of the upcoming 2012-13 season. Few of the club’s healthy players boast positional flexibility, the sort of thing that will help the Bulls battle through injury over the course of the season, not to mention any nasty matchups and foul trouble that could plague the club on a a game-to-game basis.

You’d think the Toros were hitting the court in canvas Chuck Taylors and buzz cuts with the traditional look they’ll be throwing down sans Rose. Take a look at the inflexibility of the roster:

Point guards: Kirk Hinrich, Marquis Teague

Shooting guards: Marco Belinelli, Richard Hamilton, Nate Robinson

Small forwards: Luol Deng

Power forwards: Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, Vladimir Radmanovic

Centers: Nazr Mohammed, Joakim Noah

The only true hyphenate on the club? Second-year swingman Jimmy Butler, who impressed enough in Summer League that he’s got a crack at backing up Deng at the 3. Don’t spend those 10 mpg all in one spot, Jimmy.

With Rose out, the Bulls knocked favorite son Hinrich over with a heavy bag of cash to come back into the fold. Part of the justification of Hinrich’s two-year (gasp), $8 million (double-gasp) deal was that he would fill a combo guard role, deftly sliding over to the 2 when Rose returns. But at 31 and still just 6-3 with limited hops, how many 2s will Hinrich be able to neutralize, grit and spit and heart and sweat aside?

Even in intrasquad games, Hinrich will be too short to stop Belinelli and too slow to roll Robinson. Hinrich should be able to handle fellow graybeard Rip Hamilton, so that’s one of three shooting guards on a team that's aching for a single star at the 2. That's beyond unconvincing; Hinrich’s suited role will be backing Rose and emergency work at the 2, no more.

Teague, for all his offensive bravado, is a raw rookie who will never have the size or strength to guard NBA 2s.

Can Belinelli swing to small forward and rest Deng? The Bulls may have been tickled to find Kyle Korver Lite at a bargain-basement price, but the paesan is nearly as reedy as Hamilton, so good luck tussling with any major-league forward in the paint.

None of the beefy Bulls down low can spell Deng at the 3, either. Gibson has the tenacity to take on his share of 3s, but he's yet to warm to open-court defense the way, say, a Dennis Rodman did. Going big with Taj at small forward is an emergency measure only.

Radmanovic has skills and court sense that scream small forward, but size and hops that suggest…well…the inactive list?

If not for the dearth of depth at center, Noah would certainly slide down to the 4 and be a terrific hyphenate on the 2012-13 Bulls. But when the only other center on the roster is Mohammed, who might give you 10 good minutes on the right night, don’t expect Noah anywhere but in the middle all year long.

Bulls opponents in most cases are playing at a talent disadvantage even when Chicago is sans Rose, so the different mixes of matchups could ease the inflexibility of the roster. For example, Boozer or Gibson could easily man center when a team goes small against the Bulls. Conversely, Captain Kirk could see time at the 2 with impunity when an opponent runs a small backcourt against Chicago.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Taj thrives in the paint, not the perimeter.

But in straight-up battles against the mettle of the Eastern Conference, Chicago is at a flexibility disadvantage. The Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers boast four hyphenate players, the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic three, and the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks two—and in each case, there is additional, “unofficial” flexibility than that indicated by the official roster lists.

What’s interesting is that Chicago’s roster inflexibility flies in the face of its proud championship years. It’s not apocryphal that Michael Jordan manned the point for the Bulls—he not only did, but ran off a string of triple-doubles from the 1.

Scottie Pippen was a famed “point forward,” not only the captain of the defense but, at 6-9, the true point guard on the floor. Rodman might as well have played the “zero-spot” on offense but guarded 1s up to 5s on defense, handily. The supposedly subpar big men that manned some center for six titles often could occupy power forward as well: Stacey King, Horace Grant, Scott Williams, Bill Wennington, and Bison Dele.

Of course, the cream of the East, the Miami Heat, looks to open the season just as positionally locked as the Bulls, with swingman James Jones and his 13 mpg as their sole hyphenate. But then, when guys like Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Ray Allen and Chris Bosh are the inflexibly-positioned players at crunch time, there might be a little less cause for concern.

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