Where Every Member of New Chicago Bulls Bench Mob Must Improve
This offseason, the Chicago Bulls revamped one of the best benches in the league, ostensibly in an effort to save money in a season where the chances of competing for a title are limited because of the absence of Derrick Rose.
The new bench is considered by many to be a downgrade, and after the first few preseason games, there was some reason for those who share that opinion to gloat.
Their recent games have given the critics reason to doubt.
Here is a brief recap of how they have played so far, and what each newly acquired player can improve upon.
During the first three games they collectively were a minus-10. Apart from Taj Gibson and Nazr Mohammed, the bench shot a field-goal percentage of just .215. They didn't understand the defense, and they were doing a poor game of running the offense, forcing shots and missing them.
After a couple of rough outings, Bench Mob 2.0 has shown improvement in their last two preseason games.
Over the last two games, they've been spectacular. Nate Robinson, starting in place of Kirk Hinrich, scored 23 points and had 13 assists in the Bulls' fourth preseason game. The bench overall was 10-of-21. In their last game, excluding Marco Belinelli, the bench shot a collective 13-of-24, a field-goal percentage of .541.
Again, if you take out Belinelli's shooting (which has been horrid, but more on that later), the Bulls' bench has gone 22-of-42 over the last two games.
In sum, the new bench is probably not as bad as they looked the first three games, or as good as they looked in the last two, though the last two are probably a better approximation.
That's more common sense than hope. As they play together they're likely to improve together, and the 20 percent shooting was so low there had to be a "progression to the mean" sooner or later. The last two games are still preseason games, but they are deeper into the preseason.
There are still a number of things the new Bench Mob needs to work on, and here is the top priority for each member.
End of the Bench
There are a few players who are still on the Bulls' roster, but whom we haven't seen play enough to really gauge how well they will do if they ever start acquiring more court time.
Vladamir Radmonovic is a known stretch forward, who on a couple of tries has surprised by putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim. He's generally not a ball-handler, though. In fact John Hollinger says of him in his scouting report, "Disastrously bad ball handler."
In terms of both skills and effort, Radmonvic has been below average defensively over the course of his career, and one assumes that's why he hasn't see much of the court. He'll probably get the White Mamba's minutes, so don't expect too much from him.
Ryan Allen is the little brother of Tony Allen, the starting shooting guard for the Memphis Grizzlies, and is also a close friend of Rose since they grew up playing with one another and against one another on the playgrounds. Ryan is similar to his big brother in that while he doesn't offer much on offense, but he is a shutdown defender.
Allen was All-Defense for the Horizon League when he played at UW-Milwaukee. We all know how reluctant Thibodeau is to keep around defensive specialists, which is about as reluctant to watch film or stand during games.
Don't be surprised to see Allen make the final cut. The other thing he has going for him is that he can play on a rookie contract, which means the Bulls can afford to keep him and stay under the hard cap. He hasn't played enough minutes to evaluate him beyond that, though.
Marquis Teague, Maturing
Watching Marquis Teague it is quite evident that he has the talent and athleticism to not only play in the NBA but to star in it. It would be a huge mistake to evaluate him based on his five preseason games.
In fact, John Hollinger had him rated as the fifth-best player in the draft. Hollinger says,
My Draft Rater had Teague rated as the fifth-best talent (I did a couple tweaks post-draft, but even going in I had him rated highly), so getting him at No. 29 while also filling a position need was a huge coup for the Bulls.
Remember Teague was born on February 23, 1993. He's not even going to turn 20 until after the All-Star Game. That's really young, especially for a point guard who is running the team. He probably learned to shave from Tom Thibodeau.
So yes, if he seems to force things and take bad shots, and get out of position on defense, that's to be expected.A lack of maturity from a teenager is what you expect.
We're a year or two away from seeing him become a major contributor, but down the road Teague is a great candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
Right now he doesn't need to worry about contributing, he needs to be all about learning. He needs to absorb basketball 24 hours a day. Being around Derrick Rose and witnessing his work ethic should be excellent for Teague. Having Thibodeau for a coach isn't going to hurt, either.
Don't expect to see him a ton this year, but do expect to see a drastic improvement over the year. By next season he should be much more valuable. For now, he just needs to grow.
Jimmy Butler, Don't Press
Jimmy Butler isn't technically a "new" member of the Bench Mob, but in many ways he is. He was a Bull last year, but his minutes were limited and now he is being asked to step in and do what Ronnie Brewer, the departed lockdown wing defender, did last year.
He has been far more aggressive this preseason than we've seen him in the past. That's a good thing as he was positively explosive in the Summer Leagues where he was named an All-Star.
However, sometimes aggressive crosses over into pressing, and right now Butler appears to be pressing at times. He's forcing shots, and missing a lot of them. He's only hit on eight of his 28 attempts this preseason.
More tellingly, he's showing signs of the pressure getting to him at the stripe. While he made 35 of his 39 attempts during the Summer League he's only 11 of 19 from the stripe during the preseason.
In his last game he might have overcompensated. He only attempted one shot (which he did make). He also four assists and five rebounds.
Butler needs to find the balance and take shots in rhythm, not forcing them and not passing up what's there. He has the potential to be as good defensively as Brewer but has a higher offensive ceiling. In the long run, this is another positive move for the Bulls.
Marco Belinelli, Understanding the Schemes
Marco Belinelli is supposed to be the replacement for Kyle Korver. So far he's a very long way from Korver, though. He's seven of 28 from the field, a field-goal percentage is .250. His effective field-goal percentage is also .250 which, for the mathematically challenged, means he hasn't hit a three yet.
That's not for lack of trying, though, as he's attempted 13 from deep.
For a career three-point shooter that has made close to 40 percent of his attempts, that's something that is going to be resolved, eventually. One hopes. Maybe.
The bigger issue for Belinelli is that he doesn't appear to have figured out the system yet offensively or defensively.
To be fair, in the last game there was an improvement on both ends of the court. Still, of all the new members of the team, he appears to be the most lost, even more so than the rookie, Marquis Teague.
On defense he's often clueless, and figures out where he was supposed to be mere moments after watching his man drive past him for an easy hoop. At one point, Taj Gibson had to physically place him in the right spot.
Thibodeau has little patience for ineptitude, and it is reflected in Belinelli's declining minutes. He played 25:59 minutes in his first game, 23:35 in his second, 22:07 in the third (in spite of starting), 18:11 in his fourth and 17:54 in his last game.
If he doesn't start figuring things out, then he's not going to get a lot of playing time this season, and the Bulls are going to have to figure out where the offense off the bench is coming from. At this rate, it's not coming from Belinelli anyway.
Nazr Mohammed, Defense
"Nasty" Nazr Mohammed is the first of the new Bulls to earn a nickname from Bulls announcer Stacey King, which should give you an idea of how well he's playing.
It isn't likely that Mohammed will maintain that level of production during the regular season. It does bode well that he'll have a better level of production than Bulls fans were hoping when he was signed, though.
Offensively, there's nothing more to be asked. In many ways, he's an upgrade in fact. He has a far more adept arsenal than Omer Asik did. He is a more capable scorer in the post and also is better from five feet out.
However, defensively he still is working things out. He's not a man-to-man defender and never will be, but in terms of just being able to get in place and stick his hands up, there's hope. Truthfully, that is a lot of what Asik did. The key is to do that without fouling, though.
More time playing and more time on the court will help with that.
If Mohammed can approximate Asik's defense, he could actually help make this bench better than last year's. He will certainly provide more offense.
Nate Robinson, Decision-Making
Nate Robinson is averaging 11.4 points and 4.0 assists per game so far this preseason. The bad news is that about half of that production came in the one game he started. The good news is that about half of that production came in the one game he started.
Robinson became the fifth different starting point guard to win a game with the Bulls in the last two seasons. Whether it's Derrick Rose, C.J. Watson, John Lucas III, Kirk Hinrich or Nate Robinson, the Bulls seem to find a way to win.
He has shown a blend of scoring and passing which indicate he should fill in well as the spark plug off the bench the Bulls are hoping he'll be. He's the leading scorer for the Bulls per 48 minutes during the preseason, and he's also the second-leading passer.
The biggest problem he's had so far is decision-making. Sometimes it's a matter of shooting when he should pass, sometimes he passes when he should shoot. Sometimes he throws passes off the backboard instead of just making a pass or a shot. Thibodeau is not a fan of that.
Well, to be fair, that only happened once.
Robinson is a bit of a showman, and that urge is going to need to be tempered. There's a fine line between standing up and showing up opponents.
Robinson's enthusiasm is a welcome addition, but he'll need to channel that in a positive direction.
With Kirk Hinrich having dealt with injuries the last two seasons there were some who questioned how much would be left in his tank upon returning to the Bulls. Would he be able to return to the kind of player that he was before he left?
So far his play has been anything but disappointing. He's been reminiscent of his old self, and his ubiquitous defensive play is the perfect fit for Tom Thibodeau's system. The Bulls have outscored their opponents by a total of 40 points while Hinrich has been on the court.
Hinrich also is fourth among all NBA players in assists during the preseason, for whatever that's worth. Even adjusting for minutes, his 11.1 assists per 48 minutes is 11th in the NBA.
Filling in as the starter until Derrick Rose returns, technically right now Hinrich is not a part of the "Bench Mob," and the Bulls need it to stay that way. Of course, once Rose does return, Hinrich will move to the bench and be a key player off of it.
The only real criticism of Hinrich is he needs to take it easy. He actually might be trying too hard. He's spending so much energy on the court, I need a Gatorade after watching. He's not a young man anymore, and you can't help but wonder how long he can continue to play like that without risking injury.
Hinrich needs to pace himself if he's going to last to the end of the year, even if he gets moved to the bench once Rose returns (as opposed to moving to the starting shooting guard and Rip coming off the bench).
Actually, once Rose returns Hinrich should make this bench as deep, if not deeper than the old one. Hinrich, Taj Gibson and Mohammed should make for a very solid core. After that it's just a matter of Belinelli finding his way, Butler getting comfortable with his new role and Teague growing.
Given time to jell, this group will be surprisingly productive, much the same as the old one was.