Taj Gibson and Chicago's second unit should surprise some people.
When the Chicago Bulls led the league in wins for consecutive seasons in 2010-11 and 2011-12, they did this largely due to their depth. The "Bench Mob" regularly contributed with productivity.
Can the Bulls display this same dynamic again in 2013-14? Could they even perhaps have the best bench in the NBA?
Since 2012, most of their featured bench contributors have departed. Taj Gibson remains, but Omer Asik, C.J. Watson and Kyle Korver have ventured elsewhere.
Furthermore, during the 2012-13 Derrick Rose-less campaign, energetic point guard Nate Robinson and savvy shooting guard Marco Belinelli were instrumental figures in the Bulls' second unit. Both of them have now bid farewell to Chicago (Robinson is now a member of the Denver Nuggets, Belinelli inked a deal with the San Antonio Spurs).
Therefore, it might appear outlandish to suggest that the Bulls have the league's best bench. With an array of departures over the past couple offseasons, can Chicago's new-look "Bench Mob" really produce with top-notch effectiveness?
It's imperative to look under the radar when considering this. While Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson may not invoke great fear in opponents, each of them provides eye-opening efficiency in the roles they bring to the table. These three anchors should serve as quality veterans that flourish in the intangibles.
Consider this statistic alone: during 2012-13, Hinrich (+100) and Gibson (+115) topped Chicago's squad in plus/minus, per 82games.com. As stellar as All-Stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng were last year, they could not top Hinrich and Gibson in this telling number.
One might argue that Hinrich and Gibson garnered such high numbers because they were playing against second units. This is entirely not true for Hinrich, who was a starter when healthy. Gibson's mark could be slightly inflated due to this, but he still consistently logged minutes against opponent's starters (particularly late in games).
At any rate, the bottom line is this: good things happen when Hinrich and Gibson are on the floor.
Interestingly, positive things also occur when Dunleavy is on the hardwood. As a member of the Milwaukee Bucks last season, he led their squad in plus/minus (+94). Other core players on Milwaukee were not even close to challenging him. Brandon Jennings, in particularly, compiled a minus-286 (yes, you read that correctly).
While plus/minus is not always an accurate indicator of a player's talent level, it's certainly revealing. It's especially convincing when the numbers are as impressive as what Hinrich, Gibson and Dunleavy attained. These digits are so emphatic that we can be assured Chicago's second unit is anchored by three veterans who know how to get it done.
Plus, they each fit into convenient roles.
Hinrich is a combo guard who can supply minutes as a primary distributor or as an off-the-ball shooter. With Marquis Teague blossoming in recent Summer League action, he could be ready to see regular action off Chicago's bench. He could potentially even share the backcourt at times with Hinrich. Because Hinrich is flexible in terms of positioning, the Bulls can strategically use "Captain Kirk" in various ways, depending on the foe.
Dunleavy gives Chicago something they desperately need: three-point shooting. He shot 42.8-percent from long-range last season while notching 10.5 points per game. His ability to stretch the floor should be a key component to the Bulls' offensive approach.
The following shot chart, per NBA.com, illustrates how deadly Dunleavy is from distance. There is much green painted outside the three-point line.
Gibson is a defensive stalwart, surely exemplifying defensive prowess in a way that Carlos Boozer does not. Gibson's shot-blocking ability coupled with his aggressiveness on the boards exclaim his value.
Gibson's offensive skill set hasn't made the strides that many Bulls fans had hoped. He particularly hasn't polished his mid-range jump shot. While an occasional make is customary, consistency is an issue. The following shot chart, via NBA.com, magnifies this.
Interestingly though, Gibson notched Chicago's top offensive rating (1.07) in 2012-13, according to 82games.com. This statistic is simply the points per possession the Bulls score while Gibson is on the floor.
Gibson may still have areas to refine offensively, but he clearly doesn't limit Chicago's attack. In fact, his steady offensive rebounds often create second-chance scoring opportunities. Furthermore, his suffocating defense regularly causes turnovers or forces missed jumpers, leading to transition buckets on the other end.
This all amplifies how Hinrich, Dunleavy and Gibson are downright efficient players who should function perfectly in their given roles. They should catapult Chicago's second unit to as much if not more success than any other crop of reserves.
The big question is what type of contributions will come from elsewhere. The efforts of just Hinrich, Dunleavy and Gibson should be enough to situate the Bulls' bench in the upper tier. However, if they aspire to be the league's best, they'll need at least two other players performing at a competent level.
One of those players will most likely be Nazr Mohammed, who should serve as the backup center again (unless Chicago signs somebody else in the coming weeks). Mohammed was serviceable in 2012-13, but at his age (he will be 36 years old in 2013-14), we shouldn't expect much.
Ideally, Gibson will mop up most of the frontcourt minutes off the bench, but Mohammed will still be utilized in stretches. If he executes similarly to last year in about 10 or so minutes a game, then there's nothing about his game that should greatly strain the Bulls' schemes.
Basically, we know what to forecast from Mohammed. It won't be much, but it shouldn't be completely inept.
The looming issue is what Teague and rookie Tony Snell will bring to the table. Teague flashed signs of promise as a rookie last season, but for the most part, he looked like a 19-year-old who could've used another year in college.
His progressions in the Las Vegas Summer League spark excitement about the upcoming year, though. In four games, he tallied 18.3 PPG (including 6-8 on three pointers) and 4.8 assists per game. He also showcased maturity in handling the offense and making decisions.
If these improvements continue, there's every reason to believe he'll crack coach Tom Thibodeau's rotation. He could become a spark plug that is useful in stints.
Snell is the major wild card. He was a bit of a mystery pick who did not net an overly compelling collegiate stat line (in 2012-13 for New Mexico, he averaged 12.5 PPG on 42.2-percent shooting from the field, 39.0 percent from long-range).
Although, his upside is undeniable. With his length (6'7'') and athleticism, he could blossom into a gifted shooting guard. Plus, his shooting stroke is pretty, and he should develop into a threat from behind the arc.
Snell already unveiled some of his potential in Las Vegas, where he averaged 11.8 PPG and a surprising 6.6 rebounds per outing.
The question is if this upside can be realized this season. With Thibodeau's hesitancy to play rookies, Snell's breakout moment may not come until his second or third campaign.
The reality when it comes to Chicago's youngsters is that one of them must step forward. This could especially be the case if injuries mount, which all Bulls fans are accustomed to seeing. Teague or Snell (and hopefully both) need to play like confident pieces on a championship-caliber team. They don't need to be dominant, but their services are needed if Chicago's second unit is suited to become the NBA's premier bunch.
Right now, Chicago's bench is seemingly underrated. There aren't many who label their second unit as formidable.
But, they honestly have the pieces, namely Gibson and Hinrich, to be exceptional on the defensive end, and they carry a unique mesh of veteran intellect (Hinrich, Dunleavy, Mohammed) and versatility (Gibson, Teague, Snell) that should generate buckets. While they will at times miss the jaw-dropping offensive plays of Nate Robinson, they should actually demonstrate more efficiency with their 2013-14 crew.
The current hype surrounding Chicago is centered upon the return of D-Rose. Don't be shocked, though, if at some point the talk amongst NBA analysts is fixated upon Chicago's imposing cast of characters off the bench. The new-look "Bench Mob" is poised for a stirring run that many likely don't see coming.