Some of these players are established veterans looking to help a contender get over the hump. Others are untested novices desperate to prove their professional worth.
Bulls fans may not notice since they may be distracted by the return of MVP point guard Derrick Rose. However, Rose will not be able to return Chicago to Eastern Conference prominence by himself. If he wishes to maximize the talent of the current Bulls roster, he needs to act fast because some of these guys may not be here after next season.
Kirk Hinrich is one such player who is probably nearing the end of his professional tenure. If you took a look at Hinrich’s career stats with an emphasis on games played, you would see that he was a very dependable contributor for the first eight seasons of his career. He played in 70-plus games in all but one of those seasons and averaged 12.8 points and 5.5 assists in 31.2 minutes of playing time.
Hinrich has missed 56 games over the last two seasons, and his production has dropped significantly. This past year Hinrich averaged just 7.7 points and 5.2 assists in addition to missing 22 regular-season and eight playoff games. Given that Hinrich was one of the more skilled guards of an understaffed Bulls backcourt, those were very underwhelming numbers.
The good news is that with the return of Rose, Hinrich’s responsibilities will change this season. He will see a reduction in minutes as he shifts to a reserve role, and that may help preserve him over the course of a full schedule. But recent history casts doubt on that postulation.
Hinrich’s health failings seem to suggest that his body can no longer handle the NBA grind. He’s going to have to prove that he can be effective if managed properly. However, if this season sees Marquis Teague frequently playing in Hinrich’s absence, Hinrich could find himself with a hazy NBA future when his contract expires next summer.
Mike Dunleavy Jr. is another player whose professional twilight is approaching. Dunleavy was a heavily pursued free agent this past summer but decided that Chicago best fit his current career ambitions (read: “championships”) and signed with the Bulls despite being offered more lucrative and longer deals from other teams.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau already thinks highly of Dunleavy’s addition. Chicago Tribune reporter KC Johnson quoted Thibodeau back in mid July saying:
"Mike has been a starter and played very well. And he has been a bench guy and played very well. I like that he can get it done in shorter minutes. He complements Derrick and Carlos (Boozer) extremely well. He moves well without the ball. He's a playmaker and an excellent team defender. We think he's a great fit."
What makes this season a potential make-or-break endeavor is that it seems like Dunleavy is trying to win a title while still being able to play as a meaningful contributor. Even as an 11-year veteran, Dunleavy is still playing more than 20 minutes per game and has averaged double digits in points per game in all but two of his professional seasons.
Entering the last days of his career, Dunleavy is looking to both go out on top and go with professional dignity. Whether or not he is able to do this will depend on whether he can handle Thibodeau’s regimen. It is no mystery that Thibodeau really pushes his players. Former Bulls sharpshooter Kyle Korver alluded to that early last season.
If Dunleavy wants to write his own career’s ending, it’s not going to be easy. He's going to have to play harder than he's ever played for a coach who will demand more than he's used to. Will Dunleavy's championship ambitions be enough motivation?
Erik Murphy is like many other NBA youngsters trying to prove that he belongs among the best. Despite landing with a contender via the second round of the NBA draft, Murphy’s NBA career could very well be over before it gets the chance the start.
The 6’10” forward out of Florida was picked because of his ability to stretch the floor with his outside shot. Although he wasn’t exactly spectacular during the Las Vegas Summer League, Murphy did have two games where he showed just how well he could score. Still, his shooting ability may not be enough to keep him around.
There a couple of big strikes already against Murphy getting a legitimate shot at being even a minor contributor for Chicago this season. The first obstacle is his position. Murphy is third in the power forward rotation behind starter Carlos Boozer and primary reserve Taj Gibson. Watching any Bulls game over the past few seasons will show that Boozer and Gibson virtually split all 48 minutes at the 4.
Even in times where a stretch forward would be needed, the nod would surely go to the more experienced Dunleavy than the unseasoned Murphy. Adding another obstacle to Murphy’s climb up the depth chart is the Bulls’ rumored interest in former Lakers forward Antawn Jamison.
Second, the Bulls roster is built on players being able to do multiple things well. In the few games he has played, all Murphy has only shown is the aforementioned streaky outside shot. Not even the wildly speculated but never substantiated act of amnestying Boozer would do much to better Murphy’s chances of being a part of the Bulls’ long-term plans. Chicago’s big man future currently revolves around Gibson and Joakim Noah. The Bulls front office also still has a chance to finally figure out how to bring Nikola Mirotic over from Spain.
With all of these factors working against him, the wall may be too thick for Murphy to break through and establish himself as a capable professional basketball player deserving of a roster spot.
The professional sports career is an unpredictable one. Every athlete is one fluke away from having it all end. Factoring in all of the other unforeseen circumstances that can adversely impact a career, it actually seems shocking how long some of these guys last. Still, there are always those who are on the brink hoping to never fall over the edge. Godspeed to those who are teetering.