There's no denying the Chicago Bulls have gotten off to a slow start, but not everything that is happening is negative. If you're looking for a silver lining, look no further than the play of the bench.
"But", you protest, "the bench isn't playing well! Mike Dunleavy is done! He should leavy!"
Whether or not it's playing well is not the point here. The fact that it is playing at all is the silver lining.
Taking Up the Slack
Yes, Deng was benched early in a blowout game, and the United Center booed the decision. And yes, the triple-double was the reason why they booed, but one wonders if the response would have been the same last year, when the story of every game was the clamoring over the excessive minutes the All-Star wing was playing.
Deng averaged 38.7 minutes a contest last season, the most in the NBA. This year, that number is down to 36.0 minutes. And while he's still leading the Bulls in minutes played, he's only 27th in the Association.
A large reason why Deng played so many minutes is that the Bulls were short on wings who played on both ends of the court, so Deng would play a large chunk of the minutes with the bench coming in.
Now they have Dunleavy, who is playing 19.4 minutes per game.
Deng and Jimmy Butler split time with the bench, with Dunleavy playing the shooting guard or small forward, depending on whom he is playing alongside, thereby reducing the burden on Deng.
Dunleavy's not the ball-handler that Nate Robinson or Mario Belinelli were, and he's not the shooter that Kyle Korver was, but he's the only one of the four to play both positions on both ends of the court.
For what it's worth, the Bulls are giving up just 88.9 points per 100 possessions with Dunleavy on the court and are eight points better than their opponents. He's shooting .417 from three. Yes, that's the glossy look, but the reports of his awfulness have been greatly exaggerated.
Joakim Noah, who last year was 17th with 36.8 minutes on average, is playing just 28.2 at present. Taj Gibson, who, at 25.4, is averaging the most minutes since his rookie season when he was a starter, is eating up the bulk of the minutes that Noah is leaving on the table.
While there were concerns that head coach Tom Thibodeau would run Derrick Rose ragged in his return, there has been plenty of rest for the superstar. He's played just 31.0 minutes a game with Kirk Hinrich taking up the slack, notching 23.8.
In fact, the percentage of overall minutes that are going to the bench are appreciably different. The following chart shows where the Bulls were last year in terms of starters-to-bench minutes played last season. (Data for minutes was obtained from Hoopsstats.com).
Now this chart shows where they are thus far this season.
The Bulls have gone from playing their starters the third-most minutes, to being 12th. That is an appreciable drop.
Player Abuse Points
There is more to running a player into the ground than just average minutes per game.
Last summer, I offered up the idea of "player abuse points," which takes a page from "pitcher abuse points" in baseball. The idea is that the 40th minute a player plays is more damaging to a player than the first minute because, at that point, the player is already fatigued.
For every minute over 39 (so 40 is one point), I assigned a player abuse point.
I looked at the league in terms of which teams logged the most player abuse points. The Bulls were easily the worst team in the league in that regard. Here is what it looked like.
Now, here are the abuse points so far from this season.
Because the bench has been playing more minutes, the starters have not been getting run ragged.
Less Miles Means More Smiles
Finally, it's been proffered that because of the Bulls system, the players have to run more miles. According to ESPN (subscription required), the new SVU tracking data gave that conclusion raw meat too. Noah led the league in miles ran per game with 2.74, and Deng was second at 2.68.
This year, those numbers are dramatically different. Deng is logging the most miles on the Bulls but only ranks 24th in the NBA at 2.5 miles per game. The next Bull is Jimmy Butler, who is 54th, logging just 2.3 miles per game.
As for Noah and his problematic feet? He's just enduring 1.9 miles per game and is ranked 125th in the league.
Rate multiplied by time equals distance. (I remember that from my high school algebra, so I guess I was wrong when I said I'd never have to use that in real life). Less time means less distance. And the Bulls' All-Stars having minutes reduced means they're putting fewer miles on those legs.
So what does all this mean?
The Bulls are going to inevitably get things clicking with their starters. They are going to start winning again.
But the running complaint over the last three years is that they wear themselves out in the regular season and have nothing left in the tank come the postseason.
This year, with the Bulls running a solid eight-man rotation (and Nazr Mohammed getting some minutes, too), the starters are playing less. And every minute that they don't play is that much more energy they will have in the postseason.
Bulls fans have been protesting that Thibodeau needs to stop playing every regular-season game like it's the postseason. Well, this is what that looks like. It looks like a team looking for continuity early in the season. It looks like a group that is going to get its doors blown off in some fourth quarters.
That's the way sacrifice works. You give up one thing because the return is greater than the cost.
If you're looking for something to be encouraged by, be encouraged by the fact that Thibodeau is apparently determined to keep his starters' minutes and miles down so he can save them for the playoffs. That is the better long-term view.