The Chicago Bulls are in an unfamiliar position this year. Faced with the conundrum of their deepest roster since Tom Thibodeau became head coach in 2010, they need to figure out how to get all these guys minutes.
Thibodeau has gained the infamous reputation of shortening his rotation and playing his most reliable defenders into the ground.
While a short hook for blown assignments has had something to do with that, it’s never been entirely fair to put all the blame for the heavy minutes on the coach.
The players most acquainted with their chairs were hardly elite talent. Consider this less-than-illustrious list of names: Louis Amundson, Jarvis Varnado, Tornike Shengelia, Cartier Martin, Jimmer Fredette, Erik Murphy, Mike James, Marquis Teague, Daequan Cook, Vladimir Radmanovic, Malcolm Thomas, Brian Scalabrine, Rasual Butler and James Johnson.
That’s everyone who logged fewer than 500 minutes with the Bulls since the 2010-11 season. From that list, the only one with a post-Bull career worth mentioning is Johnson. That’s the talent Thibodeau has been “wasting.”
As a result, players like Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have borne the brunt of the burden, playing excessive minutes. Deng led the league in playing time until last year. Then, Butler did so in his place.
Noah, who led centers in minutes last year, has been overly tasked, too.
But now the Bulls are suddenly boasting a roster that goes a legitimate 10 deep. And that’s a dilemma Thibodeau is not used to facing.
Who are all these guys, and how are they going to get playing time? Let’s break it down.
The Returning Players
Derrick Rose will be making his second return. He won the 2010-11 MVP award but has been struggling with injuries since then, missing all but 10 games the last two years. The Bulls will be happy if he can just finish the season.
Chicago is also bringing back the majority of the eight-man rotation that won 48 games last season. I won’t spend a lot of time discussing them because they are familiar faces already.
Kirk Hinrich served as the starting point guard the majority of the season. He’ll now back up Rose.
Butler will get the nod at shooting guard and was named to the All-Defensive second team. The Bulls are hoping his offense bounces back this year after his field-goal percentage dropped below 40 percent last year, but he’ll log minutes regardless because he’s one of the best wing stoppers in the league.
Mike Dunleavy Jr. stepped into Deng’s spot after he was traded on Jan. 7. There’s a good chance he moves back to the bench at some point in the season, if not to begin it.
Taj Gibson was expected to become the new starting power forward after Carlos Boozer was amnestied. Instead, he’ll be a significant bench player and favorite for Sixth Man of the Year.
Noah, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-NBA center, will maintain his starting status.
Tony Snell had an up-and-down rookie year but is hoping to build upon a standout performance in Summer League, where he was named to the All-NBA Summer League first team. He’s added bulk and is more familiar with the defense. An improvement by him could alleviate Butler of his extra burden.
The only key players Chicago lost are Boozer and D.J. Augustin.
That puts the Bulls at seven deep, just counting the returning players.
The New Players
The biggest acquisition for the Bulls was Boozer’s replacement, Pau Gasol. The 7'0" Spaniard had a real plus-minus (rpm) of plus-1.04 according to ESPN. Boozer’s was minus-4.13. Theoretically, that swap would result in a net difference of 5.17 points per game. While it’s doubtful it actually works out to be that dramatic, it’s indicative of a big improvement.
Chicago also added two rookies, and either could potentially compete for Rookie of the Year.
The reputation that Thibodeau has gained is that he redshirts rookies. The reality is he doesn’t give time to guys who can’t play, regardless of their experience. See the aforementioned list as evidence.
It’s true that rookies haven’t really logged heavy minutes, but drafting in the bottom third each year, the Bulls haven’t been landing NBA-ready guys.
This year’s pair of first-year candidates is an entirely different issue. Using past seasons to predict playing time for this year’s rookies is literally the same as comparing Marquis Teague to Nikola Mirotic or Doug McDermott. And doing that would be just silly.
McDermott is the Naismith Award winner and the NCAA’s fifth all-time leading scorer. Mirotic is reigning MVP of the second-fiercest basketball league in the world. They are far more ready to play than any rookie Thibodeau has ever had, including Butler.
Some, expecting defensive issues, will cite that as an alternate reason the rooks will ride pine. But Thibodeau has given time to bad defenders who offer scoring.
Augustin was horrendous when the Bulls didn’t have the ball, and he logged more than 30 minutes per game.
Boozer’s defensive woes are legendary, and he still played 28 minutes last season, even when he was averaging only 13.7 points.
Kyle Korver improved in Chicago, but he was never a stopper at the wings. He played more than 20 minutes both his seasons with the Bulls.
You could argue that Thibodeau has given more minutes to lopsided players who skew defensively, but it’s not like there have been great scoring talents wasting away on the bench in their place.
He just hasn’t had scorers. Fredette is the closest thing to a pure offensive threat who was wasted, but he was so awful when the other team had the ball that he got thrown out of Sacramento. Sacramento!!!
The Bulls are also more vested in McDermott and Mirotic than previous Thibodeau rookies.
They gave up the Nos. 16 and 19 picks and a 2015 second-rounder to land the rights to McDermott.
They traded the No. 29 pick (Norris Cole) and a second-round pick in 2011 just for the chance to gamble that Mirotic would eventually come over. When he finally did, they gave him a three-year, $17 million contract.
As a result, expect both rookies to log regular minutes.
Aaron Brooks will serve as security if Rose gets hurt again. He might break the rotation if Rose stays healthy, as he offers more scoring punch than Hinrich, but due to defense, Thibodeau will likely prefer to stick with the “Captain.”
Other newcomers (or potential ones) who aren’t likely to break the rotation are E’Twaun Moore (expected to sign, per Mary Stevens of Sports Talk Florida) and second-round pick Cameron Bairstow.
There are only 240 player minutes to distribute in a regulation game. Is that enough to give all 10 rotation players sufficient time?
To a degree, yes. Bear in mind that Thibodeau isn’t locked into positions, and many of the players on the Bulls can play and/or guard more than one spot.
Butler will always guard the opponent’s best wing, regardless of whether he’s the 2 or 3. Thibodeau’s schemes don’t really care about who is technically playing what position. And frankly, there aren’t a lot of teams with two potent scoring wings.
That means McDermott starting alongside Butler is a viable option. He’s not projected to be an elite defender, but he doesn’t need to be. In fact, he can survive as a below average one.
As a rookie, he will have a learning curve, but in this case that’s actually the reason it makes more sense to start him. And that’s also one of the keys to getting sufficient minutes to all the rotation players, counterintuitive as it may seem.
Thibodeau tends to play units, not just individuals. He prefers to keep at least three of his elite defenders together. He also likes to split the weaker ones so that they’re not on the court at the same time. That’s why, for example, Boozer and Augustin only shared the court for 647 minutes last year, per NBAWowy, and why almost all of them included Butler.
If both McDermott and Mirotic are coming off the bench together, it will be that much harder to hide them. Starting McDermott solves that problem.
It also resolves the biggest difficultly the Bulls have had on offense. While he’s not an elite shot-creator in the sense that Rose is, McDermott is a legitimate secondary threat to get shots on his own. His tremendous shooting range also dovetails nicely with the former MVP’s ability to drive and kick.
Furthermore, with McDermott starting, Dunleavy can return to the bench. He is not a great on-ball defender, but he’s an excellent team defender. In fact, he had the 10th-best DRPM of all small forwards last season at plus-1.91.
If Snell improves as expected, the Bulls will have two solid wings in the reserve unit and an on-ball defender beside Dunleavy. It would also have Dunleavy and Gibson to bookend Mirotic so that they can compensate for whatever mistakes he makes.
Offensively, it allows the new Bench Mob to be much more potent than previous versions. Hinrich, Snell, Dunleavy and Mirotic all have good to great range. The Bulls could run an effective four-out, one-in offense with that group.
And, just as importantly, both units would be able to maintain Thibodeau’s high defensive standard, with Butler and Noah anchoring the first unit and Dunleavy and Gibson securing the second.
Essentially, that allows all the rotation players steady minutes.
Additionally, because many of the Bulls can play multiple positions, Thibodeau can toy with the rotation. He can play Gasol and Gibson as either center or power forward if he wants to pound the rock inside. He can put Rose and Hinrich together when he needs two ball-handlers. Or, he can have Snell and Butler man the wings when two stoppers are required.
One of the overlooked aspects of their diversity is Mirotic, who has the skills to play both forward positions. Tony Kukoc—a former Bull Mirotic has been compared to—told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
"Obviously, you can use him at multiple positions. He can be a big (small forward). But he also can play as a (power forward) because he's a solid rebounder. Whatever he plays, he can shoot the 3-pointer so he can stretch the floor."
One lineup that isn't immediately obvious is playing Mirotic at the 3 with Gibson and Noah, who both have the ability to step out and guard the perimeter. Mirotic would be able to still defend the 4, thus removing the concerns on that end of the court.
That would allow Mirotic and Gibson to earn some extra minutes off the bench while also providing Gasol more rest.
With all of that in mind, the table below shows how the Bulls could roughly distribute the time, providing everyone sufficient minutes while also keeping them under 30.
|Projected Playing Time for Key Rotation Players|
|Mike Dunleavy Jr.||0||0||21||0||0||21|
The Bulls, more than in any year of the Thibodeau era, have a deep bench that can both defend and score the ball. There are 10 reliable players. And for once, some of them can actually score. Whether Thibodeau utilizes the exact schemes outlined above, it’s apparent that there are ways to get everyone in the game.
Regardless of how things end up working out, Bulls fans will happily take the new conundrum over the old one of wearing everyone down just in time for the playoffs.