Once upon a time (three whole weeks ago), the Chicago Bulls had a problem of too much depth.
Now, their problem is the opposite, and it couldn’t be hitting at a worse time.
Not even two weeks removed from losing Joakim Noah for the season with a shoulder injury, the Bulls announced Wednesday they will be without Nikola Mirotic through the All-Star break as he recovers from an appendectomy.
As they begin their longest road trip of the season—seven games in two weeks, beginning Thursday night against the Los Angeles Lakers—the Bulls are down two of their four most-used frontcourt players.
What’s left are Pau Gasol, 35 years old and dealing with various nagging injuries; Bobby Portis, a rookie whose production has dipped after a strong stretch of games in December and January; the ever-dependable Taj Gibson; and the tandem of Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Bairstow, who have played 40 minutes between them this season.
In addition, Aaron Brooks may be the team's only completely healthy point guard to begin the trip. Derrick Rose was questionable with hamstring tightness after an early exit from Monday’s loss to the Miami Heat, and Kirk Hinrich is still out after missing the Bulls' past five games with a quad injury. E'Twaun Moore was initially ruled out with a hamstring strain.
Rose and Moore are now slated to play against the Lakers, per Nick Friedell of ESPN.com:
Hoiberg says Rose is "good to go" tonight vs. Lakers.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 28, 2016
Hoiberg says Moore should be available tonight. Hopeful that Hinrich will play Sunday vs. Clippers.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 28, 2016
But with both coming off injuries, there could be rust, and that means greater responsibility for Brooks.
Six of the seven teams on this road trip are currently below .500, but all season, the Bulls have shown a proclivity toward playing down to such competition. The road schedule (including two back-to-backs) and this newfound lack of depth are foreboding signs.
A month ago, the thinking was that the Bulls would need to trade one of their bigs to open up the logjam and add help on the wing. Now, as the season passes its midway point and teams start to separate themselves in the playoff race, Chicago's struggling to keep enough players on the floor to form a viable rotation.
The news of the Mirotic loss is significant not because of what he brings, but because it's just the latest in a long line of casualties in an especially rough stretch of health for the Bulls. It’s not even that Mirotic was playing particularly well. He wasn’t.
After a promising rookie season, his shooting plummeted to 38.6 percent from the field this season as his confidence came and went. He began the season as Fred Hoiberg’s starting power forward before Gibson replaced him. Then, Mirotic moved back into the starting lineup at small forward only to lose that job to Tony Snell.
But as flawed as Mirotic is, Hoiberg had no choice but to give him heavy minutes. And now, the coach has to navigate this tough stretch without the Montenegrin—and without any great options to replace him.
Gasol, after averaging 34.4 minutes per game last season, is down to 31.7 minutes this year, and given his age, the team can't expect him to play much more than that without a drop in production. But he’ll have to as the Bulls hit the road, starting with his final matchup against Kobe Bryant at the Staples Center on Thursday.
And whether they’re ready for big minutes or not, Hoiberg is going to find out what he has in Portis, Felicio and Bairstow. Thus far, there’s been nothing to suggest the latter two are in any way ready to play significant minutes in an NBA rotation, given that neither has played anything beyond a few garbage minutes at the end of blowouts.
Portis is more intriguing. He made a strong impression in his first extended playing time, but his minutes and confidence have tailed off as opposing teams have started adding him to their scouting reports. He's scored in double figures just once since Jan. 1, and his minutes have been in single digits in seven of the Bulls' last 10 games. Take a look at his drop-off:
|Month||MPG||PPG, RPG, FG%|
|December (seven games)||17.7||10.0, 5.6, 48.4%|
|January (14 games)||13.7||5.1, 4.1, 40.0%|
If Rose struggles during the road trip, that’s another set of problems.
Jimmy Butler, already asked to do so much at both ends of the floor, will have to run some point if Rose and Moore need time to shake the rust off. There’s something to be said for having bodies, and the Bulls need those right now in the worst way.
At this point, the Toronto Raptors have established themselves as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, but there’s an opening for another team to jump into that conversation. The Bulls sit in fourth place going into the road trip, but only three games separate the third-seeded Atlanta Hawks from the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers:
Eastern Conference Standings
|1. Cleveland Cavaliers||32-12||--|
|2. Toronto Raptors||30-15||2.5|
|3. Atlanta Hawks||27-20||6.5|
|4. Chicago Bulls||25-19||7|
|5. Boston Celtics||26-21||7.5|
|6. Detroit Pistons||25-21||8|
|7. Miami Heat||25-21||8|
|8. Indiana Pacers||23-22||9.5|
|9. Charlotte Hornets||22-24||11|
A winning streak right now, against sub-.500 competition, could give the Bulls some separation from that group.
This is why the latest wave of injuries is so ill-timed. Instead of looking to build on momentum, the setbacks force an already-inconsistent team to simply tread water. And with their unpredictability, that may be too much to ask.