The Curious Case of Kirk Hinrich: Unsung Role Player Keeps Plugging with Bulls

John Wilmes@@johnwilmesNBAContributor INovember 13, 2014

Chicago Bulls' Kirk Hinrich in action during an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Now that Carlos Boozer is with the Los Angeles Lakers, there’s perhaps no Chicago Bulls baller more maligned by fans than Kirk Hinrich. There’s nothing flashy, exciting or YouTube-worthy about the way the point guard plays. He's not his exciting teammate Derrick Rose—not by a long shot—but in recent Roseless seasons, he's gotten a star's responsibilities.

Inside his locker room, Kirk's lack of cinematic flourishes doesn’t matter. The Bulls treat Hinrich like a rare, precious element. Derrick Rose even broke his unofficial anti-recruiting stance in 2012 to make sure Hinrich returned to the Bulls in free agency, as originally reported by ESPN’s Nick Friedell.

Kirk is someone I could see playing alongside a long time. When you're a hooper and you know someone on the court is going into a battle with you, and he's not giving up if he knows you are going to keep battling, and I'm someone that will keep fighting to the end, and he's the same as you. So why not have him on the team? Kirk is the first person I recruited.

Hinrich is valuable to his team for the accumulation of little things he does. On defense, especially, Captain Kirk does a lot to make up for some of his grotesque inefficiency on offense (Hinrich has compiled just an 8.67 player efficiency rating so far this year, per ESPN).

The 33-year-old veteran’s ability to avoid being screened is often an essential part of his team’s pick-and-roll coverage. And Hinrich’s communication on the court helps coach Tom Thibodeau maintain his vaunted defensive team structures.

Hinrich’s 0.98 defensive real plus-minus ranked eighth-best in the league among point guards in 2013-14 according to ESPN. That’s pretty good for someone with more than a decade of NBA miles on his body. The figure is a testament to Hinrich’s mastery of Thibodeau’s system, and his unwillingness to ever give up on a defensive possession. Hinrich is a war dog built for the Eastern Conference’s grinding trenches.

But since chicks—and even a lot of modern offensive metrics—dig the long ball, and Hinrich’s work is basketball’s equivalent of a graceless RBI grounder, he’s frequently cited as a detriment to his team.

Aesthetically speaking, his diminishing speed and plodding, sparkless running of the offense is hard to watch at times. But fans who want their Bulls to win, above all, should be relieved Hinrich is still around to back up Rose.

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 8: Kirk Hinrich #12 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball against the Boston Celtics on November 08, 2014 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or us
Randy Belice/Getty Images

Hinrich’s Draft Express scouting report describes his shrewd, hard-nosed style this way: “Really a throwback in terms of defensive intensity. Gets in a good stance and does his best to hawk the ball all game long. Will get a steal every now and again by reaching at the right time, but isn’t overly aggressive.”

In 2014, Hinrich's conservative, but dogged and reliable, approach to other point guards is still his silver lining.

It isn’t Hinrich's fault that his face has become, sadly, a constant in times of Derrick Rose injury sadness. Kirk can’t come close to replicating the explosive, beguiling impact of the one-time MVP, so it makes sense when Chicago groans upon seeing him step in for their favorite hero.

But at the end of the day, the disappointment the University of Kansas alum is associated with doesn’t make him any less useful as a player.

There was little doubt that Hinrich would renegotiate a new deal in free agency to remain home this past summer. It’s even possible that, at around $5.5 million over two years, Chicago got a bit of a hometown discount on their man. Teams that can understand and utilize his unique and sharp—albeit marginal—talents are few and far between, and the Bulls are one of them.

When Hinrich left the Bulls briefly—with stints playing for the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks for two seasons—it was only because the front office needed to clearly salary room to go after LeBron James in the infamous summer of "The Decision."

But they always wanted Hinrich around—their professed grit-focused analytics department seems to have figured out his worth in a way that many fans haven’t.

That's why he's back again in 2014-15, in place of D.J. Augustin, a heroic performer in place of the injured Rose last year. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune describes the Bulls' love for their aging guard this way, when asked why the front office made the decision:

Because Thibodeau loves Hinrich. Because they feel he fits better with Rose. Because he’s a better, bigger and tougher defender. The Bulls loved Augustin. Thibodeau routinely called him the savior of last season. No matter what they said publicly, re-signing both wasn’t going to happen. They chose Hinrich.

Thibodeau's rotating door of point guard rehabilitation has seen Augustin, John Lucas III, Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson run through town with Hinrich as a constant. That's because Kirk doesn't need to be changed by his coach—he's already a world-class executor of the coach's ethos. 

So next time you find your hand slapping your forehead with Hinrich on the screen, take a second to remember that while he isn’t passing your eye test (or even a lot of statistical ones), Hinrich is still overachieving in the art of being a Bull.

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