Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau Needs to Trust Rookies Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2015

Chicago Bulls forward Doug McDermott (3) checks in while Chicago Bulls' head coach Tom Thibodeau talks to him during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Tom Thibodeau has always held a short leash on rookies. He’s a demanding coach, which is what has made him successful in his five years with the Chicago Bulls.

Winning his trust is no easy task for any rookie.

Usually, that’s fine. Thibodeau’s teams have always been loaded with veteran talent, even in the years star point guard Derrick Rose missed with knee injuries. The coach’s win-now mentality isn’t conducive to the trial and error needed to acclimate a rookie to the NBA game.

But with the Bulls losing 10 of their last 15 games, Thibodeau’s rigidity has become a liability. For the first time in his tenure, Chicago has two rookies with legitimate chances to contribute right away.

Even as the veterans underperform, forwards Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic are not seeing consistent floor time. Mike Dunleavy’s ankle injury has created a glaring void on the perimeter, and the two rookies are the Bulls' best shot at patching that hole.

The Case for McDermott

The Bulls gave up a lot to get McDermott at 11th overall in 2014. They traded two first-round picksincluding center Jusuf Nurkic, who has already shown that he has a promising future in the leagueto the Denver Nuggets to move up to get his rights.

They took back the contract of Anthony Randolph for some reason and then had to give the Orlando Magic two additional second-rounders to unload his salary.

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 25:  Doug McDermott #3 of the Chicago Bulls drives to the basket against the Denver Nuggets on November 25, 2014 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and o
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

All of this because McDermott was supposedly ready to contribute immediately. The Bulls’ window for title contention is now, the team’s thinking went, and they don’t have three years to develop a project player.

McDermott was a four-year college star, a coach’s son who routinely had words like “polished” and “mature” show up on his scouting reports. And he was one of the best shooters in college basketball history coming to a team that desperately needed offense and spacing.

So why can’t McDermott even see the floor during this rough stretch for the Bulls, which has seen them lose six of their last 10 games?

Since returning in mid-January from the knee injury that sidelined him for six weeks, he’s appeared in garbage time in two games and did not play in six others.

On a team that so badly needs outside shooting of any kind, one that’s so desperately in search of of something, anything, to break it out of this slump, isn't McDermott at least worth a longer look when nothing else in the offense is working?

The Case for Mirotic

Mirotic’s minutes have also been up and down in his rookie season. After a terrific December in which he shot 41.2 percent from three-point range and was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, he’s become an afterthought in the rotation.

Thibodeau tried him at small forward in Dunleavy’s place for a few games, and in wins over the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets, it began to look like a real, viable option.

Then, Thibodeau abruptly abandoned the experiment.

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 27:  Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls in action against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 27, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or usi
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There has been no rhyme or reason to Mirotic’s minutes since the Bulls’ skid began in early January.

He played just two minutes in the January 23 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Four nights later, he played 30 minutes in a road win over the Golden State Warriors, putting up 12 points and seven rebounds. He started the next game against the Los Angeles Lakers but only played 12 minutes. Then he played just seven minutes the following night in a loss to the Phoenix Suns.

Mirotic makes his share of defensive mistakes, but so do all rookies. Pulling 2011's 23rd overall pick after every one is not a way to build confidence.

A Plea for Reason

Thibodeau’s reluctance to trust his rookies would be one thing if the veterans were playing lights-out basketball, but they’re not.

Kirk Hinrich is playing 27.3 minutes per game while shooting 36.5 percent from the field and putting up a 7.1 player efficiency rating, which ranks 69th among active shooting guards. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah are still proving to be an awkward fit offensively.

As a team, the Bulls have fallen to 13th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 102.4 points per 100 possessions after finishing with top-five defenses in each of the last four seasons. Team Rankings also indicates that they're 17th in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Most importantly, with Dunleavy out, there is no consistent floor spacing. With Rose still struggling from the three-point line (29.6 percent) and no other shooters on the floor, teams are free to pack the paint on defense without worrying about the Bulls punishing them from deep.

This is why it’s baffling that McDermott can’t even get a look, while Mirotic’s role is constantly being jerked around.

Until Dunleavy comes back, the rookies are the Bulls’ two best bets to develop into three-point threats, but they have to be allowed to play through their mistakes to build consistency. Thibodeau talks regularly about the rookies' solid work ethics and the energy they bring to practice, but never offers much of an explanation for the lack of minutes.

As the Bulls fight to stay relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff race, one thing is clear: What they’re doing now isn’t working. They currently sit fifth in the conference.

It’s time for Thibodeau to evolve, to be open to using his roster to its fullest potential. This team has the talent to be a title contender. But first, the pieces need to fit.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com. 

Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @highkin.


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