Bulls' bench is broken

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Bulls' bench is broken

Okay, Ill admit it. I was wrong.

I thought the Bulls would be able to survive the break-up of the celebrated Bench Mob, filling their spots with decent veteran players on minimum contracts. But this is the classic case of a groups collective strength being much greater than the sum of their individual talents.

When you compare the new Bulls reserves to last years group, the only clear drop-off figured to be at the back-up center spot, where we all know a young defensive force like Omer Asik is far superior to 14-year veteran Nazr Mohammed. Most of the other spots figured to be a wash. Jimmy Butler projected as a capable replacement for Ronnie Brewers defense-first game. Marco Belinelli figured to come close to the point production and 3-point shooting provided by Kyle Korver. Nate Robinson would offer the same kind of hot and cold scorer we saw in C.J. Watson the last two seasons. And, of course, Taj Gibson was coming back, reportedly better than ever after a busy summer of work on his offensive game.

But through the first 13 games, the comparison of stats and past performance, hasnt added up to a smooth transition on the court for the Bulls reserves. And even worse, it looks like Tom Thibodeau has lost confidence in his second unit, playing his veteran starters way too many minutes. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah rank first and second in the league in average minutes played. Deng played 47 minutes in the nightmarish loss to Milwaukee, getting a one minute break midway through the second quarter, even though the Bulls were way in front most of the night. Right now, Thibodeau basically has an 8-man rotation, with Gibson, Butler and Robinson the only guys hes comfortable using off the bench. And, Gibson is really struggling right now, possibly because hes putting too much pressure on himself after signing that big money contract extension.

Belinelli is coming off his best NBA season in New Orleans, where he averaged nearly 12 points a game, and shot almost 38 percent from three-point range. In case you were wondering, Korver averaged eight points last season on 43.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Unfortunately for Belinelli, he struggled with his shot during the preseason, and since hes never been a great defensive player, hes basically fallen out of the rotation. Mohammed is a career back-up, and with Gibson now getting some minutes as a back-up center, and Noah averaging 39 minutes a game, there just isnt any time for him to play.

The larger issue involves the heavy minutes the Bulls veteran starters are being asked to play. The NBA season is a grueling marathon, and even the fittest players can break down if not given proper rest. All five Bulls starters have had injury issues in the past, and its crucial to keep them healthy until Derrick Rose can get back. We know Thibodeau wants to win every game, and no one can blame him for that. But looking at the bigger picture, finding minutes for the likes of Belinelli, Mohammed and even Vladimir Radmanovic could keep the starters healthy and fresh for a stretch run with Rose back in the line-up.

The Central Division is clearly up for grabs this season, given the injuries to Rose and Indianas Danny Granger. The Bulls would have taken over first place had they not blown that 27 point second-half lead against Milwaukee, and it looks like 48 wins might be good enough to win the division and earn home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

Losing a game or two for the sake of developing the bench really isnt a bad thing right now. Lets hope Thibodeau will give some of his reserves a longer rope in the Bulls upcoming games, and ease the wear and tear on the starters.

As I said at the top, I was wrong about the Bench Mob. Turns out, it really is impossible to replace that units chemistry and defensive strength. Asik, Korver and Brewer are all starting on their new teams, and Watson is playing a big role backing up Deron Williams and Joe Johnson in Brooklyn. But the Bulls had to make some tough financial decisions to avoid going deep into the luxury tax. The front office knew winning a championship this season would be pretty unlikely, and they wanted to open a new window to build a contending team around Rose in the next year or two. We can only hope losing all the popular reserves will pay off in a home run addition to the roster down the line.

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Five Things from Blackhawks-Canucks: Corey Crawford rebounds

Five Things from Blackhawks-Canucks: Corey Crawford rebounds

The Blackhawks’ starts have been all over the map this season but their finishes have usually been strong. That was the case again on Sunday night as the Blackhawks took a lead, lost a lead and regained a lead for good in their 4-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

This one featured a little bit of everything. So let’s just get to the Five Things to take from the Blackhawks’ victory over Vancouver.

1. Jonathan Toews breaks through. If the Blackhawks captain’s confidence was a little shaken with his lack of scoring this season, it should’ve gotten a boost with his Sunday outing. Toews’ goal and three assists were as big for him as they were the Blackhawks, who needed every bit of it late against the Canucks. In his last 12 games Toews has three goals and eight assists. He’s getting there. Said coach Joel Quenneville, “it seems like he was around the puck way more and when he does that, usually good things happen.”

2. Great start. This hasn’t been written very often but it was more than evident on Sunday night. If this wasn’t the Blackhawks’ best opening period of the season it was pretty close, as they broke out to a 2-0 lead against the Canucks. The Blackhawks, outside of a 3 ½-minute sequence without a shot on goal, were tenacious and ready to shoot, taking an 18-9 shots-on-goal edge in that first.

3. Corey Crawford rebounds. Quenneville considered Scott Darling for this game, an understandable thought with Darling coming off a 30-stop shutout. But he wanted Crawford to get back to where he was prior to his appendectomy, and Crawford took a step in that direction on Sunday night. In stopping 25 of 27 shots Crawford got his 18th victory of the season and 200th of his career. Quenneville said Crawford “looked like he was in control.”

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4. Michal Kempny’s tough stretch. When Kempny has been good this season he’s been very good. When he’s been bad... The defenseman was in the penalty box when the Canucks scored their first goal and he was beaten by Bo Horvat on the Canucks’ second goal. Kempny didn’t play the final 14 minutes of the game. Quenneville, who liked what Kempny brought on the team’s road trip, said Kempny just has to work through some things. “Coverage with awareness and knowing sometimes it’s man coverage, sometimes it’s playing the puck and clearing the loose stuff,” Quenneville said. “Defenseman is a tough position as you’re growing and learning it, but the more you play the better you play and I still think he’s making progress.”

5. Brian Campbell gets to keep No. 500 this time. Campbell thought he had his 500th point against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night but it was taken away. Well he got it back on Sunday night, setting up Richard Panik’s 11th goal of the season in the first period.