With a starting lineup consisting of four returning players and a familiar face in Kirk Hinrich, it would seem that the Bulls are devoid of the usual training-camp battles. Of course, there's the awkward player-to-be-named-later situation--due to the organization's payroll being right up to the league's hard cap, they can't technically sign a 14th player to the roster, though they'll be able to do so next month--of which veteran camp invitee Marko Jaric appears to be the favorite, after center Kyrylo Fesenko was waived last week.
Even when examining the reserves, the big-man rotation seems set, as holdover Taj Gibson's role is set to increase and backup center Nazr Mohammed's strong preseason play behind Joakim Noah has been a pleasant surprise. Ditto for point guard, where Nate Robinson has settled down after a rocky start to the exhibition campaign and while Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau will have to endure his occasional erratic decision-making, the diminutive scorer's energy and playmaking ability behind or alongside Hinrich has the potential to pay off down the road.
However, the team's depth at the wing positions is quietly a concern, as neither free-agent acquisition Marco Belinelli nor second-year swingman Jimmy Butler has been truly established as a trusted backup to starter Rip Hamilton. All-Star Luol Deng is regarded as one of the league's ironmen--he led the NBA in minutes per game last season and was first in total minutes played two years ago, and if he remains healthy during the regular season, it's feasible that the small forward could be tops in both categories--so the spot minutes at backup small forward are presumably earmarked for Butler, but with Thibodeau still cautious about overuse of Hamilton after his injury-plagued debut campaign in Chicago, there is playing time to be had at shooting guard, as well.
"He has been solid. Hes still finding his way," said Thibodeau about Butler. "He has done some very good things defensively. Its more looking at that entire group and how they function."
This was a typically terse response for Thibodeau when asked about the Marquette product. Despite Butler's stellar showing at the NBA summer league in Las Vegas back in July and receiving praise for virtually living in the Berto Center during the offseason, one gets the sense that the experienced coach wants to see the youngster take another step in his game--perhaps a reason Butler played all 48 minutes of the Bulls' exhibition loss at Minnesota in Deng's absence--combining consistency, intangibles and the application of his demonstrated offensive development, specifically improved outside shooting, the ability to create, finishing strong on the interior and knowing when to shoot or pass the ball in half-court situations.
Still, Butler's individual defense could have him ahead of the slumping Belinelli, who isn't known as a defender of note, in what could be a shorter rotation than Thibodeau has utilized in his first two years in Chicago, partially due to the departure of most of the "Bench Mob" over the summer. Optimistic projections when Belinelli signed with the Bulls had him, mostly based on his past statistics, replacing Kyle Korver as the Bulls' designated sharpshooter and if not pushing Hamilton for a starting spot, keeping the veteran's minutes down and at best, making him expendable as the February trade deadline approaches.
That hasn't been the case thus far, as the native of Italy has struggled as a shooter--he's shooting 25 percent from the field, including 0-for-7 from three-point range, in just over 21 minutes a night--and frankly, has appeared a bit lost on both ends of the court at times. With only two exhibition contests left and teams across the league playing their regulars more in an attempt to get ready for the real thing, Tuesday's matchup against defending Western Conference champions Oklahoma City could help Thibodeau decide which way he wants to go.
"He can play well. Theres a lot of other things he can do. You guys judge him strictly by how he shoots. He made a number of good plays off the dribble. He has the ability to put the ball on the floor and make a good play. And he also has the ability to play good defense. The nights he doesnt shoot well, he can still play well for us. And thats what I expect. I know his offense will come around. He has shown he is more than capable. He just has to keep working at it. Hell be fine," said Thibodeau about Belinelli, before delving into whether the player's confidence is beginning to evaporate because of his poor shooting. "You dont want it to. There are going to be nights in which you dont shoot as well as other nights. When that happens, you cant allow that to impact how you play. You still have to sprint back, play defense. Our team is committed to being a five-man team both on offense and defense. Everyone is responsible to help each other. He can still play effectively when hes not shooting well. I think running the floor and getting some easy baskets will help.
"When he's open, I want him to shoot; that's what he is. As long as they're his shots. He can put it on the floor. If he's open, that's good. If he passes up an open shot, it's going to lead to a lesser shot for us, so he's got to shoot and he can play well when he's not shooting well. There's a lot of other things that he can do. He can play great defense, he can rebound, he can run the break, he can make plays off the dribble. I don't want him to be a one-dimensional player and I don't think he is. He'll find his rhythm. He's put a lot of extra time in and he's already proven that he's very capable of being a great shooter in this league."
Added Carlos Boozer, who noted that Belinelli was engrossed in a deep conversation with assistant coach Ron Adams, a noted shooting guru, at the time: "He's just got to shoot and play with confidence. We're going to continue to run plays for him. We kind of run the same plays for Rip, for Marco. You know how it is, man. I've been through slumps, every guy on this team has been through slumps. Sometimes it just takes that first basket to get you going. Sometimes it'll be a layup, could be a free throw, could be a wide-open jump shot for him because he's a phenomenal shooter. We're going to keep screening hard for him, get him in pick-and-rolls--he's a good ballhandler--and trying to get him loose because I'd rather him miss all his shots now and make them all in regular season anyway.
"He has a great character about him, very good listener, pays attention, works hard. He'll break out of it."
For Belinelli's part, the shooting guard, who does have the ability to put the ball on the floor and makes plays, as well as spot up from the outside, admitted that he's in a funk. Some of his preseason performance can be attributed to playing in a new, possibly more demanding system, but regardless, he candidly acknowledged that his confidence is down.
"I know that I'm not playing really good right now. I didn't score the ball Friday, too. Just part of the game, especially for a shooting guard," he said. "I just try to work on my shot and I hope it's going to be good.
"Maybe his confidence has dropped a little bit, but that's part of the game. I just try to be positive and work forward," continued Belinelli. "I'm happy because Friday we won a game, but personally, I know that I can be better than that, so I want to do that. So, I was a little bit pissed about that game Friday, but that's part of the game. So, the only thing that I can do is just work, take my shot."
The Bulls' group of holdovers--Boozer, Deng, Gibson, Noah, Hamilton and perhaps the experienced Hinrich, who has appeared to seamlessly fit into the system, more so than Butler, who received scant playing time as a rookie--has been trying to help Belinelli and the other new faces adjust to Thibodeau's style of play throughout training camp. Boozer, in particular, seemed to empathize with the struggle of the newcomers.
"You've got seven new guys or anybody new, when you're bringing them into the fold, it takes time to get them on the same page, so we can all be on the same page. We've got some guys from different teams, we've got a few of us that were here the last few years, but just like when we all came together in 2010, it took us time to get used to each other and get into the flow. It'll take us time this year, too," explained Boozer. "The Bulls holdovers assisting the team's new players is monumental. We know exactly what we're looking to do. We know exactly what we're looking for in each play. We know exactly what we're looking for in each defensive stop and kind of make teams play into their weakness, so it's crucial for us to help them get on the same page.
"For us, this is our third year together, this group. We've seen our success through his system, through his practice schedule, through his days off, through his regimen and we've had success the last two years, so we trust him because we've seen the benefits of his success. We tell the new guys that are coming in, our rookies and some of the vets that have been around--some of them are coming from losing programs, to be quite frank. This is one of their first times they've been on a winning team," he went on to say. "There's some guys that have been through it and some guys that we have new that haven't been through it, so we just tell them to keep working. Every time you come in, to be focused; it'll pay off in the long run. The thing that Tom talked to us about almost every training camp is begin with the end in mind. Our end goal is to put a banner up, so the work we do now will pay off later if we put everything into that and they're paying heed to that."