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.