“It’s almost here,” he said by way of greeting. “You ready for it?”
Kirk Hinrich never sounded quite that upbeat last season and with the various ailments he endured, it was understandable. In his second tour of duty with the Bulls, the veteran guard missed 22 regular-season games and the entire second round of the playoffs as he suffered of litany of injuries, from hurting his groin in the preseason to the ruptured calf muscle that caused him to miss the Miami series.
But with the entire summer to recover from aches and pains that included injuries of the freakish variety, Hinrich, set to enter his 11th professional campaign, is amped up about the upcoming season.
“I feel really good. I think I’ve used the offseason to manage the time fairly well. I have a lot of energy, my body’s feeling good. I’ve been feeling good on the court, so at this point, you’re always looking forward to next year,” he told CSNChicago.com in a phone interview. “You start getting real anxious when you get to two, three weeks left to go before training camp.”
Approaching the second season of his second go-around in Chicago, Hinrich is feeling more at ease, not just because of his health, but his comfort level in a different system with bigger expectations than the when he was traded to Washington three summers ago.
“I think it’s a little bit more relaxed for me because even though I had been here for so long, I was still coming into a new situation, I was a new player,” he explained. “I was kind of anxious to get familiar with everything, so now, I’m kind of familiar with the system, the coaches, my teammates and more of just working hard, relaxed and having a better idea of what to expect, so it’s definitely a more relaxed offseason in those terms.”
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Early last season, as Hinrich struggled with injuries and shooting, perhaps his full impact couldn’t be appreciated to casual observers. But as time went on, the floor general’s quiet leadership by example, ability to ensure that the offense ran smoothly and physical embodiment of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive tone became clear, as his seemingly pedestrian averages of 7.7 points and 5.2 assists per game were far outweighed by the team’s 38-22 regular-season record when he was on the court.
With Thibodeau declaring Jimmy Butler the team’s starting shooting guard moving forward and Derrick Rose back in the Bulls’ lineup, “Captain Kirk” will go from starter to backup—something he did during Rose’s rookie year, though the pair started together the next season—but although his workload should be eased by the return of the former league MVP, Hinrich’s role backing up both backcourt positions will still be significant. A consummate professional, the Iowa native has high expectations for the duo’s first season starting together.
“I think everybody’s really excited. Obviously it’s pretty natural with Derrick, anticipating Derrick’s return. I’ve heard he’s been looking great. He sounds like he’s very motivated,” Hinrich said. “I expect Jimmy to just expect him to keep getting better and better. He’s still a very young player. Obviously he showed the league what he could do last year when he got the opportunity and that says a lot about a guy, when you’re not getting an opportunity and finally, you get an opportunity and you take full advantage of it, and I think that’s what he did. Obviously he gives us a lot of versatility, he’s very athletic, he can guard different positions, play different positions and he’s going to have a great year.”
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Hinrich sees one of the Bulls’ best qualities being their newfound depth, as opposed to last season, when health and newcomers finding their niches conspired to delay chemistry, although defense was a constant. Now, with swingman Mike Dunleavy the only veteran newcomer—rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy won’t be expected to play major roles—and Rose back, Thibodeau will have plenty of lineup flexibility as his disposal, not to mention a strong second unit, potentially similar to the “Bench Mob” era.
“I think with Derrick coming back, the type of player he is, obviously we’re going to be a little bit different team. I anticipate, we’re going to try to utilize our strengths and I think our strengths are we have a lot of versatility, we’re going to be very deep and we’ve got a former MVP returning to the lineup, so there’s a lot of excitement. I think Mike Dunleavy is a really good addition, just a really good all-around player, very smart and I think he’s going to help us a lot. The main thing for us is just staying healthy and being hungry from the start to finish,” Hinrich explained. “I think we’re going to be very deep and a very good team.
“I think our bench is going to be really tough. I’m just excited to get going. Right now, we’re just excited to get into training camp and figure out who we’re going to be, then hopefully hit the ground running come opening night.”
Hinrich and Dunleavy were both prep standouts in the class of 1999, so they’ve crossed paths over the years, making Hinrich familiar with his new teammate’s game and what he brings to the table for the Bulls.
“I’m just excited to have him. I think he kind of gets labeled as just a guy who can knock down shots, but he’s really a very solid all-around player. He’s a good passer, he’s very good off the ball, good decisions, so I think that was a huge pick-up for us, to go along with everybody else we’ve got returning,” he observed.
That said, the former All-American at Kansas understands that the Bulls’ competition has also improved and while Miami, the champions and team that eliminated them from the playoffs, are certainly their target, Indiana, which stole supremacy of the Central Division last season, is another rival to focus on, and other opponents also made moves to get better over the summer.
“The whole Eastern Conference got a lot better, I think, and I think it’s exciting, it’s good for the league,” Hinrich said. “Players and teams love challenges and last year, Indiana won the division. They’re going to be really good, along with a lot of other teams who got a lot better, so we’re just looking forward to keeping the same approach.”
The type to let his play do the talking, Hinrich didn’t say anything inflammatory, but it’s obvious that he’s chomping at the bit to get back on the court, especially when he was relegated to street clothes at the end of the Bulls’ postseason run, as the team was eliminated by the Heat.
“It’s always hard to watch, especially in the playoffs. Ultimately, that’s what you play for all season,” said the 32-year-old, whose snatch of a late-game rebound out of All-Star big man Chris Bosh’s grasp might be the most enduring image of the Bulls’ streak-ending victory over the Heat at the United Center. “But Miami’s the two-time defending champs. You’ve got to give them credit. They’re the favorites; they’ve got an unbelievable team.”
In his typically unassuming fashion, Hinrich makes no guarantees or proclamations about the upcoming season, but the palpable energy in his tone speaks volumes.
“We just have to focus on ourselves and do everything we can, not skip any steps all year, continue improving, join as a team and I’m excited. I feel like we’re going to have one of the best benches in the league, our starting five is going to be rock solid, as always, Derrick coming back. Obviously there’s going to be a lot of anticipation, but at this point, it’s more just focusing on coming in ready. Everybody coming in ready with the right mindset and keep working to get better every day,” he said, complete with Thibodeau-esque mantras already in midseason form. “We just have to continue to go out there, do the little things every night, stick to our core principles and I think we’ll look to have a very good year.”