A retrospective on the evolution of the Bulls' newcomers

A retrospective on the evolution of the Bulls' newcomers
May 21, 2013, 6:45 pm
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The reality of the situation is that many of them won't be back in Chicago, but when reflecting upon how nearly half the Bulls' roster joined the team with that same knowledge makes the recently-ended season even more remarkable.

"Basketball," Nate Robinson explained when asked during the regular season how a team full of newcomers was able to become so cohesive, despite the natural need to display one's worth to potential employers. "One of our objectives is to win the championship, so put everything else aside and just play.

"As long as we win, we don't care about anything else. We're not worried about our one-year deals and stuff like that," he continued. "We're playing for now. We're not playing for the future. Right now, we're playing for what's at stake and that's the championship, so we've just got to take one game at a time and one series at a time, and we'll be okay."

When the “Bench Mob” was disassembled last summer, media and fans alike panned the decision of the Bulls’ front office to not bring back the likes of center Omer Asik, sharspshooter Kyle Korver, swingman Ronnie Brewer, point guard C.J. Watson and instant-offense scorer John Lucas III.

When the aforementioned players were replaced by Robinson and fellow journeymen Nazr Mohammed, Marco Belinelli and Vladimir Radmanovic, all on one-year deals, the response to the free-agent signings was underwhelming, especially in the wake of superstar Derrick Rose’s devastating knee injury. But after a regular season in which a myriad of injuries were endured to qualify for the postseason, while it can no longer be said that the team has one of the best second units in the league, its bench was at least much better than expected.

Take familiar face Kirk Hinrich out of the equation—a starter in Rose’s absence, the floor general would have been either a backup point guard or playing alongside the former league MVP if he had returned this season—as well as rookie point guard Marquis Teague and second-year swingman Jimmy Butler, who wasn’t a newcomer but was basically a bystander during his NBA lockout-shortened rookie campaign.

Throw in veteran shooting guard Rip Hamilton, wing Daequan Cook, another well-traveled player, and summer-league standout Malcolm Thomas, picked up even later in the season, and the Bulls have a total of seven players who aren’t guaranteed to be back in Chicago come training camp in October.

Still, while it wasn’t quite the almost collegiate atmosphere of the previous two seasons, the Bulls somehow developed a remarkable amount of chemistry that helped sustain them through an extremely trying season.

“We've got good guys on this team. Everybody's a strong worker. Mostly everybody that comes along—you look at the same group of core guys: Carlos, myself, Joakim, Lu—guys have been around, so when they come around us, they get the same attitude of working hard, do your job,” holdover Taj Gibson said. “But at the same time, be a family. People know how to have fun and first thing comes first; just win games and everyone that came along just knows that mentality.”

Indeed, instead of the selfish approach some players take when they know they’re a one-year rental and won’t be back in town the following season, the likely temporary replacements that the Bulls signed adopted the organization’s selfless, blue-collar approach, even when it didn’t always benefit them.

Take Mohammed, who on first glance, lived the dream by finally playing in his hometown toward the end of his long professional career. Penciled in to spot All-Star Joakim Noah a breather, in the early portion of the season, he was nailed to the bench until changing his approach with some old-fashioned first-to-the-gym, last-to-leave work ethic and emerging as a valuable contributor, especially as injuries took their toll on the Bulls’ roster.

[RELATED: Injuries, free agency on Bulls' mind as offseason looms]

Then, there’s the mercurial Robinson, who had earned a reputation as extremely inconsistent and more of a novelty act for his dunking and prodigious, if erratic, scoring ability, which likely led to him bouncing around the league and being available in late July, when the Bulls signed him. But even before this postseason’s heroics, the diminutive scorer has had perhaps the best season of his career, as he proved capable of being a reliable starter, running the offense and making an attempt to play defense, while also toning down his antics off the court.

In the case of Belinelli, the Italian was billed as strictly a sharpshooter—and a replacement for Korver, one of the league’s best in that department—but only in Chicago did he finally showcase the ability he possessed to make plays with the ball in his hands and for once, on a winning team, to boot.

None of the above prioritized his own needs over that of the team and a result, they’ll be better off for it this summer, with Robinson and Belinelli likely to command multi-year deals in a relatively weak free-agent market, and Mohammed extending his career for another season, all based on how they performed for the Bulls.

Even Cook, who was waived by the Rockets after being shipped to Houston by the Thunder in the preseason James Harden trade, has had his moments—remember his momentum-building 3-pointer in the first half of the Bulls’ Game 7 victory in Brooklyn?—and after bouncing around the league early in his NBA career, appreciated the fact that as a midseason acquisition, expectations for him were clear from the outset.

"[Adjusting to the Bulls] was easy because everybody here are vets, played the game for a while, know the game and that just made it that much more easy for me to be able to settle in with this team, knowing it was about basketball first and their own individual issues were not something that was a problem on this team," the swingman said. "That's the most important thing, just continuing to work, staying prepared and knowing that your name is going to be called throughout the season," he added. "Guys have ups and downs, and Thibs is the type of coach that changes up things from time to time, so you've just always got to be prepared and stay focused and stay ready and stay within the team, knowing that your name might be called and when you get the opportunity, take advantage of it."

In the case of Hamilton, he had a unique perspective after signing with the Bulls just prior to the beginning of last season's lockout-shortened campaign, giving him a chance to experience both the camaraderie of a contender with continuity and this year's totally-revamped squad. Plagued by injuries during his two-year stint with the Bulls, the veteran shooting guard was clearly unhappy about having fallen out of the rotation in the playoffs and it’s a foregone conclusion that the organization won’t pick up his $1 million team option for next season, the former All-Star recognized that the team had something special going.

"It's not common at all, especially when you've got guys in it for the group and in it for the team. Guys who really like each other. We stick together," Hamilton said. "It was different at first because last year, all the guys that were here were pretty much here from a year ago, so coming in this year, everybody was trying to figure out their role and didn't know what to expect from the team, and what they were needed for. But as the season went on, guys got better."

[MORE: Bulls continue support of Rose even after saga concludes]

Mohammed, his close friend and former Pistons teammate, concurred, both noting the small world that is the NBA and citing the uniqueness of the Bulls' predicament.

"We're lucky that that happened. You're always lucky when guys mesh and like each other so quickly, and the other part is the NBA's a small fraternity and even though it's 400 guys, you know guys that know guys and you have a teammate who talks about his friend who plays on another team, so even though sometimes you never played with a guy, you feel like you know him, just from word of mouth. So, a lot of that's happened, just with everybody kind of knows somebody that knows somebody," he said. "Every team is just so, so different. Sometimes you have that. In OKC, when I got there, they welcomed me with open arms, so it meshed well. When I was in San Antonio, same thing. When I got to Charlotte, it was up and down until we found that mesh. It's no science to it. It's just sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't."

Although on the surface, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's demanding style might not seem like the most appealing to players, especially those who know they're likely to move on, his reputation for winning mostly overrides any disenchantment, especially with his track record, exemplified by Korver's all-around improvement, Lucas' ability to stick in the league and Asik cashing in on the free-agent market, at least partly due to his development in Chicago. Thibodeau predictably wouldn't toot his own horn, but he did acknowledge that the Bulls' success under his watch benefits players on a personal level.

“I think that’s just the nature of the league. It’s the way this league works. The best thing you can do is play well and I think when a team has success, your value goes up, so that’s probably the most important thing,” Thibodeau, whose grind-it-out mindset became one with the newcomers, observed. “That was the challenge for us from the start of the season. The core of the team remained the same, but we had a lot of new guys, so the challenge became how quickly we could get everybody onto the same page and we knew that would be a big key in determining our success.

"The core of the team was the same. The new guys were unsure. They’re new teammates, a new system. So that was going to take awhile. But we couldn’t allow it to take an extended amount of time. The challenge is how quickly can you respond to change. Maybe the injuries helped in that regard. Those guys got more playing time. They got more comfortable. As time went on, everyone understood roles better. So it worked out," he went on to say. "It’s the makeup of your players. You want to get the right guys, guys who are committed to the team. When you do that and invest a lot into the team, there’s not a lot of give in when you make that commitment. We’re fortunate in that regard. We have a good core of veterans who have been here for awhile now. The new guys have had to get up to speed quickly. And they’ve done that. We’ve gotten a number of contributions from the new guys."

Not that it was always smooth sailing, especially at the beginning of the season, when Belinelli appeared gun-shy, Robinson too trigger-happy, Mohammed washed up and the Bulls' returnees uncomfortable playing with the newcomers at times.

Gibson, the lone remaining member of the original "Bench Mob," was tasked with leading the new group until they found their footing, something he initially struggled with.

[MORE: Gibson's season filled with highs and lows]

"They have different attributes. I think the last two years, the other team, we had a strong defensive mind, a lot of defensive-minded guys and their offense exploded, given the right kind of minutes and just needing to step up. We had a bunch of guys that were just real strong defensively and this year, we've got a lot of guys that are strong defensively, but they're kind of offensive-minded first. It's been an adjustment all through the year," he admitted. "It comes down to wins because the majority of guys that worry about their numbers--if you're on a bad team, they hardly matter. It's easy to get your numbers up when you're on a bad team, but when you're on a good team and you're all buying into the same thing, and everybody has one goal, it makes you look good. You play in primetime and people really dig into what you do, and your role is on your team. I've been able to buy into it and hopefully a lot of other guys did, too, being on this team, even though they have one-year contracts."

The atmosphere in the Bulls' locker room was different this season, perhaps not quite as close-knit as it was during Thibodeau's first two seasons, but still much less fractured than some NBA teams, where cliques are apt to form and the old baseball adage, "25 men, 25 cabs" doesn't necessarily apply, yet isn't completely inaccurate. But whether it was Butler and Teague showing the ropes to former summer-league teammate Thomas, Robinson and Mohammed schooling ex-Thunder buddy Cook on the Chicago way, Hamilton subtly mentoring Butler and Belinelli (or helping to provide an outlet for Robinson's non-stop chatter, along with many others on the team) or simply the entire banding together through adversity and ailments, there was never a feeling that players were looking over their shoulder or more appropriately, looking toward the summer to see where they'll wind up next season.

"When you've got guys who are true professionals, you understand that when you win, something good happens to everybody. Whether it's coming back, whether it's another team wanting you, the truth of the matter is you play in the NBA, but you play for the Chicago Bulls," explained Mohammed, one of the few who has a good chance to return. "You always have everybody watching you, so you want to impress the team that has you, but you always know that other teams are watching you. So you want to play well and win, and you may get another opportunity."

Or, as Robinson, who famously espoused his "Peter Pan theory" early in the season, puts it: "Sometimes things are left better a mystery, to not know where you're going to be. Just live for today, live for the moment and God has a plan for everybody, so it's already written in the book."