The Bulls’ undefeated exhibition slate continued with Saturday’s 83-81 win over Washington in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and whether the contest was considered another ho-hum exhibition win or a panic alert, a few conclusions can be drawn from it.
First, Derrick Rose’s status will be fluid, at least early on in the campaign, as extreme caution is being practiced by the organization in the opening stages of his comeback season. Regardless of the words of team executives Gar Forman and John Paxson, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau or even the point guard himself, some observers will view his absence in the Wizards game as a red flag in his recovery process.
Instead, it should probably be seen as a nod to lessons learned, given the team’s championship expectations this season. Rose saying he “could have played” and the aforementioned trio of decision-makers explaining the process leading up to the decision to sit him, in conjunction with the Bulls’ medical staff, shows that the organization is willing to exercise restraint now, as opposed to being put in the position of having to sideline the superstar at a more meaningful juncture.
That said, as the regular season draws closer, Rose missing the occasional game here and there — not to mention practices or the team being given an extra unscheduled day off, motivated by the Chicago native’s status — should be monitored moving forward. It’s one thing for competitors like Rose and All-Star center Joakim Noah, who basically acknowledged that he could have played through the pain of his strained groin, to miss time now, but if lingering injuries are a major storyline later in the season, then it should be seen as a legitimate cause for concern.
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As much as fans are starved to see Rose’s progress and dread a repeat of last season’s injury-riddled campaign, it isn’t the time to fret over missed games yet, as it’s a typical practice for teams around the league to sit prominent players for minor aches and pains in the preseason. Still, over 17 months after he tore his ACL, after extensive rehabilitation, it’s understandable that phrases like “planned rest” and unexpected absences, even in games that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, aren’t well received.
But it should be understood that Thibodeau’s demanding style of coaching isn’t conducive to going half-speed, even in the preseason, so if players experienced in his system, who are known for playing full throttle when they’re on the floor, are allowed a brief respite, the flip side to it is actually somewhat positive, right? There has to be a middle ground until an actual issue occurs, not beforehand, and it seems that that’s what the Bulls are attempting to do, whether it comes across that way or not.
On the court itself, what became obvious without Rose playing was that the team’s revamped offense is that without his dynamic playmaking and scoring ability, things are very similar to last season. Noah still hasn’t played, so how the center’s uncanny passing fits in has yet to be revealed, but the first NBA game in Latin America provided witnesses with a clinic in grind-it-out, defensive-oriented basketball.
[MORE: Thibodeau anticipated Rose missing some time]
Taj Gibson continued to play like a man on a mission Saturday, showcasing the improved post-up game and more consistent mid-range jumper that he’s previously only shown flashes of, but never put together on a regular basis. Yes, it’s just the preseason, but the backup big man appears more confident on offense than at any prior point of his career — Gibson had a game-high 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting, to go along with eight rebounds and four blocked shots — and should feast on fellow second-unit players, while remaining an upper-echelon defender and high-energy player in general.
Jimmy Butler might be the next most-impressive player on the squad thus far, as his efficient offense, active defense, high-flying athleticism, burgeoning outside-shooting ability and knack for rebounding have given the Bulls’ starting a lineup a new dimension. Thinking back to a year ago, when Butler — who scored 11 points, corralled six boards, dished out four assists and plucked three steals while holding Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal to 6-for-14 shooting — was a second-year afterthought, without a set role in Thibodeau’s rotation, it almost seems laughable now.
That’s why 20-year-old reserve Marquis Teague shouldn’t be given up on just yet. Receiving extended playing time Saturday behind fill-in starter Kirk Hinrich with Rose sidelined, in 25 minutes of play, the second-year point guard committed four turnovers and more importantly, presided over the unit, also featuring rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy, that allowed Washington to slice into the Bulls’ once-comfortable lead, resulting in Thibodeau reinserting his regulars to preserve the victory.
Teague, who saw scant action behind Rose and Hinrich in the team’s first two exhibition affairs, had an encouraging summer league and has worked hard to improve his outside shot, but his youth and ball-security issues will make it an uphill battle for him to crack the Bulls’ rotation on a nightly basis. Even in the preseason, the Bulls’ depth at point guard puts the University of Kentucky product in a tough spot and that’s without veteran journeyman Mike James, a Thibodeau favorite who could make the regular-season roster, getting a lot of minutes.
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The youngster clearly has some potential, based on his game-changing speed alone, but with the team in win-now mode and Thibodeau being partial to the experience of veterans, it wouldn’t be a shock if the Bulls, who have until the end of this month to pick up the third-year option on his contract, were open to inquiries about him. Teague could thrive on a squad with a more up-tempo style of play and less of a logjam at his position, so it could also benefit his development.
But it’s a long season, Teague has already exhibited that he’s willing to put in the work to address his weaknesses, he has a year in the system — including crucial minutes in last spring’s Game 7 playoff win over Brooklyn on the road — and as we saw from Butler last season, being ready when called upon, no matter how frustrating playing the waiting game can be, can lead to greater opportunities. Besides, there’s worse things than learning from Rose, one of the game’s best at their shared position.
From Rose’s present to Teague’s future, every minute detail surrounding the Bulls will be examined closely — and in the aftermath of last season, it all seems somewhat justified — but if the hand-wringing continues at its current pace, simply letting things play out and enjoying the promise of what could be a special year has apparently gotten old quick, even in the preseason.