Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, a disciplined man wedded to routine, can hardly be called a mad scientist when it comes to his strategies, but his team’s training camp includes a bit of advanced chemistry.
As Saturday’s preseason opener in Indianapolis approaches, the Bulls are in the process of mixing in one newcomer, veteran swingman Mike Dunleavy Jr.—rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy are unlikely to see major roles in the regular rotation—with a group of holdovers who proved what they could do without a superstar facilitator setting the table for them, then adding said star player, Derrick Rose, to the equation and seeing what the compound produces.
Rose being held out of the scrimmage portion of Monday’s practice at the Berto Center and the Bulls getting a day off Tuesday shouldn’t be an immediate cause for concern, as it was expected that extreme caution would be exercised when it came to the point guard’s comeback. But while expectations that the Bulls could be among the last teams standing at the end of the season are legitimate, that doesn’t mean believing Rose will instantly pick off right where he last left off or the squad will be cohesive right off the bat are reasonable.
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If that occurs, and the Bulls are a well-oiled juggernaut from Saturday on, fantastic. More than likely, however, there will be some growing pains, as Rose regains his rhythm and his supporting cast, which learned to survive without his dynamic abilities last season, gauges when to step back to let the former league MVP do his thing, and when to take it upon themselves to carry more of the weight.
“There’s some ups, some downs. It’s not just him. That whole unit has to get used to playing together, playing to their strengths and covering up their weaknesses. It’s not only his timing but it’s everybody’s timing and spacing and execution. That’s on both ends,” Thibodeau explained. “Each year, we start from a zero base offensively and defensively. You have to put your foundation in first. You add things each day to your overall scheme and package. We’ll get there. It’s not only Derrick. It’s the entire team.
“There’s an adjustment. He’s been around, and obviously the core of the team has played with him before so that’s to me a big plus. But you have to re-establish your chemistry. We start from a zero base from last year and build from there, but the fact that these guys have been together for a while has been a plus,” he added. “It allows you to move along much quicker. Because we’ve been through it, and we’ve added a few things here and there, but the foundation, they have a pretty good feeling of.”
Rose seconded his coach’s thoughts on the work-in-progress.
“It’s a collective where the harder everyone works it makes everyone’s job easier. Defensively, we’re fine. Offensively, we have to get in control of the game and have myself get comfortable making decisions again,” he said after the Bulls’ initial training-camp practice session. “Just getting adjusted, knowing everybody, knowing how they play and just getting my timing going to the hole. I was attacking but getting fouled, learning how to fall, all that stuff I’m learning.”
Teammate Carlos Boozer chimed in: “We’re getting comfortable every day. Getting comfortable with the new guys. The new guys are trying to catch on to what we’re doing. It’s been fun.”
While the floor general is the focus of the Bulls’ jelling, Rose understands, after a season of observing his teammates, that other players have emerged in his absence. For example, new backcourt mate Jimmy Butler, a seldom-used rookie when the Chicago-native last played.
“Man, he gives people hell on the court. He’s a guy where he has the same mentality I got. It’s like, ‘I don’t care.’ He’s going to go out and ball. He loves playing,” Rose explained. “Having him behind me and having Joakim and everybody else behind me, it’s going to be a team effort. That’s what we’re trying to build.”
“I think my IQ of the game has definitely grown. When you’re young, you’re so used to just sticking one player or being concerned with who you’re guarding,” he continued Saturday, spelling out his growth as a player during the layoff. “Today, we really went up some games against the other team by playing a team defense and knowing we have each other’s back.”
Thibodeau, the king of minimizing expectations, tempered any overly optimistic talk with a reminder of the gradual progress Rose must make coming off such a serious injury, even prior to the point guard’s day off of “planned rest” Monday.
“The thing for us going in was we knew he put a lot of work in over the last season and then the offseason. That was additional time. We just want to evaluate based on day-to-day and practices and making sure he doesn’t have any problems. He’s moving well. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, just see how it unfolds. That’s normally what you would do with your starters anyway,” the coach said Sunday. “Once the game comes, we’ll see how he handles those minutes. The big thing is he has practiced two days and he’s fine. Then, he’ll play and we’ll see where he is after he plays. I don’t foresee any problems.”
Still, even the dour Thibodeau couldn’t resist, even in coach-speak, stating the obvious: Rose’s mere presence, the threat of his talent, will make things a lot easier for the Bulls, a team that struggled mightily to produce easy offense in his absence. Outside marksmanship, a clear weakness last season, should be greatly improved because of the playmaker’s driving ability.
“Anytime a player commands two [defenders] to be put on him, now you’re 4-on-3 away from him. They’re long closeouts. You’re forcing the defense to collapse, so you get rhythm threes,” he explained. “That’s a lot different. In transition, anytime you force the defense to collapse you hit the paint and now you’re kicking out and you’re walking into those threes, so it’s a much higher percentage.”
The Bulls’ nucleus of Rose, power forwards Boozer and Taj Gibson, and the All-Star duo of center Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have played together since 2010, giving the squad a sense of familiarity. Butler joined them the following season and Kirk Hinrich returned to Chicago last summer after a two-year stint in Washington and Atlanta, with hometown product Nazr Mohammed and youngster Marquis Teague also joining the group a year ago.
Not that the Bulls don’t have talent, but the sense of cohesiveness the team possesses should also go a long way toward easing Rose’s comfort level and ultimately, giving them an edge, both in coming out of the gates quickly and in the long run.
“We have a core that’s been together for a long time now. There’s a good understanding of how we’re going to work. We have high character guys. The attitude and approach has been very good thus far. We have to show we can sustain that throughout the course of the season. This is the beginning. We’ve established a baseline. You evaluate yourself whether it’s championship caliber in everything you’re doing from how you practice, how you conduct yourself in the meeting, how you concentrate in the film session, how you prepare in the weight room, how you take care of your body. There’s a lot that goes into winning,” Thibodeau said. “Hopefully we established that long ago. The thing is if you put everything you have into each day, you won’t feel any pressure. You’re building those habits. I’ve said this, whether it’s praise or criticism or expectations, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is what we think, not what outside people think.”
That goes for the assumption that the Bulls will be dismantled after the season, given Deng being in a contract year and set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, as well as the notion that the front office will use the amnesty clause on Boozer to give them further flexibility heading into the offseason. But that won’t be a distraction, as the entire organization—up and down the roster, and extending over to the coaching staff and management—is focused on what they believe is the realistic goal of winning a championship.
“That’s not for us to worry about. For us, we’re excited for the moment. Everybody is finally healthy and if we can stay that way throughout the course of the season it will be an exciting year. Obviously we want to do something special and win it, but we’re doing the right thing. We’re not skipping steps, we’re taking it day-by-day in practice, which is important. Talking to [Scottie] Pippen, talking to some of the champs like ‘Pax’ [Bulls executive vice president John Paxson], [Bulls assistant general manager] Randy Brown, you know you just can’t skip any steps. Every day you’ve got to be better than the day before, and that’s what we’ve done so far,” Boozer explained. “The East is good, always good. Obviously with the guys going to Brooklyn, they were good last year and now they’ll be improved this year. Obviously Miami is at the top, Indiana is very good. For us we just have to be the best we can to be ready. We have a hell of a start, come out the gate with the champs [in Miami], we’ve got the Knicks [home opener], Indiana a couple times, and so on and so forth. So we’ve got to do a good job of preparing for this upcoming season.”
That includes some training-camp science.