Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau referred to the team’s superstar, Derrick Rose, as a “poker player” at last Friday’s media day.
Well, Thibodeau probably wouldn’t be a bad card shark himself, the way he holds his cards close to the vest. The coach has been loath to reveal which of the remaining free agents in Bulls training camp—point guard Mike James, swingman Dahntay Jones, center Dexter Pittman and power forward D.J. White—is likely to be on the roster when the regular season begins.
While the tough Jones fits the Bulls’ defensive mold and White is an intriguing offensive talent, it would seem that James, a familiar face, and Pittman would have the edge to be the team’s 13th player under contract. In fact, given that James and Thibodeau go way back to their days in Houston, the 38-year-old finished last season starting in Dallas and he was in Chicago two seasons ago, he can almost be penciled already, particularly in light of veteran floor general Kirk Hinrich being held out of practice Wednesday and Thursday.
But if the Bulls were to keep a 14th player—the league-mandated minimum is 13, but as many as 15 players can be kept on the roster—or center, probably the position where they could use depth the most, is prioritized, Pittman could have an advantage. The massive, soft-spoken big man, who began his NBA career with rival Miami and spent part of last season in Memphis, has been working out at the Berto Center since early last month and even the tight-lipped Thibodeau has been impressed by what he’s seen.
“Just experience. Hard playing. Been around. He has shown some signs that he’s capable. I like what he did in the fall,” Thibodeau explained. “He’s a big guy who has presence in front of the rim. He brings good energy to practice.”
When Thibodeau was asked whether Pittman’s knowledge of the Heat would be a bonus, the coach quipped, “If we have to rely on that, we’re in trouble. Dexter has done a good job. But we’re not trying to trick anyone.”
Pittman had other training-camp opportunities around the league, but gravitated to the Bulls because he believes he fits their style of play, despite previously playing for the Heat.
“It’s a business. The style of ball is different. That’s probably the only thing. It kind of fits me more than it did in Miami, to be honest with you,” he explained after Thursday’s practice. “It’s been great, man. I’ve got the system down and Coach Thibs, he’s a great guy. He loves for you to work hard and I love to work hard.
“They’re a physical team inside and I’ve got an opportunity to use my body here, to seal and screen, and they’ve got great guards like D-Rose coming off your screens, so it’s all about the right fit,” Pittman continued. “The coaches are a lot more hands-on, which is great. [Thibodeau] teaches us the plays in the morning before practice and it’s just a great way to learn the system fast.”
Pittman acknowledged that if he made the team, he would be a deep reserve, playing behind both All-Star center Joakim Noah and backup Nazr Mohammed, but after having a similar role with the Heat, that prospect doesn’t faze him.
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“It’s a long season, man. Anything could happen. All I’ve got to do is stay ready and whenever my number’s called, my number’s called. I’m going to be ready. It’s all about being a professional,” he said. “Really just play hard and that’s all I’ve been doing. I’ve been trying to impress them. I’ve just got to keep grinding every day.
“As long as I just keep putting in the work every day. Hard work always beats talent, so what I’ve got to do. Just keep working.”
The Texas product—where he played alongside Kevin Durant for a season and more importantly, lost approximately 100 pounds—wouldn’t downplay the talent of his former team, but believes the Bulls’ size advantage is a key aspect of the game where they’re better than Miami.
“Just by being here, and seeing the philosophy and the system, and the way the offensive system is set up—I don’t want to say they [the Heat] have a weakness—but it’s a strength for the Bulls, just how we play,” he explained.
“I know it’s a rivalry. I know that those guys—whatever’s said in here—how we’re preparing for them, they’re preparing for us. I know how ‘Spo’ [Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra] is, since ‘No. 1’ is back now, I know they’re probably preparing for him, just like we’re preparing for them, so it’s no different. It’s all a competitive league,” Pittman added. “It’s a lot of different personalities, but you learn a lot and I was thankful to go there first because it created a work ethic, because I was around greatness and I understand what it takes to stay in this league, and I understand what it takes to work hard.”
But as far as passing along any secrets to his new squad, Pittman concurred with Thibodeau.
“Nah, man. There ain’t no secrets,” he said, laughing. “I mean, they do what they do.”