Posted Oct 19, 2012 2:25 PM
CHICAGO -- Road-construction season in the Midwest allegedly is winding down for 2012. Bench-construction season in the Windy City, however, continues unabated for 2012-13.
The United Center has been turned into a hard-hat zone and the Chicago Bulls have made safety orange an alternate jersey color this month as they labor to build a better -- or equally good -- bench unit. No NBA team got more mileage from or plaudits for its reserves the past two seasons. No bunch of second-stringers faces more pressure or scrutiny trying to replicate that this season.
Big shoes to fill? Yeah, about five or six pairs worth.
The NBA is a starter's league but for Chicago, its "Bench Mob" (at least that hackneyed nickname will be gone this season) ranked as the team's third-greatest asset behind MVP point guard Derrick Rose and All-Star forward Luol Deng. They buoyed the Bulls through a bevy of injuries in 2011-12. And knowing their minutes depended on how well they embraced coach Tom Thibodeau's defense-first philosophy, they generally were stingier than the team's starting five.
"I watched 'em. They did a good job," new backup guard Nate Robinson said after scoring 24 points -- but in a starting role -- against Milwaukee Tuesday. "We're not trying to be in competition with last year. We're just trying to take flight and go forward from now. Try to build everything we can to help the starting unit. When they're tired, come in there, bring energy and pick up where they left off. Some days they won't have it going and some days we will."
Most days, they had better. The Bulls' margin for error has thinned, with Rose sidelined until at least February or March while rehabbing from surgery on his left knee and free-agent big Omer Asik lured down to Houston.
"But I don't look at it as pressure," second-year forward Jimmy Butler said. "Last year's bench, I don't know if we'll do the same. Everybody knows 'The Bench Mob,' for sure. But we've got to do what we can do together now. The past is the past. We've got to be in the present and play right now."
Over the summer, after assessing Rose's recovery arc and crunching salary and luxury-tax numbers, the Bulls' front office made its series of decisions to shed valuable backup players from the past two years. As training camp neared, it tried to sell the bench makeover by touting the new guys' individual 2011-12 and career statistics.
Of course that's bogus. Good benches are greater than the sum of their parts. How well each man fills in for the starter he's replacing matters less than how they blend with each other and whoever else is on the court.
Still, for simplicity's sake, here are the swap-outs:
G Kirk Hinrich as C.J. Watson: Hinrich has been here, done this before for the Bulls. While Rose heals, he'll start at point guard, similar to the way Watson started 25 times last season. Eventually, he'll back up both backcourt spots or (if Richard Hamilton gets hurt or traded) shift next to Rose. Hinrich wasn't happy with his play in early October -- "I'm just trying to focus on not screwing up" -- then hurt a thumb. Even if he's lost a step, the Bulls feel they've gained in this exchange.
C Nazr Mohammed as Omer Asik: Mohammed, at 35, isn't as long as Asik, a pet project for Thibodeau. But he does have more skills offensively and, after a season spent mostly on Oklahoma City's bench, there's life left in his bones. He had 13 points and 12 rebounds in one tuneup game, 10 and 6 in another so far.
G Marco Belinelli as Kyle Korver: Korver was a 3-point specialist who actually did much more, diving to the floor, snagging balls in passing lanes, bodying up defensively. If Belinelli is going to get opportunities to unsheath his shooting touch, he'll have to do the same. Thibodeau has been patient both with his defense and his 30.4 percent accuracy through four preseason games.
G/F Jimmy Butler as Ronnie Brewer: The Bulls are counting on Butler to do what Brewer did, only more consistently and more cheaply. That means timely scoring and pestering defense. Butler will be in the rotation; he even started and played 48 minutes for Deng in the third October game. The Marquette grad likes this bench's potential. "I feel like we have the same type of weapons, just in different bodies with different names," he said. "We've got shooters, we've got defenders. I think we're going to be able to do a lot of different things. Once we get a knack for each other."
G Marquis Teague as Jimmy Butler: Teague, the Bulls' first-round pick, translates as this season's Butler, the rookie who will have to learn by watching and wait his turn.
G Nate Robinson as John Lucas III: Robinson has been called an "X-factor," by Thibodeau, which euphemistically covers a lot of ground -- the fireplug guard's energy and explosiveness as well as his unpredictability and lapses in judgment. Like Lucas, now with Toronto, he is undersized. Unlike Lucas, his dad wasn't an NBA point guard and coach. Robinson is a little more colorful in words and deeds. "Some people think I'm cocky and that's fine, but I know it's confidence," he said. "I'm well-humble, well-grounded. I just like to have fun."
G Marko Jaric as Mike James: Once the Bulls can fit a pro-rated minimum salary into their cap, Jaric could wind up as a veteran guard trying to revive an NBA career. That was James' spot last season in small, multiple stints.
F Vladimir Radmanovic as Brian Scalabrine: He wasn't signed to be a mascot and crowd favorite, but so far VladRad has been sitting about as much as the White Mamba. Most suspect that has had to do with his physical conditioning while adjusting to Thibodeau's work demands, along with the defensive load. The coach does like Radmanovic's size, shooting range and ability to play a couple of spots for big or small looks. "You need your whole bench," Thibodeau said the other day. "That was the versatility of the previous teams. Guys like John Lucas, Kurt Thomas, they weren't in the regular rotation at the start but ended up playing a lot because of the different injuries that occurred. So we have a lot of versatility that we're trying to figure out."
F Taj Gibson as Taj Gibson: Gibson and Asik were a formidable pair off the bench last season. This year, Gibson will try to handle both jobs, backing up Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. His value to the team is unquestioned and he's in line for a contract extension by Halloween. Gibson said Noah recently gave hm a pep talk about working with new benchmates. "He said, ' It's going to be tough right now, but you're going to get used to it,' " Gibson said. " 'You've got to keep pushing, become a leader on the second unit. When they're doing something wrong, you've got to tell them where to go.' "
The results have been choppy so far. The bench blew most of a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter of the Bulls' preseason opener, but Thibodeau left them on the floor to learn. He has been giving them major minutes, as coaches do at this time of year, but those will decline as the regular season approaches. Deng also figures to see time with the second unit, particularly in first halves.
The key now: Pulling it all together sooner rather than later.
"What we have to be careful of is everyone says, 'You're new, it's the preseason,' " Thibodeau said. "Then, they say, 'OK, we'll get it when we get to the regular season.' Then you get to the regular season and you say we need a month. And then after that they say we need till Christmas and before you know it, the season is over and you never get it. We can use that as an excuse or we can get the job done."
If the Bulls get it done, they might not replicate the Bench Mob's impact. But they will be one up on road construction crews in and around the city.
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