Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

The life of a deep team

Sam Smith looks at how the Bulls have been managing a deep roster

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By Sam Smith | 12.30.2015 | 9:45 a.m.

The Bulls got some good news at practice Tuesday.

Joakim Noah, Mike Dunleavy and Doug McDermott all were in varying stages of rehabilitations trying to return to the court, though perhaps only McDermott was given just a slight chance to play Wednesday against Indiana after being diagnosed with a sprained knee.

That’s the good news? Three guys out!

In some respects, yes, because it enables coach Fred Hoiberg to play a tighter rotation with fewer questions about whom to play and when and for how long, especially with veterans like Noah.

Depth is a vital ingredient for a championship team. It’s been one of the great strengths of the Golden State Warriors the last two seasons, and certainly the Bulls when they were winning championships in the 1990s.

But it only works if players know and accept their roles, and if the starters are markedly superior to the reserves. And that everyone knows it.

It hasn’t exactly been the case with the Bulls this season, which has made coach Fred Hoiberg’s introductory NBA job so much more difficult.

Hoiberg was generally applauded in Monday’s win over Toronto. Winning, of course, being the major reason. But for the first time this season, Hoiberg rode a hot reserve group all the way down the stretch as Bobby Portis, Aaron Brooks and Tony Snell, the latter with 16 fourth quarter points, basically protected a lead all fourth quarter, which hasn’t always been occurring.

But what if McDermott were healthy?

Would Snell even have played after two DNP coach decisions in the last three games?

What if Noah were available?

Would Portis have played given Taj Gibson played almost the entire fourth quarter and his rotation has been most effective this season with Noah?

And were savvy veteran Dunleavy available, which is not likely for at least another month, would either Snell or McDermott have played?

“It shows that the guys on our team have to stay ready,” Portis told reporters after his plus-16 Tuesday as the team’s best plus/minus rating for time on the floor. “Injuries happen and things happen with teams. So you have to be ready for your moment. You never know when your number is going to be called.”

Snell was ready Tuesday after what mostly has been a disappointing season in which he’s had five games playing at least 10 minutes when he was scoreless. Plus, his overall shooting is a career low.

Portis with 12 points and nine rebounds played a season most 27 minutes. His energetic play has been a potential gain for the team and lauded by Hoiberg and his staff.

So much so that the impish Portis joked at practice last week about a Free Bobby Portis movement on social media to get him playing time.

Portis Tuesday after practice said he’s seen the support and was grateful about the appreciation for a rookie.

“I'm just enjoying the ride and enjoying the moment right now,” said Portis. “I never had fans so behind me and wanting me to play. So it was an ecstatic moment for me and even when I first got in the Philadelphia game at the United Center, that was crazy, too. The crowd just went crazy. They even had #Freebobbyportis signs. Let Five Thrive.

“It's a great city to live in,” Portis added. “There's a lot of good things to do. The scenery is nice; it's a beautiful city. I like a lot of food. Not anything in particular, but there's a lot of good places to eat here. I don't really like pizza, though. I'm not even going to lie. I don't really like that (deep dish). I like the thin crust. I'm a down south guy. The first thing they (fans) say is, you all know: (free Bobby Portis). That's all they say everywhere I go.”

Still not unexpectedly, Portis’ playing time often has been denied with recent All-Stars Noah and Pau Gasol ahead of him along with the hard working Gibson, his practice mentor, and Nikola Mirotic, whom the Bulls are grooming for his three-point shooting, court spacing prowess. Mirotic leads the team in three pointers made, though he was a doleful one of six for two points in 17 minutes against Toronto.

So Hoiberg went with the reserves Monday in sort of a hunch and something of a personnel depletion.

They played the ideal role with 51 points among three players, and Kirk Hinrich a ninth man playing about nine minutes without a shot.

No one was looking over his shoulder ready to come out, or rushing up a shot knowing he was. The rotation was tighter and the minutes were distributed more evenly with seven players playing between 27 and 38 minutes with Gibson the most.

It’s obviously an area that can only truly be judged with a second guess.

Had the Bulls lost, it would have been a mistake and Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol, who combined to lead the Bulls to a 78-73 lead in the third quarter, would have been left out too long. Also, really, who would have argued for Snell as the go to scorer down the stretch with his play thus far? And Brooks with his assortment of, “No, no, no, no, good shot,” shots?

This Bulls team often has had an energy deficit, and Monday was another first quarter deficit. Though a closer look shows that most of the 32-23 deficit came after Brooks replaced Rose, Snell replaced Mirotic and Portis replaced Gibson.

That group recovered and got the lead back in the second quarter, mostly behind an amazing Brooks shooting quarter. And then it was a good fourth quarter with Gibson’s support as the Raptors mostly played small to try to shoot their way back into the game.

There are several ideals for rotations.

There’s the Warriors now and the Bulls then with the starters so superior--being league MVP level--that it’s obvious what the roles should be.

Then there are two groups of relatively equal talent who come in as waves like a relay race, in and out, perhaps even in five or six-minute segments. Play yourself to exertion, go out and rest. Then go back in.

But the Bulls as currently constituted do not really have either model. Along with several players who essentially haven’t played the last year or two. So the coach has to judge if they can play, how much and when and see what they can do with the goal of improving as the season goes on.

Which makes it an unusually difficult adjustment for a new coach.

It’s a lot simpler when there are fewer choices.

Play who’s there and see how they do. Players react in human fashion as well. This is a very good group of people the Bulls have. Character, they like to call it in sports. They do root for one another, and the starters were standing up enthused in the fourth quarter watching the reserves close the win.

But everyone wants to play. No offense to anyone else, especially when they believe they can do as well or better. Plus, there are players coming into free agency, others seeking to return to previous physical form, others wanting to justify the organization’s financial faith in them, and still others looking for that first big chance to break through because they feel ready. And all needing playing time to prove and justify.

And a new coach who is trying to put them in the best position to succeed because that’s what he’s always done. Hoiberg’s success in college annually resulted from changing his system to accommodate his varying talent from year to year.

The conventional wisdom is the surfeit of talent produces a more perfect union because players will compete with one another in practice and in games for playing time. But it’s not so simple. After all, as we hear from Bulls practices and coming in early and staying late, it’s difficult to find someone not working hard. Do people at routine jobs announce how hard they are working, and so often?

Of course, no one actually ever asks them. Probably about anything.

Hoiberg was applauded Monday for riding the wave of effort, energy, excellence and effectiveness no matter who supplied it. But how do you know and when who is going to supply it? When you don’t have much choice, you get what’s there. But what happens when they’re all back and ready to go and give you everything they have. Who doesn’t get to?

The Bulls won’t have to answer that question for awhile. The Pacers won’t as well with Jordan Hill and C.J. Miles possibly out for Wednesday’s game. Can you have too much of a good thing, like health and talent? It’s not supposed to be that way. But when it is just what do you do?