“He’s going to surprise people by the way that he puts the ball down," Derrick Rose said of Nikola Mirotic. "Like if you fly out at him, he’s able to really attack the rim and avoid charges. We saw that today. He did a couple of moves where it was supposed to be a charge, but he pumped his way around the opponent and scored the ball. We already know he can shoot, but he’s good.’’
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Utilizing depth could involve prominent roles for rookies

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By Sam Smith | 09.30.2014 | 10:15 p.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

There were two rookies who could score, one a high draft choice. They were the league’s best rebounding team with one scoring star, a preeminent figure who’d sat out a year. It was a team with its belief and maxim being sacrifice, unselfish play, good team chemistry and hard work combined with depth. It was the formula for a championship.

One might say that could describe the Bulls, who come into the 2014-15 NBA season with the return of former league MVP Derrick Rose leading a deep team of basically hard working role players and two celebrated rookies in college player of the year Doug McDermott and European star Nikola Mirotic.

Can you win a championship also using two rookies in prominent roles?

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau wondered aloud about that, noting after the team’s first preseason practice Monday it hadn’t been done since the Golden State Warriors’ Jamaal Wilkes and Phil Smith in 1975.

But the scoring star of that 1975 team, Rick Barry, Monday described that title run, which included the crucial Game 7 win over the Bulls in the Western Conference finals, in terms which sound very Bulls 2014-15 like.

“We didn’t accept anyone not giving a great effort,” recalled Barry in a telephone interview from his Bay Area home where he is recovering from a serious summer bicycling accident from which he had a six hour surgery and doesn’t figure to be back on his feet again until December. “We really epitomized what a team was supposed to be like, everybody cheering for one another, no petty jealousies. If a guy played two minutes or 20 minutes, he was going to play just as hard. Guys were rooting for everybody. It was a great experience and probably the most enjoyable team I ever played on as far as the attitude of the players, how everyone got along. We bonded and that was one of the reasons we were able to win. We put the word ‘togetherness’ on our rings.

“You say to have two rookies in that important a role on your team was very unusual?” noted Barry. “They were two very integral parts of our team. Jamaal was a starter and made rookie of the year. Phil just kept getting better and better.

“One of the key ingredients to the success of our team was Clifford Ray, who doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” said Barry of the former Bull who was traded to the Warriors for Nate Thurmond before that season. “Clifford (the veteran role playing big man) had a great relationship with those guys. He called a meeting at the beginning of the season. He was instrumental in getting those guys to understand you have to show up every day, bring your lunch pail with you and be ready to get down to work. We didn’t accept anyone not giving a great effort.”

Sounds like something Joakim Noah might do.

“We busted our hump,” said Barry, the Hall of Famer. “We were one of the better rebounding teams in the league; we made a commitment to defense and came together as a team. The bottom line is you give your best effort and nothing else would be tolerated. Everybody realized depending on how you were performing you might play 10 minutes, 20, 30. Al (coach Attles) had the luxury of feeling confident enough he could go 10 deep. Not many teams go 10 deep.”

It was the advantage in depth, really, that was the difference in that 1975 series, which still haunts Bulls fans and players from that era. The Bulls relied on an iron man starting group that faded at the end of the crucial games. Though the Warriors’ championship was an exception of sorts, it demonstrated such a model is possible. And even if it’s not the ultimate success, young teams with rookies and depth have been to Finals, like the 1978 SuperSonics, the 1986 Rockets and 1995 Magic.

The Bulls opening camp Monday played together their expected starting five of Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah.

That group will primarily be supported by Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich.

One question that will be crucial this season is whether the Bulls go with a formula emphasizing depth to better prepare for the long season. Such a plan would require the use, certainly, of No. 1 draft pick Doug McDermott and likely European star Nikola Mirotic, who was drafted in 2011 and played in Spain.

“I want to experiment with some things in the preseason just to see how everything fits,” said Thibodeau after the three-hour morning practice. “I do like the versatility of our bigs because I think they can all play with each other. That’s a big plus. What may work best for our team I’m not sure yet. Same thing with our perimeter guys. The one thing we know is Kirk gives us great flexibility. That’s one of the reasons why I think he’s so important for our team. You can play him at the point, you can play him at the two. You can start him or bring him off the bench. That’s critical. Aaron Brooks had a great practice today. He’s been around. Taj played very well. I like that. It gives us quality depth.

“Every team has question marks,” said Thibodeau. “How do you respond to those challenges? With both Doug and Nikola, they both have great attitudes and approaches. Where it goes, I don’t know. I know there’s a steep learning curve. That’s not to say it can’t be done (having two rookies in the regular rotation). You want to see what they can do. You can’t do it at the expense of not winning or losing games. I think it’s important they earn their time. I think they will as we go along. How much I don’t know yet. Whatever Doug and Nikola can give us, to me, is gravy.”

The question is whether like at Thanksgiving the gravy is essential or whether it’s just another stain to try to avoid.

It’s an intriguing question for Thibodeau and the Bulls because of the potential of both McDermott and Mirotic. Both are accomplished three-point shooters. That has been one of the team’s principal weaknesses for years. Last season, the Bulls were last in shooting and scoring and 24th in three-point shooting. The season before the Bulls were 21st in three-point shooting.

And in the early going Monday, the reviews were positive, especially for Mirotic.

“I’m seeing Mirotic, seeing Doug in his environment, just playing, and some of the other guys; we’re really deep,” said Derrick Rose. “He’s (Mirotic) going to surprise people by the way that he puts the ball down. Like if you fly out at him, he’s able to really attack the rim and avoid charges. We saw that today. He did a couple of moves where it was supposed to be a charge, but he pumped his way around the opponent and scored the ball. We already know he can shoot, but he’s good.’’

“I think Doug’s biggest problem right now is just his nerves,” said Rose. “His nerves are up right now. Just playing in his first game or just playing in the preseason is going to calm down his nerves so that he’s more relaxed. The teammates, us as a team, are going to have to really put our hands around him and calm him down because he’s a great player. But nerves have something to do with just coming in and starting your first year.’’

McDermott, who is one of those players Thibodeau will like being anxious to please, laughed that he was so nervous about his first day of camp he set three alarm clocks to not be late.

“I'm really just trying to learn,” said McDermott. “I don't want to get too ahead of myself. I really just want to learn from these veterans and coaches. I think they'll put me in spots where I can become successful. I'll do whatever it takes to earn playing time. I know it's not going to come easy this first year, but I'm going to do everything I can to try to get on the floor. The butterflies came more last night. Once I step on the floor, it's just basketball. Last night, I set like three alarms. I woke up every hour. I just had Thibs' voice in my head. I don't want to miss my first day. I went to bed early, woke up and thought it was time to go, but I looked at my phone and it was like 3:30. Like ‘God, I have to stop this.’ That's part of what's made me good. I'm kind of a perfectionist. I like being on time and that's kind of the Bulls' way, anyway

“The nerves are gone,” added McDermott after the first practice. “I know it's just basketball now and I'm glad we're finally underway. It's crazy being a Midwest kid growing up, watching the Bulls. I have to pinch myself at times. Just driving in, driving by those banners is pretty cool. I'm not going to take it for granted. I know how lucky I am and how blessed I am to be here and just want to make the most of it.”

The Bulls will want to make the most of their talented youngsters. The question is how and when.

“It’s hard sometimes to judge off tape,” Thibodeau said of Mirotic. “I had never seen him play in person. You could see some things. But you don’t see how strong he might be or how lively he might be and how he sees things. To be able to react to things as they’re happening on the floor and his ability to think through things is good. When you have an opportunity to coach him you get a better feel for that.

“So far what I’m seeing from Doug in the USA setting and summer league is his ability to shoot,” said Thibodeau. “I see how people react to his ability to shoot. When you have someone like that, it opens up the floor. And I’m excited about Nikola because we haven’t had a stretch four like that. You have to look at what you have in Joakim, Pau and Taj because you have to make sure they’re getting their minutes. I look at those three guys as starters. You have to divvy up those minutes. That doesn’t leave a lot. There’s a lot that unfolds during the course of a season, whether it’s an injury or foul trouble or whatever you might have. I don’t know. Like with Omer (Asik), I went into the season and didn’t know how good he would be. I played him in the preseason and I loved the way he worked in the preseason, in the summer. He played well and he kept playing. By the end of the season, we had a lot of confidence in him. He was closing games for us. I’m not ruling anything out. You have to base it on performance. You can’t base it on potential. Everyone is evaluated on performance.”

As it will for the entire team, as Thibodeau suggests, which sounds a bit like the way Attles handled it for those title winning Warriors who broke the Bulls hearts.

“You just have to be honest with them,” said Thibodeau. “We always do what’s best for the team. Maybe you’re finishing each game and whatever you need the most, whether you need low post scoring or defense or the combination of the two you may finish with that guy. We have three guys that I know we can finish with. I’m going to ask them all to sacrifice. Some guys are going to have to sacrifice not starting. Some may have to sacrifice not finishing. I think it’s important for everyone to put the team first. Sometimes that means doing what may not necessarily be best for you. But what’s best for the team. That has to come first.”

Like the old saying of what comes first the rookie or the contributor. Can it be both?

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