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Bulls looking for extra value in roster full of specialists

Chicago's offensive-minded and defense-first players are trying to cross the divide to each other as 2015-16 wears on

POSTED: Dec 15, 2015 12:53 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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(From left) Tony Snell, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are three of Chicago's best defensive players.

No one said there would be math in this essay, but here goes: If four one-way players and one two-way player effectively team up to outscore an opponent 12-1 over the first 3:51 of a quarter, how many complete basketball players are there in the Chicago Bulls' eight-man rotation?

The answer is one: Jimmy Butler. And Butler wasn't even on the floor when the Bulls expanded a fat lead to something ponderous in the early going of the fourth quarter Monday. That it took so long against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers -- after Chicago trailed by five at halftime -- only supported the charge that, for now, the Bulls are more pretenders than contenders in the Eastern Conference.

Setting aside the ceaseless hand-wringing over Derrick Rose, the concerns expressed most often about the Bulls are two:

Sixers vs. Bulls

Jimmy Butler scores 23 points to go along with three assists to lead the Bulls past the Sixers, 115-96.

1. They play down to their competition, losing games against some of the NBA's mediocre teams even as they're revving up to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers. That's a bad trait, a passive-aggressive insult to fans who ought to be able to expect consistent, high-level effort and energy, even on the most hamhanded, scattershooting nights.

2. The Bulls are a collection of offensive or defensive players, with that "or" being the problematic word. Butler has worked himself into a true two-way threat, but you can divvy up most of the roster as either pure offensive guys (Rose, Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks) or defensive guys (Tony Snell, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah). Veteran Kirk Hinrich still qualifies as a two-way player but logs limited minutes.

The first criticism allegedly is being addressed from within, though it took 24 haphazard minutes against the league's worst team, in which the Bulls embarrassed themselves, to get busy about it Monday. Noah and Gasol reportedly fumed in the halftime locker room to get their teammates' attention.

"Other teams see this film of us lollygagging in the first half and they're not scared of us," McDermott said.

As for the second criticism, well, how scared should opponents be of a roster that is so specialized? Shuffling and re-shuffling lineups has been Fred Hoiberg's most significant impact in his first 22 games as Chicago's coach, like a chef adding too much or too little something-or-other until he tosses the whole pot and starts again from scratch.

Once Gasol and Noah, in a two-center tandem, got ruled out from the style Hoiberg wants to play in today's breezier NBA, other combinations leaned more heavily in one direction (offense) or the other (defense). And that soon enough shifted focus to what was missing from each combination.

Noah-Gibson? Someone who can score, please. Gasol-Mirotic? Someone who can get a stop, please. Then there was the small forward spot, where Snell and McDermott shared the minutes available through Mike Dunleavy's back surgery and recovery as some sort of Diametric Duo.

Snell couldn't score, managing six points or fewer in 14 of his first 21 appearance. McDermott hadn't always defended, with a net rating of minus-9.2 despite his per-36-minutes 14.9 scoring average and deadly 44 percent 3-point accuracy. Melt them into one guy, maybe you'd have something.

Snell Sets The Pace

Tony Snell leads the way after the steal, draws the foul and makes the layup in traffic.

And then, with the Sixers as the elixirs, both small forwards played like complete players.

Snell did it for about a half, scoring 13 of his 16 points in the third quarter. When the Bulls drafted Snell in 2013, they dared to mention him in the same breath as San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard. Since Leonard's championship ring, Finals MVP and Kia Defensive Player of the Year awards, max contract and emergence as a likely All-Star, you don't hear much about that linkage at United Center. But Snell's bosses would be happy with a poor man's version on both ends.

McDermott has developed as the season has played out, building off a summer that served as a reset button. His rookie year was washed out in blown assignments, a lack of confidence from former coach Tom Thibodeau and a meniscus clean-up surgery. His offseason included a successful second stint in Las Vegas, followed by a gentleman's boot camp of sorts trying to keep up with Butler out in San Diego.

"Man, I destroyed Doug when we were in San Diego, giving him in-and-outs, step-backs, locking him up -- make sure you put that in your article, too," Butler said. "No, it was just to get Doug to understand -- it wasn't even all about basketball -- that if you work hard, what this game can bring you. ... Basketball was only one-fourth of what we do. [My] main thing to Doug was, don't ever settle."

McDermott, the ex-Creighton star drafted high in 2014 primarily for his shooting ability, spent nearly a month learning from Butler, his friends and his trainers. Yes, it was San Diego, but it was mostly time in the gym.

Windex Man

Joakim Noah tips in the Doug McDermott miss for the rebound and bucket.

"Playing 1-on-1 against Jimmy is going to help you out," McDermott said. "It really humbled me, because I couldn't score over Jimmy. But just seeing how hard he's worked, seeing it first-hand and seeing where he is now compared to his rookie year, that was really cool."

More cool is the time McDermott has spent in defensive drills after practice with assistant coach Jim Boylen. McDermott has sharpened his footwork such that he can be trusted with longer minutes later in games. Lately, McDermott has developed nice off-the-bench chemistry with Noah, to the point that Chicago's reserves are showing the pace-and-space style Hoiberg seeks than the starters.

"Jo's a really unselfish player to play with," McDermott said. "Him being 7 feet, he kind of sees the whole floor in a different way from the top of the key. And now that Niko is coming off the bench too, it opens up more space for us too. Me and Niko can run different actions for each other, and Jo obviously is one of the better passing big guys in the league.

Sometime he gets on us for not throwing him the extra pass. But it's not for him to score, it's for him to make the next pass."

Noah has heard the one-way player criticism for years. He smiled and shook his head at it, on a night he racked up 15 rebounds and eight assists.

"I think it's a game of chemistry," he said. "Playing to your team's strengths. Knowing your team's weaknesses and putting players in the right positions. Putting the right players together. I think we're starting to do that. We're gonna be all right.

"I think it's just a question of learning to play together."

Doing so on both ends? That'd be nice too.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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