When the NBA trading deadline came around last February, the phones for the Bulls executives were ringing constantly. Sure, Jimmy Butler was to be a restricted free agent, though teams pretty much knew the Bulls weren’t letting him get away. The Bulls would be asked about some of their young players, but one name, surprisingly, kept coming up more than others. Not because teams believed he might be their final piece. Not because of anything so special he was doing. More so because of what he was not doing, which was playing. Which led many teams to believe they could steal one from the Bulls.
The calls were for reserve guard E’Twaun Moore, who was 11th in minutes played last season with 26 DNP-coach decision. But teams knew. The kid could help; the Bulls knew. And now they’re seeing the results.
Moore quietly—which is how he does and says everything—has become a reliable fourth quarter performer for Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. In Friday’s victory over Charlotte, Moore was the only Bulls player in for the entire fourth quarter. He had four points among his 11 for the game along with three rebounds and a team best plus-seven for the quarter to match Joakim Noah.
Moore is averaging 5.9 points in about 18 minutes per game. But he’s been among the team’s top three this season in fourth quarter scoring and minutes as a two-way guard who can not only play both guard positions but actively help defensively. Like when Hoiberg down the stretch Friday went with perimeter lineups that included Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose and Moore and Moore, Butler and Tony Snell as the Hornets missed seven of their last 10 shots and the Bulls held on to advance to 6-3.
The Bulls host Indiana Monday and then leave for the Western Conference trip and play in Phoenix Wednesday.
“Three aggressive guards, getting to the rim, creating for others, defensive guys who play hard and guard,” noted Butler when asked about Moore. “You need that down the stretch and we got that.”
For his part, Moore, his locker close by the exuberant Butler, smiled and shrugged.
“My job is coming in and giving us a spark off the bench,” Moore said. “Hustle plays, try to change the game around for us. Just staying aggressive and keeping working hard; had a few days to refresh and had a couple of good practices and it carried over into the game.”
Moore never says too much, and certainly not about himself.
He’s one of the more popular player on the team, easygoing and friendly, pretty much always with a smile and a positive word.
It couldn’t have been easy last season playing so little even after one of the bigger moments of the season when Moore’s cool three pointer beat the Thunder in Oklahoma City last March with 2.1 seconds left and he had a career high 19 points, 12 in the fourth quarter. Moore even in rare playing time has often been a clutch performer, winning a game as well on free throws earlier in the season. But back to the bench he’d go.
“Last year was tough at first,” he admits “I didn’t know I wasn’t going to play that much; so I just kept coming in, working hard and staying focused. Like, I’ll keep getting better and it’s paying off.”
Perhaps most remarkable about Moore has been his unwillingness to become discouraged despite a fire that burns behind the calm exterior.
“I just went into the offseason to work on my game and try to get better and help our team out the next year,” Moore said. “I was definitely looking forward to coming in and playing to get some playing time, get some minutes. I just try to bring energy, change the game, offense, defense, loose ball, hustle play, try to make a difference.”
It’s been among the best things new Hoiberg has done in expanding the lineup and giving a chance to players otherwise forgotten. The hope is it will pay off down the stretch and later into the season with a stronger and healthier core of players for the playoffs and more players who’ve experienced competitive times during the season.
“He’s so steady; he so solid,” said Hoiberg. “He gave us great minutes. I had to have him out there late; he was defending, knocking down shots for us. I think he only missed one shot. And when they had (Nicholas) Batum and (Jeremy) Lamb out there, it a good matchup and Jimmy had to guard Lamb.”
That was when Hoiberg was asked about sitting Doug McDermott late even as it seemed the team could use an offensive boost. But Hoiberg decided to go with Moore for his defense and ability to be an offensive threat.
Moore isn’t a knock-your-socks-off athlete. But he’s a tough, fearless offensive player. Sometimes he’ll eschew the pass a bit much, but he has an excellent ability to get into the paint and finish his shot.
He’s thus helped expand the guard rotation. There’s been considerable debate about who should play and when among the surfeit of front court players. Hoiberg in the backcourt has moved in Moore, at times reducing the playing time of Aaron Brooks in defensive situations and even Rose for defense down the stretch Friday. Hoiberg also is working Kirk Hinrich in with limited playing time as Rose also continues to improve from his eye surgery. But Hoiberg after Bulls practice Sunday admitted it’s sometimes up to three months’ recovery for Rose after the surgery.
"Still blurry when I look certain ways,” Rose reiterated about his vision. “But that's part of it, I guess. I'm missing a lot of shots I normally hit, but everything else will come. It's still preseason for me (with recuperation in October). It's the first time I had surgery on my face, so that's something different. The depth perception of the rim is a little bit thrown off, so I'm dealing with that.”
Rose Friday was all in for the defensive substitutions as he’s a big fan of and longtime friend and competitor with Moore, who is from nearby East Chicago, Indiana.
“Lots of (AAU) games,” said Rose about playing against Moore, who is a few months younger. “Seventh through eighth grades. He was taller than me (about 6-4); we had a lot of battles and I’m happy I’m having a chance to play with him because he knows the game. He knows when to give me the ball, I know when to give him the ball. The only adjustment he probably has to make with me being out there is whenever I drive he has to turn into a catch and shoot player and he’s getting more familiar with that.
“It was a grimy team,” Rose remembered with a laugh about Moore’s East Chicago group. “They probably didn’t have on jerseys, just grimy. It was some good battles.”
Moore doesn’t reveal much in conversation other than a pleasant, outgoing demeanor.
But he’s a tough kid hardened by his adolescence. A close friend and teammate, Donte Brown, was a victim of the street violence while Moore’s parents kept him close to home with strict curfews. He’d rebel, but it perhaps saved him. He was a big prep star, albeit overlooked. He led his high school team to the state championship over a team led by the more heralded Eric Gordon. He played on four NCAA tournament teams at Purdue, two in the Sweet Sixteen and a Big Ten title team. He gave his title ring to the Brown family at the funeral. He was a second round pick of the Boston Celtics in 2011 and then played two seasons in Orlando. Typical of the humble Moore, he talked about how many second rounders prospered in the NBA.
His Purdue coach Matt Painter told reporters then: “He'll act like it rolls off his back, but it bothers him. I think that's what drives him. He's always been that guy who is very good. But there are a few names mentioned before him. I think that's always motivated him to work and he's going to keep using some of those negative comments as motivation. He's always been that way.”
So it was revealing when Moore was asked about playing against Rose when Rose had talked about it following the Charlotte game. It was quick, and it was subtle, but Moore eyebrows raised and a sort of a smirk went across his face when asked about being able to play against a prodigy like Rose.
You could almost hear him saying, “I have some stuff, too.”
“We always had tough battles,” said Moore. “I don’t know who won the most games, but I know we used to go at it. I’d get him some times; he got me a couple of times. We used to go back and forth. It was fun. We never knew we’d be playing with each other, so it’s kind of special.”
Moore then was asked about being in the game in the fourth quarter. And you could see him in restraint.
“It’s my demeanor; I never get rattled,” he said. “I feel I’m always ready to play anytime.”
A lot of NBA teams knew that.