Sun coming up again for the Bulls
There’s a pretty good model for what this Bulls team might be like, and it’s a pretty good team, writes Sam Smith. It’s the Detroit Pistons of the early 2000s after they acquired Richard Hamilton, who happens to be Chicago's starter at shooting guard.
It’s been six months and a couple of days since likely the worst day in the history of Chicago pro basketball, the day Derrick Rose suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that required major surgery.
There was the mourning, the sudden playoff defeat, the breakup of much of the reserve unit, lots of quiet and angst. But the sun does come up again. It’s time for the Bulls to play NBA basketball that matters starting Wednesday in the United Center against the Sacramento Kings, and who knows what it’s going to bring.
“I think the sky is the limit,” said Taj Gibson after practice Tuesday. “I know we’ve got a lot of talent and I’m looking forward to shocking the world.”
I don’t know about that since this Bulls team even without Rose is hardly considered a rebuilding project. Of course, the obvious question — other than when Rose might return — is how good are these Bulls? A contender? Or barely a playoff team? Worth watching and exciting underdogs?
"We're good enough to win games,” said Luol Deng. “We don't look at ourselves as just an average team.”
Actually, there’s a pretty good model for what this Bulls team might be like, and it’s a pretty good team.
It’s the Detroit Pistons of the early 2000s after they acquired Richard Hamilton but before they traded for Rasheed Wallace.
Wallace was the final, star piece turning them into a championship contender. That’s the Rose role. The Bulls are hoping to have Rose back perhaps in February as he continues his rehabilitation from knee surgery, albeit mostly in private though around the team.
“I think it’s going to be an exciting season,” insisted Joakim Noah. “We’re a team that’s gone through a lot of adversity: Our best player being hurt. He’ll be back and to me that’s exciting.”
Without Rose, Kirk Hinrich will start with Hamilton, Deng, Noah and Carlos Boozer. Hinrich’s sore groin seems better and coach Tom Thibodeau said he expects Hinrich to start Wednesday.
No one knows or can truly speculate when Rose will return. And if he does return this season how much he can play, and how effectively are questions. That conversation figures to begin somewhere around February.
In the meantime, that Pistons team is a worthy model. It won 50 games, which this Bulls team is quietly capable of. It didn’t have a 20-point scorer. But it led the league in fewest points allowed with a rugged defense and top rebounding with Ben Wallace. And it had a top defensive coach in Rick Carlisle. Hamilton says he sees a lot in this Bulls team that he did in the Pistons of that era.
“Playing with Derrick, that’s one of those things that’s unbelievable with a guy taking all the attention,” said Hamilton, who led that Pistons team in scoring at 19.7. “It’s like when I played with Michael Jordan. But we had a lot of guys (in Detroit) who did a lot of things. That’s exciting because you don’t know who to guard. You’ve got guys willing to make plays for one another, and that’s what we’ve got here.
“You don’t have guys (here) saying, ‘This is my play to score.’ That happens a lot in the NBA,” says Hamilton. “With us, it’s, ‘All right, you get the ball you make a play not just for yourself but also for your teammates.
“It’s not a situation where you have guys saying they have to do this and that and it gets all crazy out there,” said Hamilton. “You see guys pushing on the gas too hard and everyone sees it. Thibs does a great job of letting guys make plays.”
Though it was just preseason, the Bulls showed those elements, averaging almost 50 rebounds per game and beating their opponents in assists, steals and blocks and holding them to under 90 per game.
It’s the building blocks of victory, if not as flashy as with Rose: Hard defense, rebounding, sharing the ball, keeping mistakes to the minimum.
It’s the formula Thibodeau often talks about not only with the media but with the team.
“It hasn’t been different at all,” Thibodeau was explaining Tuesday about opening the season without Rose. “For us, the style of play will be the same, We’re not changing our attitude or approach of how we’re going to play: Defend, rebound, low turnovers, inside/out, share the ball (Those are the Thibs Five Golden Rules).
“Play to your strengths,” he added. “Cover up your weaknesses, know your job, do your job, know when to shoot, when to pass, stay disciplined. Whether he’s here or not that stays the same.”
It really is the mantra of all top coaches.
Practice. We're not talking about the game. We're talking about practice. But it’s also paying attention to detail. A good shot is not only when you’re open, but when your defense is in position to get back and your teammates are in position to rebound a miss. Moving the ball isn’t just to get a better shot but to keep the defense moving so that later in the game maybe they don’t have that energy to close on a three. Playing defense isn’t just boxing out or being in position but perhaps fronting the post or denying an entry pass to force a team to its second or third option.
Offense is running first, pitching upcourt rather than dribbling out of backcourt. Layups and dunks, then seek out a postup and then a jumper at last resort. Play the percentages. Smarter may not be more aesthetically appealing. But wins are.
So it starts with Sacramento, a team that hasn’t registered much in recent seasons and may next be registering in Seattle before too long. But they’ve got some athletic talent, and that franchise probably delivered the Bulls the franchise’s worst lost ever blowing a 35-point second half lead three years ago.
DeMarcus Cousins at center is their principal scorer, a talented if somewhat erratic big man. But he’s capable of big numbers. Marcus Thornton can be an effective streak shooting guard and Jason Thompson is a big four who runs the court well. Former Bulls draft pick James Johnson is with them and their backcourt is loaded with Tyreke Evans, Isaiah Thomas and Aaron Brooks. They’ll put a lot of pressure on Hinrich, probably forcing Nate Robinson to play a lot. Rookie Thomas Robinson is active if without much NBA game yet. But this Bulls team is different in there’s no Rose for bailouts or long droughts. A less then complete effort could put the Bulls at a disadvantage against almost any team. Though Thibodeau doesn’t allow for that much.
“We feel like we’re a hungry group and we’re excited,” said Noah. “Everybody is going to have to contribute. With Derrick out guys are probably going to have to contribute more. There are probably more shots out there. Everyone has to step up and hold the fort down until he comes back. I like the character of this team. I think we play for all the right reasons.”
It has been a serious group. And doubt does stir motivation with competitors.
“It is similar to (my) first year in there are a lot of new players,” said Thibodeau. “So we have to get everyone on the same page as quickly as possible. Even in our first year, the experts didn’t have us picked very high. I don’t know how this season will unfold. But I know if we approach it the right way we can continue to improve and who knows where it goes.”
And injuries are hardly new. Boozer missed the first month of his first season in 2010-11 and then when he returned Noah went out for 10 weeks. Last season, Rose missed 27 games and Hamilton more than half the season.
“That’s the nature of the NBA, constant change,” noted Thibodeau. “Whether it’s injury, trades, free agency. It’s all the same. Whatever changes, you have to deal with them and be ready to go.
“As I’ve told the team,” said Thibodeau, “it doesn’t really matter what others think, whether it’s praise or criticism is not important. It’s the way we think. I think we can get a lot better.”
So does Hamilton. And he’s seen this kind of thing turn out better than expected or anticipated.