After what transpired this offseason, I told myself that I wouldn't get too worked up about the Bulls this year. Why get too upset after losses in a season where management pretty much waved the white flag despite whatever nonsense they spew to the contrary?
I felt I had done a relatively good job of keeping my emotions in check, until Monday's ghastly loss to the Bucks. The 93-92 loss was pretty much a perfect storm of all the things I've criticized the Bulls for the past few years, and it was just so painful to see it unfold before my eyes. The suddenness of the comeback had me in shock at first, but that shock quickly turned to rage once the Bulls put the cherry on top of their crap sundae when Richard Hamilton bricked yet another fourth quarter jumper to end the game.
This was a game the Bulls probably win with Derrick Rose, but they shouldn't have needed Derrick Rose. The Bulls' offense was humming right along for much of the night, but like clockwork, the offense bogged down when plays needed to be made down the stretch. The great ball movement and smooth jumpers were replaced by turnovers and bricks. The stifling defense turned to matador defense.
And just why did this happen? How does a team look so dominant for three quarters of a game and then completely fall of the rails like that?
Naturally, much of the talk after the game centered around the bench and Tom Thibodeau's steadfast refusal to use it. And for good reason. I'm not going to come out and say that Thibs lost this game because of his insistence on riding his starters into the ground, but he sure as hell didn't help the matter.
We can lament the loss of the Bench Mob all we want, and trust me, there has been plenty of lamenting going on thanks to this loss. ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell, CSN Chicago's Mark Schanowski, Bulls Confidential's Doug Thonus and Bulls by the Horns' Matt McHale all cited either the Bench Mob or terrible management or both in their game recaps, while Pippen Ain't Easy's Josh Hill ripped Jerry Reinsdorf yesterday morning. Pretty much everything those guys said is true. Bulls management screwed the pooch this offseason by thinking that bench could be adequately replaced by a bunch of minimum level players.
But at some point, we're going to have to get past that (which is essentially what Luol Deng said yesterday). Thibs is going to have to try to figure out a way to make this thing work, but the solution is not to just stop playing guys. I know the bench is playing poorly right now, but Thibs went to the absolute extreme last night, cutting his rotation down to eight and playing Deng a ludicrous 47 minutes.
Should we be surprised at all that Deng is slowing down after his hot start? He's shooting 37.0 percent in his last five games and not doing much in terms of getting to the free throw line. He played at least 41 minutes in four of those five games, and the only one he didn't was the blowout loss against the Clippers.
Similar things can be said for Joakim Noah, who has shot just 40.5 percent over the past five games. Like Deng, he's consistently been around 40 minutes per game, which is way above his career-high.
And then there's Hamilton, who has started quickly in each of the past two games, only to fade in the fourth quarter. In the past two fourth quarters combined against the Bucks, Hamilton went 2-of-12 from the field. He played 36 minutes in each of those games. Coincidence? Maybe. It is only fair to point out that Rip has been generally awful late in games this season, as he's made just 5-of-26 shots in fourth quarter or overtime. So maybe he's just a terrible fourth quarter option and it has nothing to do with fatigue.
Whatever the case, Thibs can't go forward with a strategy like last night. Eight-man rotations in the regular season is stuff seen in college, not in the NBA. The Bulls could probably get away with a nine-man rotation that keeps Nazr Mohammed on the bench, although in that case, we really need to see Taj Gibson playing almost 25 minutes per game. I know he's been disappointing and the Gibson/Boozer frontcourt has been especially terrible, but at the very least Taj should be seeing more time just to help preserve Noah. It's a delicate balance, but that's why Thibs is paid the big bucks.
As for Marco Belinelli, there's absolutely no reason he should be getting DNP's. I understand he's been bad, but it's not like he has to play a lot. Just 5-10 minutes a game in order to give Deng a breather is all that's necessary. It's also especially foolish to completely bench one of your only credible three-point threats just because he has a few defensive issues. It's no wonder that Belinelli, and Mohammed for that matter, are showing some frustration with lack of playing time.
Thibs is obviously stubborn as a mule, as we've been complaining about minutes since he's got here. Even with a good bench Deng was playing 40 minutes per night. But things reached a tipping point last night. Thibs must show some flexibility and be willing to live with the mistakes of some of these guys, because I fear the alternative. It may hurt somewhat in the short-term (operative word is may, because things sure as hell aren't good right now), but it should help in the long term.