Heading into this offseason, we all figured some changes would be coming and the Bulls would have a slightly different look to them next season. But I don't think many envisioned almost a complete turnover of the Bench Mob, a group that was paramount in helping the Bulls to the NBA's best regular season record the past two seasons.
Out are C.J. Watson (Nets), Ronnie Brewer (Knicks), Kyle Korver (Hawks), Omer Asik (Rockets), John Lucas III (Raptors) and Brian Scalabrine (a coaching staff? TV?). In are Kirk Hinrich (will hopefully join the bench once Derrick Rose finally comes back, whenever that may be), Marco Belinelli, Vladimir Radmanovic, Nazr Mohammed, Marquis Teague and a player or two to be named later.
The moves the Bulls have made (or have not made) this offseason have been argued ad nauseum on this site and all over the interwebs, and personally, I'm not all that confident this new group (I refuse to call them Bench Mob) will be able to replicate what the old group did. Some will argue that the Bench Mob didn't get it done during the postseason and will be easily replaced. While that faction is ultimately correct on the former and could wind up being right on the latter, it's difficult for me to diminish what the Bulls' merry band of hard working bench players did accomplish the past few years.
The Bench Mob (along with honorary member Luol Deng) was a defensive dynamo, specializing in basically not allowing any points and attacking the glass with relentless ferocity. Things weren't always pretty on the offensive side of the ball, but they more than made up for it with their stingy defense and outstanding work on the backboards. How many times did the Bench Mob come in and erase poor starts from the starting unit? How many times did the Bench Mob extend leads that were built early on? Probably too many to count. I also have to mention that with all the injuries the Bulls have suffered the past few years, the team never really missed a beat because the bench guys stepped up when forced to play bigger roles.
Many of the Bulls' best defensive lineups the past few years have involved multiple members of the Bench Mob, with Asik and Taj Gibson (at least he's still here...for now) usually being a constant. Just one example from last season: In 158 minutes, the lineup of Lucas/Korver/Deng/Gibson/Asik had a defensive rating of 77.5. That's historically great. Going further, Sports Illustrated's Zach Lowe noted that with Gibson and Asik on the floor together last season, the Bulls allowed a paltry 86 points per 100 possessions. Again, that's historic stuff. I could throw out a bunch of other Bench Mob-centric lineups that have excelled the past few years, but I don't want to bore you. If interested, just play around with NBA.com's Advanced Stats tool for a while.
Now that I've waxed poetic on the Bench Mob as a whole, I'd like to give tribute to each of the individuals that busted their ass the past few years as a part of this stellar unit.
John Lucas III: Little Carlton Banks' Bulls career certainly got off to a rough start with those brutal missed free throws in Denver back in 2010, but he bounced back nicely with a surprisingly decent 2011-12 campaign. Lucas drew plenty of ire from fans for his "dribble,dribble,dribble" routine, but as mentioned earlier this year, he provided the Bulls with an "irrational confidence" that they sorely needed.
I certainly doubted Lucas' ability to actually play effective minutes in the NBA, but time and time again he proved me wrong. The guy ended up shooting over 39% from three last season, and hey, we'll always have that LeBron moment (the fadeaway dagger in the fourth, not the getting jumped over incident).
C.J. Watson: Suffice to say, C.J. has taken quite a beating from some Bulls fans in the past few months. First there was his mind-blowingly bad decision to pass to Asik in Game 6 of the Sixers series, and now there's this D-Rose vs. D-Will "controversy."
I'm just going to avoid that nonsense and commend Watson for playing his butt off despite playing through a myriad of injuries. After a really strong start to last year, C.J.'s numbers fell of a cliff, culminating in a disastrous playoff performance that saw him shoot 24% from the field. But when you have plantar faciitis in both feet, a bum elbow and a bum ankle, I think you deserve somewhat of a pass.
Watson isn't the perfect backup point guard, as his decision making can only be described as suspect (PUJITS for life!). But he's a damned good backup that showed some improvements last season before the injuries took their toll. I strongly felt that he should have been kept around this year, but apparently he fell out of favor with the coaching staff/management. Or they just wanted Kirk Hinrich that badly. Or both.
Ronnie Brewer: I'll get this out of the way first. Brewer missed a lot of dunks. And his jumper sucks. But put those things aside, and you have one hell of a role player. Brew wasn't flashy, but it was all the little things he did that made him so valuable to the Bulls. The dirty work he did on defense, his work on the baseline on offense. He's honestly one of the best players I've ever seen at using the baseline to his advantage to get easy buckets.
Perhaps Brewer's finest moment/s came in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat. After getting just 12.6 and 15.0 minutes per game respectively in the first two rounds, he saw that number rise to 21.6 in the ECF as Tom Thibodeau called upon him to help check Dwyane Wade. And check him he did. Wade was limited to 15.0 pts/36 on 38% shooting in that series while Brewer was on the floor. Brewer's great defense on Wade was obviously not enough to overcome the Heat, but it was impressive nonetheless.
This past season, Brewer filled in admirably for the oft-injured Richard Hamilton. There was even a point at the beginning of the year where Brewer was hitting jumpers for God's sake. That magic ultimately faded and his time with the Bulls ended on a pretty rough note (that DNP in Game 3 was quite bizarre), but that doesn't stop me from appreciating what he did in his two years with the team.
Kyle Korver: I generally like Stacey King, although I'll admit that his catchphrases certainly can grow tiresome. However, the "Hot Sauce" nickname for Korver never got old for me. Besides some magnificent play from D-Rose, not much more got me pumped up the last few years than a huge Korver three followed by Stacey having a coronary while asking Neil Funk for hot sauce.
Korver became a fixture of the Bulls' closing units the past few years, thanks mostly in part to the team's noted lack of a more legitimate shooting guard. But for all of Korver's faults, he proved to be pretty effective in that role. If I recall correctly, in 2010-11, Korver led the entire NBA in three-pointers made during the fourth quarter and overtime. His presence helped spread the floor for Rose and gave Derrick a nice outlet for drive-and-kicks. I was always disappointed the Bulls never tried more Rose/Korver pick-and-rolls, because I thought those could have been deadly.
Korver was a bit streaky in his two years in Chicago (he did kinda stink it up in the playoffs), but in both regular seasons, he shot over 41% from deep. And when you look at some advanced numbers, you'll see just how good he was, especially last year. According to Synergy, Korver was 23rd overall in terms of points per play in 2011-12. In spot up situations, he was ranked seventh. And coming off screens, he was 52nd. So yeah, pretty efffin good.
While many consider Korver a one-trick pony, he actually made some impressive strides on the defensive end under Thibs. In fact, Synergy had him ranked 65th in terms of overall points per play allowed in 2011-12. Now I certainly wouldn't call Korver a great defender just because of that stat, but I think it tells us that he's become at least passable. And remember, he actually did block Russell Westbrook!
And finally, I'm sure all the ladies in Chicago are disappointed that the Ashton Kutcher look-a-like has moved on. Can I interest all the gals out there in Belinelli?
Omer Asik: As mentioned in the Lowe article linked above (also discussed by yfBB), the loss of Asik is a pretty big one. While Omer has perhaps the worst hands in the league and absolutely no offensive game to speak of, his contributions on the defensive end will be nearly impossible to replace. He doesn't boast extraordinary athleticism, but his positioning was usually spot on and he got pretty good at challenging shots without fouling. His block numbers were never all that high, but that doesn't take into account all of the altered shots.
Take a look at pretty much any defensive metric, and you'll see that Asik was one of the best big man defenders in the game. In 2010-11, the Bulls had a defensive rating of 90.1 with him on the court. That improved to 89.7 this past season. And looking at the Synergy numbers, he was top 100 overall in points per play allowed in both seasons with the Bulls. He was ranked 100th in 2010-11, and then improved to 24th last season.
Now, this doesn't mean I thought the Bulls should have matched the Rockets' absurd three-year, $25 million offer sheet. Even before Rockets GM Daryl Morey caught the Bulls front office with their pants down, I was leery of giving Asik big money simply because of his offensive deficiencies. But even so, it's tough to see the big Turk go, because he was just SO good defensively. He was so good that Thibs often had no issues looking past the offensive woes and going with Asik down the stretch of games. The value that Omer provided the Bulls is a big reason why losing him for nothing stings so much.
Brian Scalabrine: Yeah, I'm really not going here. But SB Nation Chicago's Ricky O'Donnell did a pretty great Scal retrospective, so you should read that if you haven't.
RIP Bench Mob.