JORTS! – Why the Bulls need to sign Josh Harrellson

The Bulls seem to be facing another season of Joakim Noah leading the league in distance run per game and breaking down from fatigue if they don’t add a reliable backup center. Nazr has his uses, but at his age and skill level he seems best suited for the Kurt Thomas memorial “emergency starter and otherwise DNP” role.

I’ve mentioned in a couple threads that I think Josh Harrellson would be a good backup center for the Bulls. Now that other reasonable options such as Gustavo Ayon, Elton Brand, Bernard James, Marcus Camby, and Jermaine O’Neal are off the market, I think he’s the best player and the best fit available.

As a rookie in 2011-12, Josh Harrellson had a surprisingly good season with the Knicks. After being selected with the 15th pick of the 2nd round, Harrellson played 540 minutes in that lockout-shortened season (a couple hundred minutes more than fellow rookie standout Jimmy Butler), averaging 11 points and 10 rebounds per 36 to go along with fairly impressive advanced stats: 13.7 PER, .127 WS/48, and a +4.0 Simple Rating. He also shot 34% from 3-point territory, on 4 attempts per 36.

Given this early success, you might be wondering (i) why he hasn’t been mentioned more often on the lists of free agent big men and (ii) why you can’t recall seeing him in the league last year. The reasoning is simple and straightforward: he played a grand total of 31 minutes in the NBA last season. The Rockets acquired him in trading Camby to the Knicks, and due to their several first round picks and free agent additions, they ran out of roster spots, and his unguaranteed contract made him a roster casualty. The Heat picked him up but didn’t put him in the rotation, and then they signed Birdman and let him go.

Harrellson has done well to make up for his lost season by logging major minutes overseas. In fact, just a couple days ago he was named Player of the Year in China, having averaged 22 points and 18 rebounds per game. He’ll never be that type of volume scorer in the NBA, but his play on the other end of the floor is what really sets him apart from the alternatives.

Unlike, for example, Murphy and Vlad Rad, Harrellson is an outside-shooting big man who would earn minutes from Thibs with his remarkably active and effective defense. When Harrellson was on the floor with the Knicks, they allowed just 95.3 points per 100 possessions, compared to 102.6 points without him. (For reference, the #2-rated Bulls defense allowed 98.3 points per 100 possessions). The Knicks fared even better defensively when Harrellson played center rather than power forward, in spite of the fact that he typically was paired with clueless Amare or the woefully overmatched Steve Novak. This bodes well for his ability to execute Thibs’s schemes and cover for Boozer this year or potentially Mirotic in the future.

Though Harrellson’s offense is generally mediocre, the following player comparison is instructive: Mehmet Okur and Josh Harrellson as rookies. Apart from Okur’s edge in minutes and usage (19.3% v 15%), their rookie seasons were quite similar in most respects, and Okur was actually a year older. If Harrellson can function as a lesser version of Okur offensively, spreading the floor and keeping an extra defender out of the paint, then with his defense and rebounding he should be at least a competent backup and a good fit for the Bulls as presently constructed. He'll likely sign with some team for no more than the guaranteed minimum. Why not the Bulls?

* On an unrelated note, I think that Tony Snell’s nickname should be Thunder. Thunder is something that you can’t see but rather you feel. As Snell showed in college, his impact can’t be seen in the box score, and he’s so freakishly thin that he physically can’t be seen on the court if anyone’s standing in front of him or if he simply turns sideways, but he makes his presence felt through tenacious defense. Moreover, his name is closer to Snarf (of ThunderCats fame) than any other name in league history. It makes sense on so many levels.

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