The Bulls depth is in for a severe test as the team prepares to play without Kirk Hinrich and Tyrus Thomas. Going into the season, Kirk and Tyrus would probably have been considered no more than the 4th/5th best players on the team, and quite possibly not that high. A team that loses guys who aren't in their top three typically doesn't experience massive hiccups, but I expect this Bulls team to struggle badly until the pair return.
Why will the Bulls struggle more than a typical team? It comes down to two primary factors.
The biggest reason is that the Bulls have one of the weakest top 3s in the NBA. Our hopes center around Derrick Rose, who may be great, but certainly hasn't been great this season. After that Luol Deng and Joakim Noah are the next two guys. With Rose playing at this level, that's among the worst top three in the league.
They've also had significant drop offs from both John Salmons and Brad Miller relative to what the pair was able to do a year ago. Starting the season, fans would have probably put Salmons/Miller anywhere from the 2nd/3rd best players on the team to the 4th/5th. Instead, they've both played very poorly.
In essence, the Bulls aren't just missing two rotation players in Hinrich/Tyrus, but they've also got Salmons, Miller, and Rose playing far beneath expectations so far this season.
So looking at the top seven, you've got two players out and three players underperforming. This is where you hope for your deep bench to come in and make an impact. Guys like Malik Allen, Othella Harrington, Erik Piatkowski, Darius Songaila, Chris Duhon, and Jannero Pargo filled out our bench when the team started to turn things around and were able to provide consistent contributions when the starters played poorly.
So far, the Bulls bottom six, made up of James Johnson, Taj Gibson, Jannero Pargo, Aaron Gray, Lindsay Hunter, and Jerome James, hasn't made many big contributions. Let's look at them individually:
James Johnson - I expected Johnson to come in and make a big impact immediately. He was one of my favorite guys in the NBA draft. I ranked him 9th on my overall talent list, so far he's been unable to make a big impact. I think the coaching staff has been short sighted in playing him at SF rather than PF, and that he needs to play more minutes, but he's also looked terribly lost in many of his minutes on the floor, so it's hard to argue with his short leash.
I can understand the SF decision given the question marks surrounding Luol Deng's health, but I've always thought his best position would be PF in the NBA. It remains to be seen whether I'm right of course, but I still like him matching up with his combination of ball handling, quickness, power, and shooting range at PF more than SF. At PF, he doesn't need true 3 point range (which he doesn't have). He use his size to set great picks and box out, and he has mismatch potential taking people off the dribble where I think he's most comfortable.
Taj Gibson - Nicknamed Taj "Not Dejuan Blair" Gibson by Bulls fans after the draft, his biggest problem is still that he doesn't fill those shoes today. Blair would have given the Bulls so many things they desperately need, and he was such an obvious pick based on talent. Some of the excuses made about passing on him are just patently ridiculous (such as Sam Smith's assertion that his guaranteed contract for two years at barely over the minimum was too much of a financial risk).
Still, when you get past Blair, Gibson's been a solid addition for his draft slot. It's easy to forget that because of the Blair shadow, but I'm pretty happy with his contribution for a guy picked that late in the draft. The knee concerns surrounding Blair are going to look foolish until he has a knee injury, at which point, everyone will switch ships into "I knew it all along" mode. I'm somewhere between both boats. I would have taken Blair and risked the knees simply because guys taken that late are typically horrible. A healthy Blair is better than the other guys at the table even if you only get him for two seasons.
At the same time, I can't blame a franchise for finding a guy it likes, that they think can make a long term impact for them, over a guy they feel is talented, but has huge red flags with injury and deemed unlikely to make a long impact. That's what they did, and Taj looks like he can be a positive contributor as 3B or 4A type big man. The move looks bad for as long as Blair is healthy, but I get that it's hard to bet on a guy with no ACLs.
Jannero Pargo - The Bulls spent near two million on Pargo which is really the only possible complaint about the signing. Could they have found someone to do a better job for less money (or the same job for less money). There are candidates out there for sure. I was critical of the Pargo signing at the time it was made, because I wanted to keep the extra money free to have more trade flexibility later, however, let's not forget that Pargo basically won a game for us already. I think most replacements probably wouldn't have done that.
So while Pargo isn't a great guard, and he's presently overmatched
while pushed into a #3 guard role, he wasn't paid to be a 3rd guard.
He was paid as a 4th/5th guard, and he provides that level of play as
well as filling in one of the more unique roles in the NBA as a guy you
throw into a game that's hopeless and can sometimes turn it around for
The one guy I would have liked to see the Bulls pick up instead is Rashard McCants. He's still out there for the minimum now (as far as I know), and I think he would bring a more consistent scoring punch. I've heard bad things about his attitude though, and that may be reason enough to keep him away. I'm not sure how else to explain the fact that he plays 20 minutes a game for the Kings at the end of the season, puts up a PER over 17, and can't find a job at the minimum.
Aaron Gray - I wasn't a huge fan of the Gray signing either. Much like the Pargo signing, I was a fan of bringing in someone else for the minimum and saving extra money to have enhanced flexibility around the trade deadline. However, as a player, are you really going to get big upside over Gray at the league minimum at the center position? I don't know that you are. Gray's been injured all year, so it's easy to rip on him when he hasn't been able to contribute. The stress fracture probably sapped his conditioning as well making it likely he won't contribute in a big way in the near future either.
While I wanted to save some more cash, I can't really say that there were loads of better big men available at the league minimum to replace him with.
Lindsay Hunter - The Hunter signing makes the least sense to me out of the group. Why were the Bulls so anxious to lock up a guy they knew wasn't going to play. They wanted him around and considered bringing him in as an assistant coach as well. The league pays a portion of his salary, and they needed to fill out a minimum of 13 roster spots, so they probably figured it was near break even on whether to pay him as a coach or a player.
While I doubt it makes a difference in the win/loss column to this point, can you possibly say you'd rather have Hunter than Byars at this point? Especially given that the Bulls also lost about 400k in salary flexibility to have Hunter instead of Byars.
Jerome James - We were just stuck with James, so there wasn't a decision to be made, but I do want to take this time to rip on the guy for talking about wanting to play for his kids while showing up to training camp so overweight that he has absolutely no hope of playing. If you want to play for your kids great. That's awesome. Sincerely. However, how about backing that up by not showing up to training camp looking like a nose tackle.
Overall, the end of bench moves this season haven't worked out that well, but they haven't been as bad as people think either. Anytime you're trying to fill out five positions on your bench with two mid to late draft picks in a weak draft and only have about two million over the league minimum to spend you're going to struggle to find quality players. That's the position the Bulls were in, and the results reflect that.