While Chicago Bulls fans have waited with much anticipation for Rip Hamilton to return from his extended absence due to a right shoulder injury, it could be smart for all parties – the team, player and fan base alike – to have the veteran shooting guard miss Sunday afternoon’s nationally televised game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Hamilton, who is averaging 11.1 points and 3.1 assists this season, has missed the last 14 games because of a hurt shoulder that he suffered on March 5 against the Indiana Pacers. Many around the team believed that he was going to play in Friday night’s 83-71 victory over the Detroit Pistons, his longtime former club, but he was a late scratch.
The Bulls have maintained that they will err on the side of caution when it comes to both Hamilton and Derrick Rose, who has sat out nine straight contests because of a groin injury. Although the organization and fans are concerned about Rose’s nagging issue, it’s Hamilton who has missed over twice as many games (37) as he’s played (16). Clearly, the Bulls are a much more dynamic offensive unit when Hamilton is on the court – they are 13-3 in such games – but they boast a 30-7 mark without him, as Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver have stepped up, per usual for a squad that has relied on its depth throughout the season.
As Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau declares an injured player before a contest, Hamilton is officially a game-time decision on Sunday. The 34-year-old has continued to improve, although on Wednesday he admitted he will not be pain-free for the rest of the season, which, interestingly, Thibodeau has said needs to be the case before his two-guard will return.
After Friday’s game, Thibodeau said it was his decision to sideline Hamilton, who wanted to play. The organization has put all of its eggs in the Hamilton basket and has made no secret that it will not rush to bring a player back too soon. The Bulls know how fragile Hamilton has appeared to look this season, having also dealt with groin and thigh injuries.
“He’s real close and I just thought another day would be good,” Thibodeau told reporters. “I talked to him before the game and I wasn’t quite comfortable with him yet. So, I told him we’re going to hold him another day and we’ll see where he is after [Saturday]. … His conditioning, actually, is great. And it’s hard to read because a game is totally different. Right now, we have minimal contact in practice. That’s where it becomes difficult to read where he is in terms of taking hits. We’re playing it safe. And it was more my call than his.
“But he’s doing great. We’ve been patient this long; I just want to make sure that it’s the right time for him.”
That’s the Bulls’ stance and they’re sticking to it. Oklahoma City is 39-12 this season, good for the top record in the Western Conference and just two games behind the NBA-best Bulls (42-11). There’s no question that Chicago wants the top record, but players in the locker room believe that reaching full strength is much more meaningful in the grand scheme of the campaign.
Even though Hamilton has improved, would the Bulls have much to gain by throwing him into the fire against the high-powered, fast-paced Thunder? Instead, Thibodeau could get Hamilton acclimated on Monday night against the Houston Rockets at the United Center in the second game of a back-to-back – which would give Hamilton another day off and two days of rest in between that game and Thursday’s versus the Boston Celtics. That’s a sentiment Bulls analyst and former NBA player Kendall Gill, who appears on Comcast SportsNet and NBA TV, agreed with late Friday, saying that having Hamilton come back in Oklahoma City would not be an ideal situation for both the player and team.
Plus, with Rose most likely out against the Thunder, the Bulls don’t have much urgency to get Hamilton back at less than 100 percent. They have 13 games left this season, and the primary focus now is not only to get healthy, but to find a pre-playoffs rhythm between Rose and Hamilton – the backcourt duo whom Chicago fans are expecting to be strong enough to push the team past the Miami Heat in May.
“The regular season is a great time. It’s not just the playoffs,” Hamilton told the assembled media recently. “It’s a situation that [in] the regular season you can acclimate with your teammates. You want to start rolling going into the playoffs. You don’t just want to turn it on when the playoffs start. You want to be moving forward and playing well going into the playoffs.”
The Bulls know they need both Rose and Hamilton to return soon, as the postseason is seemingly right around the corner. But the pair of guards also must be healthy and the team doesn’t have any added incentive to play Hamilton in Sunday’s highly anticipated tilt, rather than holding him out for an extra day of rest before facing the Rockets.