The perpetual journey chasing Kirk Hinrich out of his basketball purgatory and back to the Chicago Bulls seemed so inevitable, so appropriate. Conversations have run rampant since free agency opened last weekend, but no player was targeted and coveted by the Bulls more than Hinrich, a resurgence of loyalty to make up for the fashion in which the organization blindsided him in the summer of 2010.
Over the past few days, doubt had crept in among some within the Bulls’ brass as to whether Hinrich, an unrestricted free agent, would take a major pay cut – the mini mid-level exception – to return to the team that drafted him in 2003. Yet, the interest level between the two parties was clear, and in a reconciliation that long seemed primed to happen, Hinrich reached agreement Sunday on a reported two-year, $6 million contract with the Bulls.
Truth be told, the Bulls, in their heart of hearts, never wanted to trade Hinrich in 2010, amid the hunt for the big-name free agents that never panned out as imagined. Hinrich never saw it coming, though, and part of him couldn’t believe it. Moving him gave the Bulls the salary cap space to at least make a valiant run in free agency, but neither side desired to part ways. While Hinrich held on to his Chicagoland home even after his departure, the Bulls kept a close eye on him and made it a priority to retain him this summer.
Nevertheless, this version of Hinrich is not the same one that was once perceived as the Bulls’ franchise point guard – “The Captain.” The 6-foot-4 Hinrich has regressed statistically over the past two years, reaching his lowest point a season ago when he averaged just 6.6 points and 2.8 assists, and he will turn 32 years old in January. It could easily be debated whether he is better than C.J. Watson or even John Lucas III, too.
And yet, some of the dip in Hinrich’s game could be attributed not to age, but to the lesser roles and uneven environments he has been placed under. Toiling in Washington, Hinrich averaged 11.1 points in 48 games before the Wizards traded him to the Atlanta Hawks, a playoff squad but one that has a style that sometimes is not conducive to team-oriented play. Often times in Atlanta, Hinrich seemed out of position, out of his character domain, and ultimately had to juggle with revolving roles, from being a starter to a reserve. Neither the Wizards nor the Hawks appeared to be the proper fit for Hinrich – both in terms of role and his standing in the locker room.
For Hinrich, everything changes as a Bull. He helped return the franchise to prominence in the mid 2000’s, to its first post-Michael Jordan era postseason series victory, and his reputation holds strong substance in the Chicago locker room. Derrick Rose has repeatedly credited his growth to Hinrich, because when Rose came into the NBA in 2008, Hinrich embraced and mentored him. Even though Rose came ferociously to take his job, Hinrich took Rose under his wing rather than act selfishly and protectively, and the two built a strong bond based on trust and tough practice battles. Luol Deng has also spoke glowingly about the everlasting impact Hinrich’s leadership had on him as a young player in the league.
For all the marks Hinrich set in his first stint with the Bulls – including becoming the all-time franchise leader in three-pointers – he established himself as a gritty, hard-nosed defender. Yes, he’s the type of player Tom Thibodeau loves, and to this day, the scuffles between Hinrich and Rip Hamilton during classic Chicago-Detroit matchups ring memorable. Now, years later, the two guards will start together in the backcourt for a significant chunk of next season as Rose recovers from his torn ACL. Then when Rose comes back, Hinrich can effectively slide into the combo guard role as a reserve.
The addition of Hinrich will be a welcome sight to Bulls teammates, new and old. His signing, however, means that the Bulls almost assuredly will not pick up the team option on Watson, and it has sealed Lucas’ fate in Chicago as well.
The Bulls expressed interest in re-signing Lucas, but they never budged from offering him the veteran’s minimum – a contract he did not accept, seeking a deal that matched his true value. Mike James is a candidate to be brought back as the third point guard; he has made it clear that he wants to continue playing and his first choice is returning to the Bulls. And now, Chicago will turn its attention toward deciding whether to match the backloaded offer sheet Omer Asik signed with the Houston Rockets.
The interest level in Hinrich was evident, and teams, including the Scott Skiles-coached Milwaukee Bucks, lined up to sign him despite his decline. Even still, the Bulls made a hard, furious sell to Hinrich on the possibility of playing big minutes over the next two years, returning to where he belongs, and coming back to the defensive-minded culture he helped build within the organization years ago. A pay cut needed to be taken, but more than anything, Hinrich had been sold on this potential return ever since he was traded in that summer of 2010.