Former NBA head coach and current ABC/ESPN lead color analyst Jeff Van Gundy made headlines earlier today in assessing the playoff chances of the new-look Chicago Bulls for the 2012-2013 season. Van Gundy, guesting on ESPN 1000’s Waddle and Silvy Show, went as far as to suggest Chicago – the East’s top postseason seed in two consecutive seasons – could struggle to play .500 basketball in the coming year given Derrick Rose’s extended absence (as the result of an April ACL tear), other nagging injuries to veterans, and significant roster turnover. Said JVG,
To lose Rose by itself is going to cost you 12-15 games right there… And then all the other guys I think people are overlooking. C.J. Watson was a very valuable backup through all of Rose’s injuries… Their point guard situation last year was the MVP and a very good backup. This year it’s a combo guard in [free agent signee Kirk] Hinrich… And at the two-guard, [Rip] Hamilton is always hurt and he’s older, on the downside… [Luol] Deng, you don’t know where’ he’s going to be injury-wise and the frontcourt has been diminished. So to think that’s a 50-win team… Listen, if they win half their games next year and make the playoffs, it’s a heck of a year.
Of course, this comes from the same man who brashly predicted before the 2010-2011 season that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat would eclipse the 1996 Bulls’ regular season wins record of 72, so Chicago fans should take solace in JVG’s questionable history of pre-season prognostications. Still, Van Gundy obviously has a point here. The Bulls, after an off-season that saw them lose Watson, Asik, and reserve marksman Kyle Korver, will have a much different look when training camp opens in October, and that’s before factoring in time missed by Rose and Deng due to injury.
Losing the 2011 MVP for more than half the season would be a blow to any team, but Chicago was still one of the league’s best teams last season with him out of the lineup. In 27 games with Rose sidelined, the Bulls went 18-9, competing harder than ever on defense and moving the ball with quickness and precision on the other end. They were bound to take at least a small step back without their offensive leader, and Chicago did, but more than made up for by compounding on what was already the league’s stingiest defensive attack. Season-long numbers back that up, too, as the Bulls’ defensive rating was more than three points better with Rose off the floor, injured or not.
Given their success without him last year, it’s not crazy to think Chicago could keep their collective head well above water in 2012-2013 until whenever Rose returns. That is, until you factor in what will undoubtedly be a major decline in the effectiveness of the Bulls’ famed bench unit of the last two seasons. Head coach Tom Thibodeau and Rose might get most of the credit for the Bulls’ recent renaissance, but the off-season departures of Watson, Asik, Korver, and even Ronnie Brewer leave the Bulls with an almost entirely new bench. The players Chicago brought into replace them – Hinrich, Marco Belinelli, Vladimir Radmanovic, Nazr Mohammed, and most recently the volatile Nate Robinson – are mostly useful and will help off-set those losses (Hinrich in particular), but to expect this new reserve corps to replicate the Bulls’ old one is foolish.
Digging deeper, it should hardly shock those who watched the Bulls intently over the last couple years to know that Asik’s departure looms largest. The seven-footer has trouble finishing in traffic, no range on his jumper, and hands of stone, but nonetheless comprised one-half of what was basketball’s best interior defensive tandem last season. The Bulls’ defensive rating was 7.9 points better when Asik was on the floor last season, an impressive number no doubt influenced by the presence of Gibson next to him but nevertheless indicative of just how dominant he is as a big, mobile defender. He and Gibson complemented one another perfectly, rangy, long athletes that could handles pick-and-rolls ably and could even switch onto ballhandlers late in the shot clock. Replacing Asik with Mohammed should be a big adjustment for Gibson, so much so it’s likely Thibodeau reverts to a more traditional post rotation with three players garnering the lion’s share of minutes. That’s an adjustment for Thibodeau, Gibson, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer, too, another ramification of Asik moving onto Houston.
And all that’s before we get into the continuity issues that face a new group like this, especially running a defensive system like Thibodeau’s that takes practice after practice and game after game to hone. “Playing on a string” has almost become a cliched colloquialism to describe especially effective defensive units, but that summed up Chicago’s Bench Mob to a tee. Watson, Brewer, Gibson, and Asik knew the strengths and limitations of each other as well as any reserve unit in the league and combined that with unparalleled effort, intensity, and understanding of defensive concepts. The Bulls have quietly rode them the past two years to elite regular seasons and hopes of championship runs in the Spring, and now just one of them remains.
So while it seems hyperbole to say that a team like the Bulls with a coach like Thibodeau, (mostly) healthy stalwarts like Deng, Noah, and Boozer still on the roster, and tons of experience playing without the former MVP could struggle to make the playoffs, Van Gundy perhaps understands the merits of Chicago’s bench – old and new – better than most. And considering how influential Asik, Watson, and company were to the Bulls’ recent success, he might very well be right.