Lack of big-man depth will be problem

CHICAGO -- No matter how solid Tony Snell becomes over his career, his presence on this year's Chicago Bulls roster will be a constant reminder of a fact that will hover over this team throughout the season. Assuming there are no major adjustments to the roster, the Bulls are lacking depth down low.

Instead of taking a big man in the NBA draft last summer, the Bulls opted to go with Snell, a promising athletic wing who has the ability to knock down long-range shots. They re-signed 36-year-old Nazr Mohammed and hoped that Joakim Noah would escape the plantar fasciitis problems that have plagued him for years.

After watching Roy Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers repeatedly pound the Bulls down low on Friday night while Noah sat on the bench in street clothes with a groin injury, it seems like a good time to revisit whether not taking a big man in the draft was the right strategy for a team that hopes to contend for a title this season. When asked what the Bulls have to do to combat a size differential without Noah, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau offered up a simple solution.

"Fight," he said. "The thing is (when) the ball was in the air you go to it. If you allow them to hit you first you're reacting to them. When the ball's in the air you got to go after it, you got to fight and we got to do it as a team. That's the way we rebound. Every aspect of what we do is five men working together. Hibbert's got size -- we expect the guards to come back in and fight to help. So we need everybody."

Thibodeau's attitude is well-meaning but Friday's game offered up a reminder that the Bulls are thin in a place where it's good to be big. Mohammed barely played through the first few months of last season and shouldn't be counted on to play 15-20 minutes night after night. Taj Gibson bulked up over the summer, adding 15 pounds, but at 6-9 he is still undersized against many centers in the league. Thibodeau noted recently that he could play Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler or even Mike Dunleavy, Jr. sometimes at the four if needed, but having one of those guys down on the blocks isn't a scenario that any Bulls fan wants to envision.

The reality of the situation is that the Bulls bet on the health of Noah this year and that is a bet that hasn't paid off in recent times. Over the last three years Noah has missed 52 games and he has played in just one game this preseason. His teammates miss him for a variety of reasons, but Dunleavy acknowledged the one area where the Bulls probably miss him the most.

"Besides everything that Jo brings, a little bit of that depth too," Dunleavy said. "He's just such a force in there, both ends of the court, he's such a unique player. He protects the rim for us and rebounds, he also makes a lot of plays of the offensive end so we miss (him) a ton. We hope he gets back soon but you got to let the process play itself out."

Dunleavy joked that he could handle himself down on the blocks as long as he wasn't faced up against Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard, but his words offered another reminder that while the Bulls may not see Howard more than a couple times this year, they figure to see plenty of Hibbert, Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez and Miami Heat center Greg Oden -- if the latter can find a way to stay healthy.

Those are the teams the Bulls will be competing against all season for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and those are the guys, especially the first two, who have the ability to give the Bulls a lot of trouble. Thibodeau also noted recently that Noah's health problems may force the Bulls to change how they fill the last roster spot. But for fans clamoring for the Bulls to keep Dexter Pittman, remember that Pittman has played in just 48 games over three NBA seasons averaging a grand total 2.4 points and 1.8 rebounds a game.

"We've got enough to win," Thibodeau said Sunday, uttering a familiar mantra. "The next guy has to get up. (Noah) missed a lot last year -- the team still has to function and we have to function well. Whoever we have, they got to get the job done."

Without Noah, that will be a tough job for any Bull to handle. Thibodeau and the front office better hope the oft-injured center can find a way to stay on the floor. If not, the lack of depth down low will be will continue to be a sore spot for a front office that had a chance to address a need over the summer in the draft and decided against it.