CHICAGO -- If the Chicago Bulls were a mixtape, they'd be titled "Nate Robinson's Flight School, Vol. 2" or maybe "Derrick Rose Presents: The Return of Kirk Hinrich." Whatever the name, this team is no best-seller, no viral hit.
The product they put on the floor could vary wildly from night to night this season.
The Bulls are in a weird kind of limbo, competitive but ultimately immaterial until Rose heals from his franchise-altering knee injury. After two years of dominating the regular season, it will be hard to get excited about Marco Belinelli's neckbeard and Robinson spreading his wings like an airplane after a made shot.
With a new-look bench debuting, the Bulls won their preseason opener over the Memphis Grizzlies, 92-88, despite a 1-for-21 shooting performance in the all-bench fourth quarter that all but erased a 16-point lead.
Don't worry, Tom Thibodeau's vocal cords got their preseason workout. He's got more than enough to scream with. After the game, Thibodeau said this game "does reveal a lot of things to us."
One thing he learned was the new bench guys couldn't shoot. Playing extended minutes, seven reserves took at least one shot and they combined to go 12-for-45 (1-for-8 on 3s). Take away Nazr Mohammed's 6-for-10 outburst (he added 12 rebounds) and you have a very ugly performance, preseason or not. They played without tempo on offense and defensively, the part of the game where the old bench unit thrived, they were out of whack.
Yes, it's preseason, but as Thibodeau likes to say, when they keep score, it counts for something. Asked about the one made field goal in the fourth, when he purposely kept the starters on the bench, Thibodeau laughed. "It's a concern."
"I thought we held on the ball too much in the fourth quarter," he said. "They did a good job collapsing on the ball, but I didn't think we did a good job sustaining our spacing and making our reads. We held onto the ball trying to make plays in traffic and made it hard on ourselves. Defensively, there was too much indecision. ... Too many turnovers and our rebounding wasn't great."
One thing hasn't changed. Thibodeau won't let a bad preseason effort slide. Film fest at the Berto Center!
With the bad taste gone from the way last season ended, I was excited to see how the new Bulls meshed with each other, what shape banged-up starters Joakim Noah, Rip Hamilton and Luol Deng were in, and of course, to lay eyes on the the Paul Dano-looking Yeti himself, Kyrylo Fesenko, who wore red wristbands and a floppy haircut.
I was hoping Marko Jaric's wife, model Adriana Lima, would show up, but like Rose, she was conspicuously absent.
Led by Hinrich (seven assists in 24 minutes) and Deng (game-high 18 points), the starters played pretty well, especially in the third quarter, where the Bulls thrilled the crowd with a 32-13 advantage. The starters played most of the minutes in that quarter, and showed a real commitment to push the ball in transition. The Bulls had 12 fast-break points in the third (32 for the game) and shot 60.9 percent.
While Thibodeau went to the bench for extended minutes in the fourth to gauge their resolve, you have to wonder if his monomaniacal intensity will rear its head in the regular season if the reserves don't get into gear. I hope Deng is ready for his 47 1/2 minutes a game.
For sure, the bench guys will be haunted by comparisons to the "Bench Mob" of the last two years and I have a strong feeling it won't compare. Blame it on the salary cap, the new CBA or the front office, but it's the reality the Bulls have to deal with this season. Change is always inevitable.
For most of the game, the Bench Men's Club looked a little over-eager and a lot out of sync. Taj Gibson and Belinelli went 1-for-7 and Jimmy Butler went 1-for-11, missing two free throws as well. Robinson went 3-for-8 and hit two big free throws with the Bulls clinging to a 1-point lead at the end of the game.
Gibson looked great the last two seasons, playing with complementary talent. But now, the only memory of Kyle Korver, Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, John Lucas III and C.J. Watson exists in $10 T-shirts at the team store.
Gibson knows his new teammates have a lot of work to do to compare.
"It's tough," Gibson said. "One thing about it, it's all about timing. That group we had, had great timing. We had been together for awhile and from the jump we had great timing. One thing I'm excited is about guys put forth effort. I know guys were speeding out there, 100 mph at times, but we were just excited to be there, to be out there on the court."
"I think we can do the same things," said an expansive Butler before the game. "We've got shooters, we've got defenders. Taj is still here. I felt like we brought a lot back, just with a different body and a different name."
While the bench guys do scrimmage against the starters as a group, Gibson said that's misleading preparation, "because usually a coach is stopping the action. It's different when you have the refs out there."
Gibson said Mohammed, the 36-year-old replacement for Asik, has spurred him to be more vocal.
"Like Nazr told me, you've got to be a leader," Gibson said. "I've got to let guys know to slow down sometimes, what sets to go into. I'm optimistic because the groups we had before were terrible in the preseason."
Gibson has reason to be optimistic. Thibodeau whipped the last group, hardly the most talented players individually, into a sharp unit. Now the coach has to get back in the lab and create a new remix of an old album: "T-Unit Presents: The Comeback."