CHICAGO -- Last week, there were vague, undefined rumors that the Bulls were taking trade calls on Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah. It was typical NBA fare. When a team is sinking, sources come out with sandbags.
If that were true, Chicago's brain trust of John Paxson and Gar Forman might as well see what it can get for Benny the Bull, equipment manager John Ligmanowski and the Jordan statue. Because if you were to dump Gibson and Noah now, you’d basically be ripping apart the team’s identity.
It's not like anyone expects those moves to happen. This team only makes trades for luxury-tax or salary-dump reasons. Forman is so conservative, I think he gets paid in savings bonds.
But anyone who spends five minutes around the Bulls knows how valuable Noah and Gibson are, and it goes beyond the games.
A longtime sub turned starter, the rugged Gibson had 11 rebounds in 38 minutes in Monday’s 104-97 win over the Toronto Raptors, and Noah contributed by cheering from the bench as he recovers from a “small tear” in his shoulder.
But the two veteran bigs contributed in a major way, because even as they become more expendable thanks to Bobby Portis' growth, they’re teaching the rookie how to play in the NBA. And the results are starting to show on the big stage.
Their training starts in practice, and with Noah out, Portis is getting a chance to prove what he can do in games. On Monday, Gibson told Portis to attack a mismatch with Raptors forward Patrick Patterson, and we saw the results. The Bulls were a plus-16 with Portis on the floor.
“One thing about Bobby, he listens to his veterans,” Gibson said. “I told him right away to be very aggressive. And he came in and did the job. He brought energy. That’s what we need. We need energy. It’s good to have some fresh air from some young guys.”
The Bulls trailed 52-49 at the half. Gasol and Rose did most of the scoring in the pivotal third quarter, and the reserves took over in the fourth.
Portis had 12 points (on 6-for-10 shooting) and nine rebounds Monday night as part of the three-man bench crew with Aaron Brooks and Tony Snell. If this were the Blackhawks, we’d be calling that trio the PBS Telethon Line. They each played around 27 minutes and combined for 51 points, 19 rebounds and 8 assists.
“They played great,” Rose said. “They looked more organized. They knew who was getting the ball, who was shooting the ball. Everybody wasn’t stagnant when one guy was shooting the ball.”
With Doug McDermott a late scratch (knee soreness), Snell, whose playing time has been cut due to ineffectiveness, was active and accurate, scoring 16 in the fourth quarter. He hit four of five 3-pointers and added seven rebounds.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg left in those two and kept in Brooks (17 points, five assists) to run the offense in the fourth quarter, not inserting Rose until there was a minute left.
We know Brooks can spark a second unit. Snell, now in his third season, might not score 22 in his next five games combined.
But the Bulls have to find 15 to 20 minutes for Portis when Noah comes back, likely at the expense of Nikola Mirotic and Gasol (who had 22 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks). Portis can be an X factor.
We talk a lot about legacies and power dynamics between Jimmy Butler and Rose because it’s good fodder for conversation. The Bulls can’t go anywhere in the postseason without their backcourt shining on a near-nightly basis, but the glue of the team is in the frontcourt. Noah and Gibson are building Portis in their own image.
“He goes against Joakim for fun, he goes against me in practice on a daily basis, he goes against Pau in pregame,” Gibson said. “He’s getting molded in the right way. Like I tell guys on the team, rookies work their way in and earn their minutes. Bobby is earning his minutes, and he’s doing it the right way.”
The future of the Bulls isn’t just in Hoiberg’s offense or Butler’s ascension, it’s also in the way guys like Noah and Gibson carry themselves. For all the caterwauling about what the Bulls haven’t done, give the players credit for building some continuity that goes beyond what former coach Tom Thibodeau did in his early days here.
Unlike, say, a young Snell, Portis isn’t shy. He doesn’t pass up too many shots, and he can hit those Gasol-esque 18-foot jumpers to stretch the court. He also likes to mix it up.
“Bobby’s one of those guys, he’s so eager, he challenges you every day in practice,” Gibson said. “It’s like I’m going against one of those old-time Boston Celtics players. There’s so much aggression, a lot of trash talking.”
Not quite lost in the bench mobbing was Rose’s second consecutive game scoring 20-plus points. If he scored one more in that Christmas win over the Thunder, it would be three in a row. It was his first such back-to-back this season, which says a lot about Rose’s slow start and some, but not quite enough, about how he’s going to play in 2016.
"He's getting molded in the right way. Like I tell guys on the team, rookies work their way in and earn their minutes. Bobby is earning his minutes, and he's doing it the right way." Taj Gibson on Bulls rookie Bobby Portis
While Rose has struggled by any metric or eye test, he was never as bad as the advanced stats showed. While he recovered from a broken orbital bone, he could still get the offense started, he just couldn’t finish.
What he was giving still wasn’t enough for the expectations that come with being a max-level player, even with the eye injury. He played through blurred vision and a cumbersome face mask. He was clearly afraid of re-injuring his face, pulling up short on drives to the basket, bricking many of his jumpers.
But the mask is gone, and we’re seeing more cohesion and confidence to his game. It’s almost to the point where no one is too worried about him anymore. He’s shooting 41 percent in December, which is Steph Curry-like compared to his first two months. But Rose probably needs to string together 10 of these games, maybe 20, for anyone to buy in.
“Derrick’s been playing great the last couple games,” Gibson said. “It’s just about his body. It’s all about guys getting the right rotation, the right fit in the games.”
Two minutes into the game Monday night, you could feel a little nostalgia and hope for the future when he blocked Raptors guard Kyle Lowry at one end and raced to the other for a contorting layup. Rose hit his first three shots, adding a 3 and a deftly-angled bank shot.
He went cold after that, missing seven of his next eight shots, but then got his game going with eight points in the last 5 minutes, 44 seconds of the third quarter. Rose had 10 points in the first half and 10 in the third. He's likely not going to be the NBA MVP again, but as long as he's in the running for the Bulls' MVP, that's enough.
A popular supposition in the postgame locker room was if the Bulls have turned a corner in the week since Butler implored Hoiberg to coach this team harder. Hoiberg will learn as he goes in his rookie year, but it really comes down to the veteran core of the team leading by example and the younger players following.
No one is saying this team is a title contender -- for that to happen, Rose has to be consistently scoring 20-plus in the next few months. But the Bulls have the pieces to compete in the Eastern Conference, as long as they figure out how to play together on a nightly basis. It's not calculus, just some simple physical education.
“Energy and effort,” Rose said. “If we bring [those] two things, then who knows, man?”