The first weekend of the NBA season is usually like the first 30 seconds of a heavyweight fight, which is to say there's precious little learned with every team in the league feeling its way. But the Chicago Bulls, even with such a small sample size, presented quite a bit to chew immediately, starting with a fascinating dynamic of health and depth that could easily form the interlocking theme of the entire season.
The drama of the first weekend isn't too difficult to determine. Derrick Rose missed more time with new injuries: two sprained ankles. The Bulls couldn't close without him against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but survived the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis. You can already hear some buzzing about Rose not being on the bench in the fourth quarter, though all the evidence points to the front office making it clear (like concussion protocol in the NFL) that no unnecessary chances will be taken with Rose's health, especially not two games into the season. It's unimaginable that Rose will just cruise through the season with no scares, no issues. Every trip to the bench (or locker room) is going to seemingly put the season in jeopardy. This is simply the new reality for the Bulls.
But an even bigger takeaway from this weekend, given that Rose appears to be no worse for wear at this point, is that the Bulls have what appears to be exceptional depth. The Bulls trashed the Knicks in New York without their best on-ball defender, Jimmy Butler. They went to OT with the Cavaliers, again without Butler around to guard James, and with Rose in the locker room at crunch time. They stole a win in Minnesota without Rose and Taj Gibson, probably two of the team's four most important players. It's a small sample size after just three games, but the Bulls so far have 11 players averaging 15 minutes or more per game, including rookies Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. Tom Thibodeau wanted a deep team, and it appears John Paxson and Gar Forman have given him exactly that.
If you're not going to have indestructible players, then you'd better have a lot of really good ones. Especially if your coach wants to play and practice in the manner Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau does. One could make the argument that health may be every bit as big an opponent for the Bulls as the Cavaliers.
A little history lesson is in order on the topic of the Bulls and championship contention. The best players of the Jordan-Pippen era were almost always on the court. For unimaginable stretches of time they never missed games.
In 1989-90, when the Bulls took the Detroit Pistons to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, John Paxson and Stacey King all played the full 82 games. B.J. Armstrong played 81 and Horace Grant played 80. The next season, the Bulls' first championship season, Jordan, Pippen, Armstrong and Paxson each played all 82 games. Bill Cartwright played 79 and Horace Grant played 78. In the repeat season of 1991-92, Pippen and Armstrong played 82, Grant 81, Jordan 80, Paxson and King 79 and Will Perdue 77.
And so it went. In 1996-97, the fifth championship season, Jordan, Pippen and Steve Kerr each played all 82 games, Ron Harper played 76. Even in 199-98, with Pippen missing nearly half the season (44 games), Jordan played 82, Dennis Rodman 80 and Toni Kukoc 74. The Bulls had great stars and role players who were also Ripkenesque in their availability. Surely, they must have had sprained ankles and busted fingers in their day. Yet, they never missed games.
Paxson and Forman know this group isn't going to suddenly reverse course and become indestructible, so they assembled a team that is 11 deep, two of them who, in a tag-team, can play in place of Rose in the short term. As much as the Bulls maneuvered to keep D.J. Augustin, who played so well in relief of Rose last season, it seems the Bulls brass have done a fine bit of work in getting Aaron Brooks for less than half the money. Brooks already is shooting 58 percent, including 60 percent on 3-pointers, and averaging 13.3 points per game. And Kirk Hinrich, who is so much more effective when not asked to do too much, is shooting 48 percent (43 percent on his 3-pointers) and averaging 14 points per game. Their production is exactly why it's OK to be so extra careful with Rose, who should still be easing his way into the season.
We presume at some point the Bulls will play a few games with their full complement of players, even the starting backcourt of Rose and Butler, who played so well in his personal season debut in Minnesota.
The other takeaways from the opening weekend:
Butler almost certainly is the Bulls' most improved player because he's so much more assertive offensively and has developed a mid-range jump shot. And the Bulls need him defensively, not only against the stars such as Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, but to hold his own athletically when other Bulls cannot against, say, Tristan Thompson, who grabbed an unthinkable 12 offensive rebounds for Cleveland.
Pau Gasol, even though he's 34 years old, can still score in the post and against some teams command a double-team, which will open up room for both Rose and Butler to drive and create space for shooters Mike Dunleavy, McDermott and Hinrich.
Rose can still get to the basket and finish, and do so less recklessly than before his knee injuries.
Again, it's a small sample but the Bulls' 26 3-point attempts per game tie for eighth in the NBA, as does their 37.2 shooting percentage from 3-point range, which is quite an improvement and change in approach for a team that was the worst 3-point shooting team last season.
At 106 points per game, through Saturday night, the Bulls were a surprisingly fourth in scoring.
So, Thibs isn't just throwing bodies on the floor to absorb minutes and offset injuries. The 17 turnovers a game the Bulls are committing speaks to players still trying to figure out how to play with one another. What's fair to wonder, given how often players have had to miss games, is whether the depth the Bulls enjoy now will be able to even approach the results of great indestructible players who set the bar particularly high.