The city of Chicago has been waiting since April to see Derrick Rose back on the court, but the wait is almost over. According to ESPN Chicago, "Rose is now taking 'full contact.'" The report projects him to make his season debut after the All-Star Game on Feb. 17. Adding the former MVP will undoubtedly improve the Bulls as a whole, but it will also change the team's rotation and possibly the dynamic of the roster.
The Bulls currently have four guards that play at least 22 minutes per game, so something will change when Rose returns; he has averaged at least 35 minutes in each of his four seasons.
Kirk Hinrich has started 40 games at point guard, but he will lose his starting job to Rose for the second time in his career. Hinrich puts forth enough effort on the defensive end to be a Tom Thibodeau favorite, and he has enough size to play shooting guard next to Rose. Expect a slight decrease in minutes, but Hinrich will likely be used as the primary backup point guard and defensive shooting guards against small backcourts.
Nate Robinson has played nearly all of his minutes in a reserve role, his eight starts coming when Hinrich was out with an injury. His role has been that of the bench scorer, the guy that tries to carry the offense while the starters rest.
With that in mind, Robinson is an excellent counterpart to Hinrich; Robinson has the highest player efficiency rating (PER) on the roster at 18.6 and is fourth on the team in scoring with 11.8 points per game (PPG), but is a defensive liability. Hinrich has played 5.5 more minutes per game, but he only averages seven PPG and has a below average PER at 10.7 (the league average is 15).
As the two primary point guards on the roster, Hinrich and Robinson typically come into the game when replacing each other. However, Thibodeau has used a two-point-guard lineup more often lately against smaller backcourts.
While Hinrich should see minutes next to Rose, Robinson likely will only see minutes when Rose sits. Robinson's scoring ability has been a necessity in Rose's absence, but playing two ball-dominant scoring guards would be redundant.
If Hinrich and Robinson make up some of their reduction in minutes by playing shooting guard, Rip Hamilton and Marco Belinelli will see their game time drop as well. Between the two of them they are averaging 47.5 minutes per game, mostly at shooting guard.
Hamilton will likely continue to be the starter, but it will be interesting to watch how Rose plays next to each player. How the two players perform next to Rose during the regular season very well may determine who is on the court during offensive situations at the end of playoff games.
Rose will not be the only player to force Thibodeau to rework his rotations. Second-year wing Jimmy Butler played so well during Luol Deng's absence that he has forced the coach to find him playing time. Before Jan. 18 Butler had scored 10 or more in only two of his 37 games. Since then Butler has reached double-digits in 10 of his 11 games, averaging over 14 PPG during that span.
Since Deng has returned, Butler has taken minutes from the shooting guards instead of just spelling the All-Star. According to game logs on ESPN.com, both players have played at least 27 minutes in all five games since Deng has returned, with the two playing a combined 88 minutes against Brooklyn. Adding Rose to the mix will continue to tighten the minutes for the Bulls' wing players.
One option that Thibodeau may consider is playing a smaller lineup for periods against certain teams. Deng has the length to move to power forward for stretches, opening up a spot for Butler or two of the guards to play alongside Rose. It is easy to envision an offensive lineup of Rose/Hamilton/Bellineli/Deng/Boozer or a defensive lineup of Rose/Hinrich/Butler/Deng/Noah.
The Bulls primarily play a three-big-man rotation of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. If Thibodeau has success with a small-ball lineup, those three could see a slight drop in minutes as well.
Don't expect the Bulls to play that kind of lineup for long stretches, however. One of Chicago's biggest strengths has been its rebounding; they are fifth in the NBA, averaging 43.7 rebounds per game. Miami has used small forward LeBron James for long stretches at power forward during the season and they are last in the league with 39 rebounds per game.
Rose's return to the court means uncertainty concerning playing time for many players on the roster. When Rose is back the Bulls will have 10 players that average at least 20 minutes per game; a typical NBA rotation is eight players, although Thibodeau has proven in Chicago that he uses his bench more than other coaches.
Overall, one or two players may find themselves relegated to the bench by playoff time. Expect Robinson to take a drastic cut in minutes unless he can prove that he can play alongside Rose, even though he has been the Bulls' most efficient offensive player this season. Also, watch for a Belinelli-Hamilton position battle this spring. If either struggles to find a rhythm next to Rose, they may be on the bench during the playoffs.
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