The Bulls preseason discussion centered on the return of Derrick Rose—his Adidas campaign, The Return, meant a D-Rose return to the United Center and a real chance at returning the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Chicago. On the periphery of Rose’s comeback was talk about Tom Thibodeau’s new look offense, subtle changes to energize a somewhat methodical system. The former MVP’s return was short lived—ten forgettable games—and chatter of the new offensive strategy quickly dissipated. Derrick Rose’s name still pops up from time-to-time—rehabilitation news, Team USA selection—but little has since been said about changes made to the Bulls’ offense for the 2013-14 season. Mostly because a healthy Rose was paramount to its success. And, though the franchise point guard is lost for the season, his replacement, D.J. Augustin, has Thibodeau’s offensive vision finally coming into focus.
The vision began with speed. “Obviously, you want to get as many easy baskets as you can. So how do you get them?” Before the season tipped off coach Thibodeau asked himself this question before the assembled media. “And the obvious (answer) is the fast break. I think the quicker you move the ball, the quicker you make decisions, get your body in motion, that also leads to second shots. We’ve always been a high-assist team, it’s a five-man offense, five-man defense and that’s the way we want to play. So if we can beat the defense down the floor we want to attack before they get set.” Coach Thibodeau—known as a defensive guru—spent last off-season tinkering with his offense. With Rose’s return imminent and athletes like Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson in the fold, the goal was to rev up the offense, turning his star point guard’s court speed into more of a focal point. But a team can only beat the defense down court so many times, thus the blueprint’s second phase. “If they get set we want to move them side to side,” Thibodeau continued back in the fall. “But we want the ball in to the paint. When you have a player like Derrick who can force the defense to collapse, now you’re going to get some high scoring or very efficient shooting out of that…” Rose’s ability to break down a defense and make plays in the paint is impossible to replicate. And when he tore his meniscus in late November against the Blazers, everything Tom Thibodeau planned for turned on its head. His backups—Kirk Hinrich, Marquis Teague, Mike James—lacked the right combination of speed and ball control to press the ball in transition. None could create enough havoc in the paint to draw double teams and free up shooters. The losses piled up while the sports radio airwaves and newspaper pages turned fan attention away from games on the court and towards a tanked season. Visions of Jabari Parker returning to Chicago or Andrew Wiggins donning a Bulls uniform were placed before the fans, an idea just in reach with enough losses. But the mid December signing of point guard D.J. Augustin—waived by the Raptors early in the season—changed all that.
D.J. Augustin is quick with the ball, able to splice two defenders on a break or get into the paint off a pick-and-roll. While he’s never been a pure scorer—career average of 9.7 points per game—Augustin has the on-court presence Thibodeau’s up tempo strategy demands but sorely lacked. Second year guard Marquis Teague had the quickness but lacked adequate decision-making—his demotion to the developmental league and eventual trade to the Nets proved he wasn’t a fit in Chicago. Kirk Hinrich possesses the veteran artfulness of an NBA point guard but no longer has the speed to put a defense on its heels. In Augustin, the Bulls have the right combination of speed and skill to make the offense go. The team hustles on the break knowing their point guard is right behind them pushing the ball. And shooters like Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell ready themselves for a shot; Augustin can snake his way through a defense and find the open man. Since joining the Bulls, he’s averaging 14 points and 6 assists per game, helping the team win more games than some fans care to witness given the talent pool in the upcoming NBA draft. In the nine games Chicago played while Derrick Rose was out before D.J. Augustin was signed, the team was 2-7, definitely draft lottery worthy. In the twenty-six games played since, the Bulls are 15-11 and once again in playoff contention. Considering one of their best talents, Luol Deng, departed via trade early in 2014, that’s to be applauded.
Like Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli before him, D.J. Augustin may bolt for greener dollars after a singular prove-it season in Chicago. But, even if it’s just for one forgettable season, Tom Thibodeau has found a suitable replacement for his injured star in Augustin, a veteran floor leader that’s energizing the Madhouse on Madison and getting the Bulls back on the run.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com