The 2014-15 Chicago Bulls’ season has come with many surprises. The elite play of Jimmy Butler. The health of Pau Gasol and relative health of Derrick Rose. The fast start of Nikola Mirotic and slow start of Doug McDermott. And the hairstyle of Cameron Bairstow. What’s not surprising is the success of Aaron Brooks, the team’s latest plug-and-play backup point guard. Bulls’ brass, Gar Forman and John Paxson, sure know how to pick ’em.
Chicago is good to its backup point guards1. Nate Robinson signed a one year contract with the Bulls in 2012 and then, after averaging 13.1 points and 4.4 assists2, got $4 million over two years from the Nuggets. D.J. Augustin parlayed a partial season with the team — 14.9 points and 5 assists per game2 — into a two year, $6 million deal with the Pistons. C.J. Watson had two of his best seasons playing under Tom Thibodeau. And veteran combo guard Kirk Hinrich has grossed over $66 million in his career, most of which has been paid by the Chicago basketball club. Enter Aaron Brooks, a high-energy, journeyman point guard on a minimum salary contract. And he’s good — 20.1 minutes, 11.2 points, 3.3 assists per game2. But we should stop being surprised when a Bulls’ backup point guard thrives, right?
Aaron Brooks isn’t new to professional basketball. The twenty-sixth overall selection in the ’07 draft has played seven seasons for five NBA teams and even spent a year in China on the Guangdong Southern Tigers. The 6’0″ guard broke out in year three, starting all eighty-two games for the Rockets, averaging 35.6 minutes, 19.6 points and 5.3 assists per game2. With those numbers, it looked like Brooks was on the cusp of something big. But the following season started poorly3 — an ankle sprain and contract issues derailed it. He was traded to the Suns and designated as backup to future hall of famer, Steve Nash. Unfortunately for Brooks, that backup label stuck for the balance of his career. A career that’s taken him from Houston and Phoenix to Sacramento, Houston (again), Denver and now Chicago4. His on-court performance and the numbers show us Brooks is more than just a so-so second stringer. A starter? Not in Chicago but perhaps somewhere in the league after a successful season with Thibodeau’s Bulls.
Tom Thibodeau appreciates the point guard position. He understands how controlled speed can break down a defensive set. And how a well-executed pick-and-roll can free up shooters and create easy layups. He knows that star point guards like Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose can set the pace of a game and raise his teammates level of play. And, after two-plus years without Rose, he values the backup point guard more than ever before. But, as most fans know, coach Thibs has certain expectations for his players. Play defense, protect the ball and make the extra pass. Spastic, fast-shooting point guards can offend his basketball sensibilities. Nate Robinson sure did. But Robinson also scored in bunches and kept the team in games they had no business being in. So the Bulls’ head coach evolved his thinking, despite what his critics say. And his loosened grip allows athletes like Aaron Brooks to succeed.
Aaron Brooks’ basic stat line hasn’t exploded from last season to this one. His minutes, points, assists, steals and rebounds are nearly identical. But his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) has never been higher and his shooting percentages — three-point and field goal — have increased as well. Brooks is making the most of his minutes on the court, providing a spark to the second unit and even teaming up with Rose in the backcourt. And his 20 points per 36 minutes2 is second only to Derrick Rose on this Bulls’ roster. The unconventional scorer hits leaners, floaters, jumpers and has the guts to shoot a three-pointer with eighteen seconds left on the shot clock. But Thibodeau shows patience because of all he has learned since becoming a head coach in 2010. It’s a great match — Brooks learns discipline and Thibodeau learns to let go.
Could the 2014-15 Chicago Bulls contend for a title without Aaron Brooks? Probably. But his willingness to take a big shot, push the ball down court and play team ball makes him a perfect fit on this team, this year. Brooks is only thirty; there are plenty of good seasons left for him in the league. Bulls’ fans may only get to witness his skills up close for one season. Enjoy the ride.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com ~ @SecCitySports