CHICAGO – The bright spot of the preseason so far for the Chicago Bulls is a no-brainer: Derrick Rose hasn’t just looked like his old self at times, he has looked quicker and stronger than his old self, with no apparent inclination to baby his surgically repaired left knee.
It’s early, but it looks as if sparing himself the rigors of an 82-game season might have benefits beyond the restoration of that torn ACL. That rehab year, in fact, almost might have been a physical and mental sabbatical.
Consider: Through five October appearances, Rose has scored 104 points in 124 minutes. That’s a rate of .839 points per minute and THAT is more prolific than at any previous point in his career. He was at .454 as a rookie in 2008-09, .564 a season later, .670 in his 2010-11 MVP season and .620 in an injury-riddled post-lockout season.
“He has great balance to his game right now,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after the 105-84 dispatching of Milwaukee Monday night at United Center. “If you back up on him, he doesn’t hesitate to pull up. … He is pushing the ball and attacking right from the start.”
The dim spots for Chicago have been obvious as well: Joakim Noah (groin strain), Jimmy Butler (bruised left knee) and Kirk Hinrich (concussion) all are hurt. Injuries big and small have undone Chicago repeatedly during the Thibodeau era, at least by spring, a source of profound frustration for the team and fans.
It’s especially vexing this preseason, with Noah eager to build on an All-Star season, Butler promoted into the shooting guard spot and Hinrich presumably freed by Rose’s return to lead the second unit and sometimes play alongside the star point guard. A lot of learning time is being burned, with the regular season a week away.
Fortunately for Chicago, two other players have eased the fretting and kept the storyline from going entirely Rose 24/7: Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy.
Gibson is the 6-foot-9 power forward whose contract extension last October produced a nice payday (four years, $33 million) and a step-back season. His scoring, rebounding, shooting and defense all dropped from previous levels, a particular problem in the wake of backup center Omer Asik‘s departure. Then there were stretches of 10 and seven games that Gibson missed with left knee issues.
“I think he was distracted last year,” Thibodeau said recently. “He had a different sort of season. Once he got on track and started playing well, he took on the injury. He still managed to have an OK season, but it wasn’t up to his standards.”
Those standards are going up now, along with expectations, based on Gibson’s work during the Bulls’ 6-0 start. His 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in 27.7 minutes translate to 18.4 and 10.2 per 36 minutes, easily the best of his five NBA seasons, and he’s making 62.5 percent of his shots. Thibodeau calls him the “best practice player” of their preseason.
Playing center more in Noah’s absence, Gibson came back heavier and stronger. He’s more comfortable and confident in the offense, not rushing as much. And he was reminded over the summer, in talks with Thibodeau and in workouts with Rose, of the value of hard work.
“One thing when you’re an NBA player, you want to be perfect,” Gibson said. “I was frustrated. I felt like I could have done a lot better. When I started working out, especially in the weight room with Derrick, I just had that mindset. I was thinking about playoffs, I was thinking about Miami, I was thinking about all those moments and I just made it bother me. I thought about the [final playoff] series, the season. I had a chip on my shoulder and I still do.”
Dunleavy was thinking about the playoffs, too — and how seldom he has sampled them. The 11-year veteran has gone twice, without ever playing for a team that finished .500 or better. That’s what led him to sign as a free agent with Chicago, where the learning curve can be steep — especially defensively — for newcomers. Wings like Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli have had periods of adjustment, but Dunleavy has had a fairly breezy transition thus far.
“I think I have an understanding of what we’re trying to do at both ends,” he said. “Yeah, I’m not shooting the ball great, but all the other stuff I feel really comfortable with. Each and every day, there’s always something new you’re picking up and learning.”
Thibodeau has been delighted with Dunleavy’s versatility, decision-making and potential to create space with his perimeter shooting. He has hit only 33.3 percent of his shots (5-for-16 from the arc) but he has started three of the six games and been used in various combinations. Against the Bucks, Dunleavy had 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 32:35. He orchestrated a highlight, too, dropping a behind-the-back pass for Gibson for a fast-break dunk.
“He’s a 6-9, 6-10 wing,” Gibson said. “He can shoot, he can rebound, he can dribble. He looks like the old Dunleavy when he was at Duke – a triple threat. You look at his size, he’s really big, he’s in there rebounding. Him and Lu [Deng] give us tall wings. His shot is going down now. As long as his confidence is going, he’s good.”
Gibson and Dunleavy both have been good, sources of encouragement beyond the most obvious one.