CHICAGO — The Bulls may not have the best team, they may not have the best player, they may not have the best coach, they may not have the best offense, the best defense, the best media—jump in and stop me anytime, if you’d like—but there is a special Bulls group that may be as good as any in the NBA.
It’s the Bulls bench, perhaps the most veteran and experienced group in the NBA, one that Bulls coach Billy Donovan often has been relying upon to finish the mostly closely games.
“Those guys (have been) great off the bench,” Donovan said last week. “Garrett (Temple) was great, OP (Otto Porter Jr.) has been coming off the bench for us (before Lauri Markkanen’s Covid displacement). I give those guys a lot of credit. Those guys are good enough to start, but they’ve been total team guys. When you bring those guys in and they keep themselves ready and focused and know what they have to do, you can generate that kind of offense from the bench. We need help from the bench when they come in and I think so far this year they’ve done a nice job in that area.”
This Bulls season in addition to the competitive element still is about beginning to put in place a core of regulars with whom to move forward and then supplement. In building that unit, the Bulls have been adding stabilizing veterans during the past three seasons with the trade of Otto Porter Jr. in February 2019, the signings of Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky that summer and Garrett Temple last summer. The result as the Bulls Tuesday begin a four-game Western Conference road trip in Portland is one of the deepest, most competent and effective groups of reserve players in the NBA.
They’ll face several of the other top reserve groups in the league on this trip starting with the Trailblazers with Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood. The Bulls close the trip this weekend in Los Angeles against the Lakers Friday and Clippers Sunday. The Clippers were considered to have the best bench last season, though lost 2020 Sixth Man winner Montrezl Harrell to the Lakers. The Lakers also traded for Sixth Man runner-up Dennis Schroder. Their bench with Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso is another reason they’re considered the 2021 title favorite. Frequent Sixth Man winner Lou Williams remains with a weaker Clippers bench.
“Our bench is deep, especially when you’ve got us coming off the bench,” said Porter. “He (Donovan) can mismatch the subs and stuff to have some veteran guys in there. But our job is to come in and give us a push coming off the bench. Next man’s gotta step up. I think that’s what we’re trying to do as far as coming off the bench and giving the young guys a spark, to get in there with them and help them out.”
THE ROCKIN’ RESERVES
Otto Porter Jr.: The 6-8 forward in his eighth NBA season has been starting with Markkanen’s absence and was a longtime starter with Washington. He was been moved to the bench to accommodate rookie Patrick Williams and likely will return to the bench when Markkanen is cleared.
Porter has been in the closing group for the most part and Sunday against Dallas made a pair of crucial baskets in the last five minutes, rebounding a miss for a three-point play and taking a slick Zach LaVine pass for what became the clinching layup score. Porter is averaging 14.9 points and shooting 42 percent on threes with a huge 28 and 12 game in Washington last week. He’s been playing his most consistent ball since he was traded to the Bulls and should be a serious candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
Thad Young: The 6-8 14th season veteran was slowed by a leg infection and has been back for just three games. He started occasionally last season with injuries to Markkanen after being a starter in Indiana, Brooklyn and Minnesota before signing with the Bulls as a free agent. He’s averaging 9.3 points, but hasn’t averaged less than double figures since his rookie season in 2008. He’s a versatile interior player who still is shooting about 52 percent.
Garrett Temple: The 6-5 guard and 11-year veteran of multiple teams long has been one of the league’s more respected and admired players. In recent years he started for the Nets, Grizzlies, Kings and Wizards because of his veteran savvy and defensive play. Donovan has been relying on him not only to finish games, but defend the best opponent scorers when Patrick Williams has run into difficulty. Temple is not known as a scorer and is averaging about six points.
Tomas Satoransky: The 6-7 guard is having his all-time bad luck season thus far with a Covid scare quarantine and now contracting the virus. He played in three games and was just again becoming comfortable with 10 points and six assists in Washington before being sidelined again. Donovan was starting to rely on him to run the team late as perhaps the best facilitating point guard on the roster.
Those four comprise the foundation of a shrewd and intelligent reserve group that is rare in the NBA. That’s because they also comprise the majority of the highest paid players on the Bulls roster as most of the starters are on rookie contracts. Those four earn more than half the Bulls total payroll with all either with expiring contracts or limited guarantees for next season. Their futures and status will be major questions for management since Donovan is relying on them so much while trying to develop a young core of talent.
The bench has been filled out by young players like Daniel Gafford, Chandler Hutchison and fourth year pro Denzel Valentine. Hutchison also is out now with the virus. But Gafford has been making a strong push to split center minutes with Wendell Carter Jr. after another excellent performance Sunday against Dallas. Gafford with his explosive athletic ability had 12 points and is averaging 10.7 points the last three games in just 19 minutes per game. He’s making a strong case to remain in a narrow playing rotation that Donovan likes to limit to nine or perhaps 10.
Valentine also has been trying to crack the rotation with uncanny three-point shooting. Though with just 13 attempts, Valentine ranks among the league leaders at a stunning 62 percent on threes. He’s the only Bulls player other than LaVine among the league leaders in a major statistical caregory, LaVine in the top 15 in both scoring and steals. The myriad talents off the bench provide the Bulls with enhanced ways to challenge opponents and themselves.
“I think the guys are buying into listening to the veteran guys coming off the bench in that second unit,” said Young. “They’re watching some of the things that we do when we do get in the game. And then they’re just applying it to their games. It’s a next-man-up mentality. If I’m that next man, I’m going to be ready and prepared for each and every situation.”
And a not so secret weapon.
Sam Smith is an NBA writer for the Chicago Bulls.