Hinrich crucial in Bulls turnaround


Jan 27

We’ve had a lot of this stuff wrong about this Bulls team this season. We thought John Salmons could replace Ben Gordon at shooting guard. That hasn’t worked out. We thought Jannero Pargo could provide at least some of that instant scoring. That hasn’t worked out. We thought Tyrus Thomas was the answer to it all, and when he returned from a broken arm the Bulls could be transformed. That worked. For three games.

As it’s developed, the key to the Bulls turnaround as they face the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday, has been Kirk Hinrich.

Derrick Rose, of course, has been great since his ankle injury healed, and I believe he’ll be added to the East All Star team Thursday when the reserves are announced on TNT. It would be a travesty given the way he’s played and how much he has to do for his team and the dearth of talent in the East to leave him off. Joakim Noah has been a consistent defensive presence all season and Taj Gibson has been a steady surprise.

But it’s been the return of Hinrich from a finger injury in early December, and then Hinrich moving into the starting lineup in late December, that’s changed the team with better flow, ball movement, shooting and defense. Coach Vinny Del Negro says it’s thrust, though I am still not fully sure what that means.

The Bulls are 11-4 in games Hinrich has started, but take a look at these statistics when Hinrich plays compared to when he doesn’t courtesy of Bulls stat guru Matt Yob:

The Bulls are 20-16 when Hinrich plays and 1-6 when he doesn’t.

They shoot 44.6 percent with Hinrich and 42.2 percent when he doesn’t play.

They average 20.8 assists when he plays and 18.1 assists when he doesn’t.

They average 45.9 rebounds when he plays and 42.9 without him.

Their free throw shooting is 76.2 percent when Hinrich plays and 72 percent when he doesn’t.

They score 96.1 per game with Hinrich and 91.1 without him.

You can’t always gauge basketball by numbers like you can in baseball because what one player does is so much more dependent in basketball on what the others do. But the numbers seem clear that when Hinrich is on the court, and especially starting, the Bulls are a much better team.

I didn’t talk with Hinrich specifically about that on this trip, but I asked him about staying with the team given his name comes up so often in trade rumors. There’s one floating around now about Hinrich for a bunch of Lakers detritus that I can’t see the Bulls doing just to dump a contract. There was also a flood of sentiment last summer to retain Ben Gordon and deal Hinrich. And the Bulls did examine that carefully.

And, no, Hinrich is never going to be the scoring threat or put up anywhere the numbers Gordon does, though Gordon has missed most of this season with injuries.

Hinrich is averaging 10.1 points and 4.5 assists this season, below his career averages of 13.6 points and six assists. Hinrich had his best statistical season in 2006-07 when he averaged 16.6 points and 6.3 assists and was invited to the USA Basketball tryouts. He’s been returning to that level of late, averaging 13.3 points and 5.6 assists the last 10 games and also making three pointers, averaging two converted a game this month.

But perhaps most important has been Hinrich’s aggressive defense, which combined with the inside play of Noah and Gibson has had the Bulls in the top 10 in the key defensive categories most of the season.

The last two seasons have been rough for Hinrich, falling out of his starting job with Rose’s appearance and out of the offense with Gordon’s free agency blitz. Hinrich averaged career lows of 9.9 points and 3.9 assists in an injury plagued season last year.

With Rose becoming the focus of the team, Hinrich had talked privately that perhaps it was best for him to move on.

He’s not thinking like that anymore.

“I like this team,” he says. “We can do some things. I’ve got a good role. I get minutes. It’s a fun team to be around. I’m enjoying myself. I hope I can be here.

“Honestly, it’s been feeling good,” Hinrich said of his improved scoring. “I feel like at times I struggle to put two halves together. A lot of times I come out and have a really good first half. For whatever reason, I don’t know if it’s my legs, but I lose my rhythm for the second half. It’s something I’m trying to have a conscious effort to take care of.”

But Hinrich also willingly defers to Rose down the stretch and generally defends the toughest guard. It’s another reason why although his stats don’t show up in the box score the Bulls have been able to make so many big defensive plays down the stretch of recent games to avoid the fourth quarter collapses that were plaguing them so much earlier this season.

Hinrich has become a key element of the Bulls’ recent success. Which makes it all the more important to determine how the Bulls move forward.

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