As we head into the NBA All-Star break, there are a number of positive stories coming out of Chicago. Derrick Rose seems to be finally returning to form. Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler are All-Stars this weekend. Joakim Noah is looking more and more like last season’s Defensive Player of the Year. After struggling through much of January, the Bulls now find themselves 2 1/2 games out of the two seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the second half of the season.
The big story this year has been the emergence of Butler, who made his first all-star appearance this weekend. Butler was the 30th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft by the Bulls and saw very little time on the court in his first two seasons. It took an injury to Luol Deng for Butler to emerge, and he took advantage of the opportunity. After barely playing in the first half of his second season, Butler averaged 40 minutes per game in the second half of the season and became a solid part of the Bulls’ rotation.
Sound familiar? Tony Snell was the 20th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of New Mexico. Barely used and often looking out of place in limited playing time in his rookie season, Snell led the Bulls’ summer league team in scoring and looked to be primed for a break out season. But backcourt depth and coach Tom Thibodeau’s relience on veteran players gave way to very little opportunity for Snell early this season. As was the case in Butler’s second year, injuries gave Snell an opportunity early this season to play but had trouble establishing himself in those games. Snell quickly found himself back in Thibodeau’s doghouse, the recipient of a couple DNP-CD in a row. But since Mike Dunleavy missed 19 games with an ankle injury, and much to Thibodeau’s surprise, Butler can’t play more than 48 minutes in a game, the door re-opened for Snell, and he has made the most of it.
After another DNP-CD agains the Rockets, Snell has made an impact in his last four games, averaging 18.3 points in just over 30 minutes per game. In his last two games playing in place of the injured Butler, Snell averaged 23 ppg only missed 4 shots. He provides the Bulls with a long, athletic wing player (a description that has long had GarPax salivating) who can hit three pointers, defend on the perimeter, and has a surprisingly effective drive game. And while there will surely be more growing pains in only his second NBA season, Snell is starting to fit the description for exactly what the Bulls are missing.
Even more than I was surprised by Butler’s emergence, I’m shocked by what I’m seeing from Tony Snell. I had to see it to believe it. My only worry has we head into the second half of the season is what happens to Snell once the Bulls are fully healthy and get back to their regular rotation. Thibodeau has, sometimes to a fault, over-valued Kirk Hinrich. I’ve been a Hinrich fan during his entire career on the Bulls, but he has really struggled this year and he is not a two-guard. With rookie Doug McDermott not getting an opportunity, Snell is the backup two/three that the Bulls need to backup Butler and Dunleavy. The big questions is, will Thibs allow Snell to take some of Hinrich’s minutes when everyone is healthy. This is an opportunity for Thibs to show that he can break habit and choose what is best for the team over his own stubbornness.
When the team is fully healthy, hopefully after the all-star break, this is how I’d like to see it break down:
Hinrich and Aaron Brooks can act like a tandem lefty/righty out of a bullpen. Call in Brooks when offense is needed, call in Hinrich when defense is needed and occasionally mix and match them with Rose to cause matchup problems on the other end.
Snell comes off the bench as a combo 2/3 to backup Butler and Dunleavy. He can play both positions and give Butler the much needed rest he so rarely gets.
Cut a few of Gasol’s minutes per game and allow the Bulls to use a lineup with Mirotic to help spread the floor against teams with bigs who have trouble guarding the perimeter.
Start letting McDermott get a few minutes at the end of the second quarter and the start of the fourth. Let him regain some confidence and give the Bulls another weapon on the wing.
My gut is that the Bulls will not make a deal at the trade deadline, and if Snell can continue to make progress like this, they won’t need to. One thing is for sure, Gar Foreman and John Paxon know how to find gems late in the NBA draft, and Snell appears to be their latest success story.