As the Chicago Bulls continue playing impressive basketball, people continue to search for reasons this team has been so successful after the Luol Deng trade.
Joakim Noah is finally healthy and playing the best basketball of his career; he is the unquestioned leader and best player on the team right now. D.J. Augustin rebounded from a poor shooting stretch to ignite the offense. Yet, a player whose contributions lately may have gone unnoticed is the other point guard, Kirk Hinrich.
The early returns on Hinrich this season were not encouraging. He continued to look like a player who has broken down past the point of being useful. His jump shot was broken, and teams dared him to shoot. He was too slow to get into the paint, and struggled to finish when he did get there. He still played solid defensively, and his understanding of the defensive scheme is the only reason Tom Thibodeau stuck with him this long (well, that, and the fact that Thibodeau would have rather sent Adrian Griffin or Ed Pinckney out there than play Marquis Teague real minutes).
Although everyone had Hinrich pegged as either injured or a non-factor in the second half, he has come on stronger than ever and is playing his best basketball in his second stint with the Bulls. Finally looking healthy, Hinrich has gotten enough reps to fix the consistency on his jumper. It looks much smoother and more balanced than it has in the past two years.
The numbers back up his shooting improvement; since the All-Star Break, Hinrich has improved his eFG percent by a wider margin than any player in the league, according to John Schuhmann of NBA.com. His 57.1 percent eFG since the break would rank 11th in the NBA and second in the NBA among point guards if it were over the course of the entire season.
Perhaps playing off the ball more has helped Hinrich. He was brought in as a combo guard, and was expected to play more alongside Derrick Rose. Obviously, these chances haven’t come much, since Rose has been hurt. But the arrival of Augustin has moved Hinrich off the ball a lot, particularly in clutch situations.
Hinrich’s renewed shooting ability has given Thibodeau the option of playing a much better defensive crunch time lineup. With Hinrich alongside Jimmy Butler, and Taj Gibson and Noah manning the paint, the Bulls are able to hide Augustin on defense among four plus defenders.
Hinrich has been injured as often as he’s been healthy with Chicago, and the team absolutely needs him to be healthy for the playoffs. His strengths should play well against either of the Bulls likely first-round opponents.
The Bulls and the Brooklyn Nets have already played recently in the playoffs, and Hinrich’s ability was apparent while he was on the floor. Captain Kirk did an outstanding job against Deron Williams in last season’s playoffs before going down with an injury. Not coincidentally, Williams looked much more comfortable after Hinrich went down. Not too many point guards can handle the strength of Williams easily, but Hinrich has always dealt with point guards who try to muscle him around quite well.
If the Bulls matchup against the Washington Wizards, Hinrich might struggle against John Wall. He’s definitely lost a step over the years, and struggles with especially explosive point guards somewhat. The Bulls will need a great team defensive effort to stop Wall, and it wouldn’t be stunning if Thibodeau elects to put Butler on Wall for a few minutes at a time, even if that opens up matchup problems elsewhere.
Where Hinrich will be beneficial against the Wizards is in late-game situations. If Hinrich matches up against Bradley Beal, he’ll likely be run around a ton of screens off the ball. Most defenders hate these matchups, but Hinrich thrives on them. He is almost never cut out of position off of down-screens, and defends them better than almost anyone in the league. Shooters have a hard time opening up space on Hinrich, and he’ll likely give Beal a hard time.
The Bulls’ season has been one of unlikely successes, but the most unlikely of them all might be Hinrich coming back from the dead to be a key cog in a playoff run. And if Chicago is going to make it out of the first round, they better hope Hinrich continues his rise.
Donnie Kolakowski is a writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @zenoknows