Head coach Tom Thibodeau acknowledged Thursday there are multiple strategies to cover for minutes now available with Deng’s departure, and that their look in Tuesday’s victory over the Phoenix Suns won’t necessarily be the team’s identity moving forward.
Kirk Hinrich and the Bulls have a big hole to fill with Luol Deng off to Cleveland.
“We got to move on,” Thibodeau said after practice Thursday in advance of Friday’s game at Milwaukee. “That’s the big thing. That’s the nature of this league. Just get ready for the next game.”
Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell and even Kirk Hinrich will be asked to do their best to cover for the departure of Deng, who led the team in points per game (19.0) and minutes (37.4).
But there is also the internal presence Deng provided, and even after playing one game without him, the Bulls are still trying to come to grips with his departure.
“It’s still strange not having him around,” Hinrich said. “Just coming in today, his locker is next to me here. I had a lot more room today but it was a little just getting nostalgic just looking at it seeing it empty for the first time here.”
What happens with the roster next is anybody’s guess. Both Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy have been mentioned as players who could be traded as the front office tries to revamp the roster in an effort to build a legitimate contender in years ahead.
“I think it’s always a possibility; we know that as professional basketball players,” Hinrich said. “We just try to focus on what we can control and go out there and do the best we can.”
For now, everybody not working in the front office is merely focused on the next game. While attention is being paid to how the team covers the new vacancy on the wing, Thibodeau is considering a new look entirely.
“Yeah, it becomes more of a power game,” Thibodeau said. “It can work, and the challenge for us is to make it work. You look at what’s the makeup of your team, you look at what the possibilities are and how you can try and take advantage of somebody.
“You might be able to beat a team because of the unique skillset of Joakim and Taj, where they can guard small guys, and you can make it be a power game, pound someone on the board. Maybe you can beat them with your rebounding.”
With the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference before play Thursday, the Bulls would be a playoff team if the season ended today. The reality, though, is that an improved Cavaliers team could knock them from playoff contention, meaning that Deng could help give his former teammates an early offseason.
“You recognize that he got traded within the division, but right now we’re trying to stay wrapped up in what we have going on and what is right in front of us,” Hinrich said. “I think when you stop doing that that’s when you get slippage and don’t play as well.”
Keeping focused on the task at hand also helps to avoid thinking about the friend who is no longer enduring the day-to-day grind with them.
“On a personal level, you couldn’t ask for anything more from a player or a person,” Thibodeau said. “He’s terrific. We’ll remain friends for a long time. I appreciated everything that he gave to our team. I appreciated the type of person that he is. That’s not going to change. He just happens to play for another team now. But we have to move on. Our friendship won’t change.”