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Role Players May Be Difference for Chicago Bulls

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Role Players May Be Difference for Chicago Bulls

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Taj Gibson.

COMMENTARY | In many ways, everything that fans and experts believe about the Bulls can be traced back to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011.

The Bulls, with home-court advantage, had taken a 1-0 series lead over the Miami Heat. The rest, unfortunately, is history. While many looked forward to a rematch in the following season, Derrick Rose suffered a career-altering injury in that postseason's opening game. Since then, the Bulls have gone from the unquestionable top challenger to the Heat to a member of a lower tier of teams.

The focus, from the side of the Bulls, has been on the potential of their four core players: Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Carlos Boozer. While this has rightly been a point of emphasis, only one player (Taj Gibson) remains outside of that top four from the 2010-11 squad that fell to the Heat. When thinking about the fortunes of the Bulls, it may actually be more useful to think of how the supporting cast has changed.

Can a new set of role players put Chicago over the top?

The mathematical certainty of having four players as the core of a team means that a non-core player must start. In 2010-11, that fifth player was Keith Bogans. He then shared time with Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, based on team needs. The three-headed monster at the shooting guard position was a fine concept, but when the Heat came to town those three each became a weak point exploited by the Heat.

Bogans and Brewer were both very good defenders, but had so little to offer offensively that the Heat began just leaving them open on the outside to allow their defenders to crowd the lane and prevent Rose from scoring on drives. While they made some of the outside shots produced by this strategy, they simply could not do so enough to make up for how much this strategy helped the Heat stop Rose.

Korver could, of course, knock down open 3s better than anybody, but he was a critical weak point on defense, usually guarding Dwyane Wade. On offense, it was not difficult for the Heat to use their athletic wings to deny Korver open looks and pressure him into turnovers when he had the ball. Korver lacked the handling skills to make the Heat pay for this pressure as well as the athleticism to get open. C.J. Watson, who had occasionally gotten minutes as a shooting guard, saw his game completely fall off at playoff time as well.

Entering the 2013-14 season, this three-headed monster has essentially turned into one. Jimmy Butler has since developed into a player that has no serious weaknesses and will likely rack up very high minutes in the coming season, most of which will come at the shooting guard position. Butler is a capable ball-handler who will not turn the ball over and can make defenders pay for closing in too hard. While he is far from the caliber of Korver when it comes to 3-point shooting, he is not like Bogans and Brewer; Butler will knock down open 3s on a consistent basis and thus requires the attention of opposing defenses.

Before his emergence as a competent offensive player, Bulls fans had already grown familiar with Butler as a defender. He has become one of Thibodeau's preferred options for stopping some of the league's best wing players, including LeBron James. Butler is arguably a superior defender than any other reserve wings in the core four era. The fact that he is not a liability on the other end of the floor makes this fact even more important, moving forward.

Taj Gibson, the star of the old group, has much to prove. The Bulls rewarded him with a long-term contract valued at $9 million per season and his play subsequently fell off in the past season. This has led the Bulls to keep Boozer another season and Gibson's role has failed to increase; many would have predicted that Gibson would no longer have been considered a role player by now. Gibson's reemergence is not only important for the coming season, but also the post-Boozer future. The Bulls are not in a salary position to have Gibson's contract go to waste.

Elsewhere, the Bulls have brought in a more well-rounded bunch for their backcourt reserves. Kirk Hinrich has returned and will be the primary backup point guard, where he is a steady hand and a capable outside shooter. His defense has regressed from its once excellent level, but he is still a player that will not be exploited by opposing guards as a defender.

Marquis Teague may see minutes at back-up point guard as well, but they will be sparse unless (or until) Hinrich is hurt. Teague, who was just 19 years old in his rookie season, has much to improve on. He has the tools to be a capable defender and can be a run-and-gun type of point guard, looking his best in transition.

The season's biggest acquisition is Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy is a very important role player, as he is that dead-eye outside shooter that has been missing since the departure of Korver. Unlike Korver, Dunleavy is a fine defender on the wing and has more offensive versatility than a pure spot-up shooter. Dunleavy will spend time backing up Butler and Deng, primarily, but will likely earn more minutes than just the time it takes for those two to rest. Thibodeau may consider using small lineups with all three of the aforementioned players to get them more time.

The role of new draftee Tony Snell is up in the air. Thibodeau has made a habit of hiding his rookies on the bench, but Snell is arguably more refined than the two key rookies on recent teams. Snell is an excellent outside shooter at the small forward position, projects as at least a solid defender, and may develop a more-rounded repertoire offensively. He is good enough to have minutes and further add to this new outside shooting presence, but will likely struggle to beat Dunleavy for time in the coming season. His role becomes more important after Luol Deng's likely departure at the end of the season.

The commonality of this new group is that these players have no glaring weaknesses that are easily exploited against top teams and, more important, they all can shoot. With Derrick Rose running the show, the floor must be spread out by outside shooters. This is part of the reason for the continued success of the Heat; stacking shooters like Shane Battier, Mike Miller, and Ray Allen on the bench give the Heat plenty of options to keep defenders out of the lane and punish them when they do collapse on their stars.

Though the Bulls are a different style of team than the Heat, it makes sense to take cues from what works. When you have a star that needs to get into the lane, you must surround him with shooters. This not only helps Rose, but it also opens things up for Carlos Boozer, who has never been well-utilized in the Rose-led offense, and the rest of the big men.

If the Bulls find themselves in position to beat the Heat this season, one must think about the role players. Chances are, the changes to this group will help explain the successes of the team's core.

Jacob Long, a native to the Chicago area, is a writer on the Yahoo Contributor Network. He has experience covering sports and news for WMC-TV in Memphis, TN and owns the film and TV blog The Renegade's Film Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jlongrc.

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