COMMENTARY | In his second start at shooting guard in place of injured veteran Rip Hamilton, Marco Belinelli scored 23 points as the Bulls dealt handily with the Cleveland Cavaliers Dec. 5 in Cleveland, winning 95-85. Belinelli was hot early, getting 10 points in the first quarter, and made coach Tom Thibodeau look like a genius for starting him in place of young Jimmy Butler, who seems to have more of an upside all around.
But what if Thibodeau solved a long-term problem by starting Belinelli? Could the Italian shooting star be the answer at shooting guard when Derrick Rose returns from injury?
Since Rose was drafted in 2008, the Bulls have searched for someone to play alongside him in the backcourt. When they realized Ben Gordon wasn't going to be able to share the backcourt spotlight with Rose, the team turned three years ago to Keith Bogans, the veteran star out of Kentucky. But Bogans, while playing a terrific defense, could not pose the offensive threat the Bulls needed to take defensive pressure off of Rose.
Last year, they spent a lot of money to get Rip Hamilton, who came in with an NBA championship pedigree. But health and age has proven to be an issue, although he is cagey, and is not unwilling to take a big shot when needed. Still his play so far has not been dangerous enough on the offensive end. He averages 13.9 now without Rose on the floor after averaging 11.6 points per game with Rose last season.
Kirk Hinrich is with the team to fill in for Rose at point guard, and can play shooting guard when Rose gets back, but his offense does not send fear through the opposition (although his defensive skills are strong and somehow also under-rated). With Belinelli as a starter, Hinrich would be a terrific bench addition, strong defensively and capable of hitting a few shots when needed.
So when you saw Belinelli score the way he did Wednesday night, did you think maybe he could be the long-term answer at starting shooting guard?
There are arguments against this idea, obviously. Belinelli does not play defense the way Thibodeau likes, and the coach is unlikely to enjoy having two defensive liabilities (Carlos Boozer being the first) in his starting lineup.
But what makes the Belinelli idea intriguing is the way he scores; the way he scored Wednesday night. He is not just a jump shooter, or a 3-point threat. He cuts to the basket well, going inside where some backcourt guys don't like to go. He has a good pump fake. He can hit floaters on the way to the hoop. He's not afraid of being fouled.
"Marco is a very good catch-and-shoot player,'' Thibodeau said. "We wanted to play off of that. He is getting better every day."
Belinelli's career numbers are hard to read, because they do not indicate the kind of opportunities he has had to have 20-point games. He averaged a career high 11.8 points for New Orleans last season as a starter. He only hit 41.7 percent of his shots (shooting average is one thing Bulls fans always disliked about Hinrich) but more than a third of his shots were 3-pointers. He doesn't have to be a 3-point threat constantly with the Bulls. He can take more 2-pointers and hit for a better average that way.
Right now, with Rose out, the Bulls would LOVE to see Belinelli pump in 16-20 a night. Just having him shoot from all over the floor helps space things for the others on the team. When Rose comes back, having Belinelli on the floor could really open things up for him.
There was talk that Belinelli was tentative in the Thibodeau offense because of the need to concentrate so much on defense. But if he can hit some shots early, it builds his confidence, and it even inspires him to play harder on defense, knowing that if the ball gets coughed up, it could end up in his hands again quickly on the other end.
When Hamilton comes back, he is likely to start again, because I don't know how effective Hamilton would be coming off the bench. But Belinelli could be a nice sub in quickly at that position once Rose gets back.
Is there a better, more dangerous option on the roster right now? I'm not sure there is.
Just spit-ballin here...
Kent McDill has covered the Bulls for three different companies: for United Press International from 1985-88, for the Daily Herald newspaper in Arlington Heights, Ill., from 1988-99 and currently for NBA.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title "100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die'' published by Triumph Books.