CHICAGO | Kirk Hinrich made his return to Chicago in Friday's game against the Bulls, his first at the United Center since being traded to the Wizards before the draft. Before the game, there were a lot of eager writers wandering around looking for Hinrich. Understandably, most had pegged Hinrich's return as their angle for the game, which is appropriate enough for a Chicago audience. He was nowhere to be found--not on the court, not in the locker room, not in the training area as far as we could see. Finally, he was discovered drifting about the tunnel leading out to the court, wearing his Wizards warm-ups and flip-flops, signing autographs for the excited fans crowding by the rail. Once spotted, Hinrich was quickly shanghaied in the hallway outside the tunnel.
"(It's) a little bit (weird), being in the other locker room," Hinrich said. "I've never seen it before. It was weird the first time I put on this uniform, too, but I've gotten over that."
It's exactly what you'd expect him to say. It's more or less the same thing every traded player says the first time he returns to his old stomping grounds. Hinrich has never been known as a quote machine, and he tends to be more formally polite than effusive when interviewed, so if you had to hear him say these things, then you were glad when he did. Still, Derrick Rose probably summed it up better.
"He don't even look right in that jersey," Rose said.
For me, the strangeness of the jersey Hinrich was wearing didn't interest me so much as the strange position he has been playing. Since the beginning of preseason, Wizards coach Flip Saunders has been deploying a three-guard starting lineup featuring star rookie John Wall, Gilbert Arenas and Hinrich. Hinrich, all 6'3" of him, plays small forward in that configuration. Saunders summed up the pros and cons of the lineup before the game when asked if he's planning to stick with it long term.
"We'll have to see," Saunders said. "It's a fine line. What the three guards gives us is very good ball handling, so right now turnover-wise, we're around +8. We're able to get steals and turn them into points.
"But it's a fine line between how many of those you want and getting beat on the boards. The big thing about playing three guards where I'm more disappointed as far as our rebounding is that our big guys have to pursue the ball better."
The three-guard alignment is actually something I expected to see sometimes for Washington this season, but I didn't expect it to play such a prominent role in Saunders' plan. You get the feeling when listening to him talk about it, that he's still torn about just how often he wants to run that lineup out on the court.
Hinrich began the game checking Chicago's Luol Deng, who is listed as six inches taller before you even factor in the latter's gangling arms. The Bulls, who were of course playing without primary post threat Carlos Boozer, went to Deng on the block on three different occasions in the opening minutes, none of them resulting in points.
"We wanted to try to establish an inside game," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who picked up his first win in the game. "We felt we had a height advantage."
The flip side is that Deng doesn't frequently work with his back to the basket, so you risk trying to force the issue by asking a player to do something with which he is not comfortable. According to Synergy, Deng posted up on just seven percent of his plays last year, and scored .86 points per play on the block, placing him in the 57th percentile in the league. Meanwhile, Hinrich was posted up 10 percent of the time, and ranked in just the 33rd percentile when it came to defending post-ups. It's a scheme that should have worked to the Bulls' advantage, but it didn't. Instead, Deng struggled to secure the ball off of entry passes.
"We still have to work on some post-up opportunities for Luol," Thibodeau said. "I thought we were turning the ball over on our post feeds."
After that, Thibodeau waxed coachetic about his beginning-of-the-game preferences when it comes to getting the Bulls into an offensive flow. The first-time head coach is still much more comfortable talking Xs and Os than he is delivering the pat answers you expect from NBA coaches in an interview format. He sort of stares at an indefinite point in space as he stands at the podium, and lapses into coach-speak too often for the television and radio outlets just looking for a snappy sound bite.
"At the start of the game, ideally you want to establish ball movement, player movement and get everyone touching it," Thibodeau said. "Then, you get the ball to the paint and play inside out. Maybe we could have gone to more movement and tried to post him up off that. Cutting and slashing into the lane is playing to his strength and then he's very hard to guard."
In any event, the Bulls weren't really able to take advantage of the Hinrich's height disadvantage, and you get the feeling that teams are going to find that attacking the wily defensive stalwart in the post might turn out to be more trouble than it's worth. At the same time, Saunders' fears about the Wizards holding up on the boards proved to be founded. The Bulls grabbed 15 of 39 offensive rebound chances, and held the Wizards to just 8 of 41. The Bulls outscored Washington 21-8 on the second-chance points scoreboard. Worse, the Wizards came away with just a +3 turnover advantage and actually finished with a deficiency in fastbreak points.
"Our bigs have to rebound," Saunders said. "It's not our guards that are getting beat on the glass, it's our bigs. We had five possessions in the first half where we got hands on balls, 50-50 balls, and we came up with one of them. Those are the ones you've got to get. Our bigs played very lethargic tonight."
The other problem with Hinrich playing the three, is that it leaves the Wizards short on the second unit. If Saunders starts the three guards alongside JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche, then Yi Jianlian, Al Thornton and Nick Young will head up the second unit. Hinrich actually played 22 minutes in the first half so he could direct things for the reserves. He's not the kind of player you're going to want to play 45 minutes per night. While Yi, Thornton and Young can provide plenty of scoring punch, it's also a unit with a high probability of dissolving into its component parts, which is exactly why it needs Hinrich.
"It's been interesting," Hinrich said of the three-guard experiment." The way we play, we play a lot of zone, we get up and down the floor. It's not that big a difference. I was a little bit shocked when he said that's the way we're going to start."
It is indeed an interesting experiment. Against the Bulls, the potential pitfalls of the alignment were all in display, while few of the virtues manifested themselves. That isn't always going to be the case. What you did see is that Hinrich is perhaps the key player on a Wizards team that is full of players either learning their first full-time rotation roles, or adapting to new ones. Saunders has referred to Hinrich as the team's "glue" time and again, and on that one night, it was apparent why that was the case.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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