CHICAGO — Say what you will about Ben Wallace's tenure with the Bulls, but the four-time All-Star has won an NBA championship and knows a little something about the pro game.
That's why his reaction to Kirk Hinrich possibly missing three months after he has surgery on his right thumb Tuesday is telling.
"Three months? Man, that's a big loss for them," Wallace said late Saturday after his Cavaliers had whipped the Bulls. "Kirk is a floor general and a leader. He can knock down shots, defend. Other guys are going to have to step up."
Bulls fans have panned Hinrich for everything from inconsistent shooting to dribbling too much, but players know Hinrich consistently brings intensity, leadership and defense. His lengthy absence makes this season all about Derrick Rose even more.
Hinrich represented general manager John Paxson's one true bargaining chip in a trade — not that Paxson had shopped the sixth-year guard. In fact, because of Ben Gordon's contract uncertainty, Paxson had gone out of his way to stress that he valued keeping Hinrich so the Bulls wouldn't be two guards down should Gordon walk as an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Yet if a deal presented itself this season, Hinrich would have been in it because of his value leaguewide. Now, with Hinrich projected to be out until shortly before the Feb. 19 trade deadline, Rose and company are the Bulls' backcourt, for better or worse.
Coach Vinny Del Negro started Rose with Gordon for the first time Saturday night, a move Del Negro said was possible because of the Cavaliers' small backcourt.
It's likely Larry Hughes will start as soon as he's fully recovered from the dislocated right shoulder he suffered Oct. 21. Del Negro seemed to be leaning that way anyway by starting Hughes and Rose in the final two exhibition games. Del Negro then showed how he valued placing size alongside Rose by starting Thabo Sefolosha and bringing Hinrich off the bench when Hughes got hurt.
But Del Negro shouldn't forget about the Rose-Gordon pairing. And, to his credit, it doesn't sound as if he will. In fact, Del Negro defended Gordon's questionable shot selection.
"Ben will force some things, but we need him to score," Del Negro said. "You're going to get that when you're a scorer. He's also able to make a lot of difficult shots. That's his game. I don't want to hinder him or say not to take them. I want him to make decisions out there and watch film and try to get better.
"He's been productive. I know what his role is. He knows what his role is. We need him to go out there consistently and do that."
The Bulls appear to be a middle-of-the-pack defensive team anyway, so they need to value what Gordon can do, which is score.
Gordon will drive you crazy sometimes. He also will make shots no one other than Rose can make and so far is the team's leading scorer—for the fourth straight season—despite starting just one game.
So play more zone defense. Front the post when Gordon and Rose are in. Just make sure they're in together plenty.
"Ben can play with anybody because he can score," Del Negro said. "With Derrick's ability to create, obviously we're a small backcourt, but teams have to match up with us. I've seen Ben play enough to know he brings an element we can use."
Gordon said he talked to Rose after Saturday's loss about better understanding each other's tendencies and learning to play off each other.
"We have to jell quickly," Gordon said.
The season suddenly depends on it.