Depth is considered a beneficial thing for any NBA team. The last two NBA champions, the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and the Golden State Warriors this past season, were successful in large part due to their deep and talented bench lineups. The Chicago Bulls are one of the deepest teams in the league, and have been for the last few years. While this does help them, it leads to an interesting question: who will be their starters?
The starting point guard and wing positions are basically set for the Bulls. Derrick Rose will start at the point whenever he’s healthy. Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy Jr., who both re-signed with the team this summer, are also projected starters. It gets trickier when it comes to the two big man positions. The Bulls are loaded up front, with Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic all good enough to start on many teams across the league. Noah finished fourth in MVP voting and won Defensive Player of the Year in the 2013-14 season, Gasol was an All Star starter last season, and both Gibson and Mirotic have shown great flashes of how good they are while coming off the bench. Rookie power forward Bobby Portis could be a rotation player on another team, but he might not even see the floor in most games. Out of the aforementioned players, Gasol and Noah were the starters last season, when healthy. Gasol started all 78 games that he played in, while Noah started all 67 of his games. However, with old head coach Tom Thibodeau out of the picture, replaced by Fred Hoiberg, many people anticipate changes to the old starting lineup.
Thibodeau was a very defensive-minded coach, while Hoiberg seems focused on adding more creativity into the Bulls offense. To do that, Hoiberg would obviously want the Bulls best offensive lineups on the floor. Mirotic is a stretch four, which is a key to many of the NBA’s best current offenses, and Gasol is the most skilled of the Bulls big men, so it would make sense to start those two for offensive purposes. However, this could really harm the Bulls defense, as it would leave Chicago with no rim protector in the starting lineup and no one equipped to box out great offensive rebounders such as Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan – even if teams don’t have a great back-to-the-basket threat to score inside.
The Bulls could just continue to start the Gasol-Noah pairing. Although Noah can’t post up, he’s still a very good passer, screener, and offensive rebounder. These skills are vital to a team’s offense, opening up the guards on the perimeter and off the dribble. The problem is that Noah has been banged up with several injuries during the past couple seasons, and Chicago would like him to be fully healthy for the playoffs. The Bulls may reduce Noah’s minutes, and furthermore, Noah wouldn’t be as effective if he’s not healthy. If Noah came off the bench, he could play against inferior bench big men instead of the difficult matchups he typically faces, and Noah could provide the Bulls a spark of his usual energy when he comes into the game.
With Noah coming off the bench, the Bulls would still have options in terms of who to start. They could try going with a relatively small combination of Mirotic and Gibson. This would definitely give them a good balance on offense, as Mirotic would provide Chicago with floor spacing coupled with a good pick-and-roll player and post presence in Gibson. However, these two together without Noah or Gasol would struggle trying to guard the starting big men on other Eastern Conference playoff teams such as the Cavaliers. Even if Gibson and Mirotic could handle guarding two strong frontcourt players such as Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love, they would still get destroyed by Cleveland’s offensive rebounding. The same applies to other quality teams in the East such as the Wizards, Hawks, and Heat, and several in the West as well.
All of these points lead me to believe that Gasol and Gibson would be the best two big men to start in Chicago this season. Despite the fact that the Bulls wouldn’t be starting a stretch four or a “natural” centre, they would still be utilizing their most balanced and best lineup on both ends of the floor. Gasol played centre for the Lakers during long stretches when Andrew Bynum was injured, and his length would help him handle opposing centres. Gibson would provide help for Gasol and the two could switch matchups when necessary. Even without a stretch four, the Bulls would have plenty of spacing – Gasol and Gibson have each proven to have a reliable midrange jump shot over the years. Gasol even made a few corner threes last season, which he could further improve upon as he ages. Chicago would be starting two big men who are both excellent in the pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, and back-to-the-basket game. This would prevent teams from going small against the Bulls, and give them a sure-fire way to make teams pay if they ever do play small lineups. The Bulls could start one of their most versatile and dangerous offensive lineups without compromising their defense.
No matter what Fred Hoiberg decides to do with his starters, he can’t be too wrong. He’ll probably experiment and try different lineups in the preseason, just to see what works. After all, what happens on the court is much more important than conclusions that are made on paper. Since the Bulls are full of good front court options, they’re all sure to play plenty of minutes, no matter who starts the game. If Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson play the majority of those minutes together, especially in crucial moments, it will help the Bulls succeed and thrive more than any other big man combination could. The most important thing isn’t always who starts, but who finishes.
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