Bulls

Bulls: Frontcourt minutes could be Hoiberg's biggest challenge

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Bulls: Frontcourt minutes could be Hoiberg's biggest challenge

Now that Taj Gibson has made his preseason debut, first year Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg is faced with one of his early challenges. How exactly do you divide 96 minutes at the center and power forward positions between Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and top draft pick Bobby Portis? And which two players should start?

Minutes were readily available early in the preseason with Gasol, Gibson and Noah all sitting out games. But when the ball goes up for real on Oct. 27 against Cleveland, Hoiberg should have his full complement of frontcourt players. Moving Mirotic to the small forward spot doesn’t sound like a realistic option right now, with Hoiberg candidly saying he didn’t like the way his jumbo lineup performed in Wednesday’s game against Detroit - with Mirotic at small forward. Quite simply, Mirotic doesn’t have the lateral quickness to defend most of the small forwards in the NBA.

So, how will Hoiberg handle his frontcourt rotation? The first decision involves which players will start. Gasol and Noah haven’t spent much time together during the preseason, but given the career accomplishments and considerable egos involved, my guess is that tandem will be in the starting lineup on Opening Night. Noah says he’s feeling a lot healthier after a long summer of rehab work and is anxious to prove he can return to the form that made him the NBA’s Defensive Player of the year in 2014.

But with all the depth in the frontcourt, Noah shouldn’t expect to average more than 28-30 minutes per game.

[RELATED: Derrick Rose returns to practice, optimistic about opener]

Gasol is coming off another impressive summer with Spain’s national team, and the guess is Hoiberg will try to reduce his minutes to the 30-32 range to keep him fresh for the postseason.

The real challenge will come with handling playing time for the three reserves. As Gibson told me in the interview above, his ankle is still a little stiff after offseason surgery and it might take a while for him to get back to 100 percent. Gibson said the procedure was necessary after a series of ankle sprains and is confident the surgery will benefit him in the long run. Ideally, Gibson would be a good fit with Gasol in the starting lineup, but his ongoing rehab probably means a reduction in playing time early in the season.

Mirotic proved last season that he can be a valuable scorer off the bench, averaging 20 points per game in March on his way to a First Team All-Rookie selection. Hoiberg used Mirotic as his starting power forward early in the preseason and hoped to get him some minutes at the small forward spot. But after watching Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson drive past Mirotic (and other Bulls players), I get the sense Mirotic's playing time will mostly come at power forward.

Portis is the ultimate wild card. He’s putting up big numbers in the preseason, but a lot of that production is coming against guys who won’t even be in the league when the regular season begins. Portis, 20, has a world of potential. He’s a 6-foot-11 athlete with good shooting range and a high motor. My guess is Hoiberg will try to get Portis some minutes early in the season while Gibson continues to get stronger, but the rookie will have to make an impact on the defensive end to stay in the rotation.

So, let’s do the math. We’ll give Gasol 30 minutes, Noah 26 minutes, Gibson 16 minutes, Mirotic 16 minutes and Portis 8 minutes to start the season. If Mirotic can play some small forward on occasion that would free up a few additional minutes for Gibson and Portis. And, you can expect the numbers to change throughout the season based on health, matchups and effectiveness.

[MORE: Butler calling for better defense, including his own]

There’s been some speculation about the Bulls using some of their frontcourt depth in a deal for another wing player, especially with so much uncertainty about when Mike Dunleavy will be able to return from back surgery.

The reality is, however, Noah will become a free agent next summer and Gasol holds a player option for the 2016-17 season. It’s entirely possible neither player will be on the Bulls’ roster when training camp begins next September.

At this point Hoiberg should just enjoy his wealth of options at the center and power forward spots.

As Bulls fans have learned over the years, injuries have a way of changing the best laid plans during a long NBA season.

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

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AP

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

The Bulls made headlines on Tuesday when VP John Paxson announced that David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne would be entering the rotation, thus continuing the youth movement in Chicago.

On the surface the moves make sense. The 24-year-old Nwaba, the 25-year-old Felicio and the 23-year-old Cameron Payne will be replacing 28-year-old Justin Holiday, 29-year-old Robin Lopez and 25-year-old Jerian Grant. The Bulls want to see what they have in these younger players who haven't played much; they already know what they have in Lopez and Holiday, and Grant (like the other two) is under contract through next year.

OK, got that? Here's why they're making the move: they're sitting 8th in the NBA Lottery standings and really want to move into the top-5 to give themselves a chance at what should be a loaded front-end of the draft class. It's pretty obvious, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either named Gar Forman, John Paxson or Fred Hoiberg.

And here's why: On Wednesday Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined a whopping $600,000 by the NBA for comments he made on a podcast regarding tanking. The Mavericks are currently 18-40, the third worst record in the NBA. This comes a season after they finished 33-49, netting them the No. 9 pick that turned into talented point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

So when Cuban was asked about the best interests of his Dallas team, which touts young talent but clearly isn't headed for the postseason in 2018, he said this on the House Call with Dr. J Podcast:

"I'm probably not supposed to say this, but, like, I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night, and here we are, you know, we weren't competing for the playoffs. I was like, 'Look, losing is our best option. [Commissioner] Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that, but I at least sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we're not going to tank again. This was, like, a year-and-a-half tanking, and that was too brutal for me. But being transparent, I think that's the key to being kind of a players owner and having stability."

Cuban isn't wrong, and the Mavericks sure as hell aren't the only team tanking. But to come right now and admit that losing is the team's best option wasn't, as Cuban predicted, going to sit well with the league office.

Commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo with the fine that said Cuban's comments "which concerned his perspective on the team's competitive success this season" were "detrimental to the NBA."

So while the Bulls are going about their business in trying to lose as many games down the stretch as possible, don't expect anyone to admit it's the reason behind their personnel moves. There are 600,000 reasons why.

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

NBA general managers were fully expecting to see Miles Bridges declare for the 2017 draft after a solid, but unspectacular freshman season at Michigan State. Bridges arrived in East Lansing as one of the nation’s top prospects, and his impressive leaping ability led to a number of highlight reel plays for Tom Izzo’s Spartans.

Problem is, Bridges didn’t show much versatility to his offensive game because of an inconsistent outside shot and inability to create shots off the dribble. Bridges probably would have been a late lottery pick last year on athletic talent alone, but to his credit, he decided to go back to Michigan State for his sophomore season and work on some of his weaknesses.

Unfortunately for Bridges, he really hasn’t shown much improvement year to year. Yes, he’s leading the Big Ten in free throw shooting at 89%, but his other numbers are basically flat from season to season. Bridges averaged 16.9 points a year ago, 17.1 this season. He shot .486 from the field in 2016-17, .477 this year. Even with all the work he put in on his 3 point shooting, his percentage has dropped slightly this season, from .389 to .376. Rebounding is also down slightly, from 8.3 to 6.8. 

Bottom line, Bridges is once again projected as a late lottery pick.

How does he fit for the Bulls? It’s no secret small forward and center are the two positions of need heading into the 2018 draft, and the 6-7 Bridges would give the Bulls another athletic frontcourt player who fits the pace and space game Fred Hoiberg prefers. Bridges could be a real weapon running the floor with Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine for alley-oop dunks, and he should continue to improve as a 3 point shooter.

The Bulls are hoping to land a top 5 pick to add one of the elite players in this draft, and unless the Pelicans drop into the late lottery, Bridges will probably be gone by the time that selection comes up. He’s probably a bit of a reach in the 6 to 10 range, but if positional need and athletic potential are the most important factors for the Bulls, Miles Bridges could be the choice if they don’t improve their position in the current lottery watch standings.

Personally, I would prefer either Kentucky’s Kevin Knox or Villanova’s Mikal Bridges (no relation) over Miles Bridges as a small forward prospect, but all 3 players offer different skill sets that could be helpful to a young, developing team like the Bulls.

The dream scenario would be drafting a young center like Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mo Bamba with a top 5 pick, then coming back to add one of those 3 small forward prospects with the 1st rounder they acquired in the Niko Mirotic trade with New Orleans. We’ll all have to wait until the lottery is held on May 15th to see if the Bulls are in position to add two more foundation pieces to their rebuilding project.