Bulls: Frontcourt minutes could be Hoiberg's biggest challenge


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.

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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.

NBA Power Rankings: League on pace for best offensive season in decades


NBA Power Rankings: League on pace for best offensive season in decades

The NBA season is off to an explosive start, with offense being the theme so far.

NBA fans have gotten to see great offense from all around the league. Rookie guard Trae Young went off for 35 points, the Pelicans scored 149 points in a (no overtime) game and even well-known downtrodden franchises like the Sacramento Kings have got in on the fun, putting up 131 points in a surprising win over the Thunder. 

If the pace of play keeps up league-wide, the 2018-19 season will end up being an offensive masterpiece, sure to spark change to defensive systems in the ever-evolving NBA.

With the Golden State Warriors still shaking off rust and the Rockets looking weaker, (relatively) new powerhouses like the Raptors and Nuggets have dominated this very early portion of the NBA season.

You can take a look here to see how the new hierarchy is shaping up in this week's NBA Power Rankings. 

Shaquille Harrison could improve the efficiency of Bulls bottom five defense

Shaquille Harrison could improve the efficiency of Bulls bottom five defense

The Phoenix Suns released guard Shaquille Harrison last week, and although it is not a move that will send shockwaves through the league, the Bulls picking up Harrison could be the exact type of move to help solve what ails them.

At 6-foot, 4-inches and with a long wingspan, Harrison would step in and likely be at least the second-best perimeter defender on the team behind Kris Dunn. And he is the type of player, when combined with a talent like Wendell Carter Jr. and/or Dunn, could help form the type of lineup that could have a transformative effect on the overall team defense.

Last season Harrison had a defensive rating of 109, this despite the fact that the Sun—as a team—had a defensive rating of 113.51, over four points worse than when Harrison was on the floor.

His best skill is his ability to “get skinny” around a screener, meaning that on defense, Harrison is adept at angling his body to get around players trying to screen him off his man:

The Bulls need more players who show Harrison’s effort level when navigating screens on defense, not just because it will make life easier on their rim protectors, but because they also need to make sure they continue adding players who lead by example on that end of the floor. A team as young as the Bulls needs to collect young talent who pride themselves on defense, and Harrison fits the part.

When it comes to offense, Harrison doesn’t have the most impressive profile, but his play on that end of the floor is similar to former Bull David Nwaba. Harrison is not even an average 3-point shooter  (23.1 percent from 3-point range), but he makes up for it in other ways.

His rebounding is an area of strength, and fitting in with his preference to bring physicality to his matchup, he is adept at getting to the free throw line.

Last year Harrison’s 30.6 percent free throw attempt rate would’ve been a top-five mark on the Bulls. But his low usage rate (18 percent) will likely be lower in Chicago, so the free throw numbers may fall. But with so many score-first players on the roster, Harrison will still be able to crash the glass against the many guards who forget to box out their man.

Offensive rebounding will be less of a focus for a Bulls team that wants to preach getting back on transition defense, but Harrison gives Fred Hoiberg a special player that can do both. Harrison will run back on defense to help create the “shell” that the best teams create to cut off easy forays to the rim, and then when his team gets the ball back and is on the fastbreak, he brings value as the “trailer” (trailing man on a fastbreak) even without shooting ability:

This signing could end up being a big one for the Bulls, however small it may seem now.

Around the league, more and more teams are starting to invest resources in multiple ball-handler offenses that negate the differences between point guard and shooting guard, making versatile back court defenders a must.

This will be evident when the Bulls take on the Dallas Mavericks in game No. 3 of the regular season, as Rick Carlisle's Mavericks feature Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic in an explosive offense that doesn't have a defined "lead" guard.

The Bulls will continue to attempt to curtail offense with a high-scoring back court duo when they take on the Charlotte Hornets in a back-to-back on October 26 and 27. If Harrison is worked into the rotation by then, expect to see Harrison and Dunn on the floor together to match up with Doncic and Smith respectively, but have the flexibility to switch defensive assignments on the fly. If Chicago's perimeter defense starts to offer significantly more resistance, it will allow quicker improvement from Carter and the rest of the Bulls bigs on the interior.

With Zach LaVine currently in the top-five in the NBA in points per game, Dunn returning and Lauri Markkanen getting healthy, the Bulls front office is slowly approaching the point where their team has enough players who are considered possible focal points of an offense.

To become a championship contender, you need to have that one player who is unequivocally a superstar capable of a heavy workload, and only time will tell if the Bulls already have that player or need to acquire him. But the other important factor in building a championship roster is having the elite-level role players who do the little things that make life easier for their teammates in all phases of the game, and Shaq Harrison is excellent prospect who fits that exact mold.