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.

[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.

B/R names Zach LaVine as one of the NBA’s most overhyped players ahead of the 2018-19 season

B/R names Zach LaVine as one of the NBA’s most overhyped players ahead of the 2018-19 season

Bleacher Report named Zach LaVine as one of the NBA’s most overhyped players ahead of the 2018-19 season. The list included five players whose expectations have exceeded what author Grant Hughes, felt is realistic for this upcoming season. It is not entirely shocking for LaVine to make this list, and his defense was the main reason he was included. But the potential for his offensive output to get even better was somewhat overlooked. 

Per Hughes:

In 2016-17, he ranked 441st out of 468 players in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus metric. Last year, he was 490th out of 521. According to Basketball Reference, he's never posted a defensive box plus-minus in positive territory. He topped out at minus-2.0 in his abbreviated 2017-18 season.....It's hard to justify rotation minutes for a player like that, let alone $78 million.

Hughes’ critique is harsh, but based off of statistics that are hard to argue with. LaVine has indeed been one of the worst defenders in the league for the entirety of his NBA career, and his netting of the $78 million falls hand-in-hand with Jabari Parker’s comments on players not being paid to play defense. But for the Bulls to take the leap from lottery-to-playoff contender, at least a league-average D will have to be cobbled together. But that responsibility will not fall solely on his shoulders, and that is why I am skeptical on the idea of LaVine being “overhyped”. 

The post goes on to elaborate that even if LaVine was to recapture the magic of his solid 2016-17 season, he still would be a player who gives up more points on defense than he gets his team on offense. That is a strong possibility, but with the addition of Wendell Carter Jr. as another rim protector, capable of at least providing a hard hedge (if not an outright switch), there is a possibility that LaVine becomes a more aggressive defender out on the perimeter. But that is unlikely, and a much more realistic outcome is LaVine’s offensive value surpassing what is expected.

LaVine’s strength last season was his ability to get to the free throw line. Despite coming off a major ACL injury, he was able to get 4.5 free throw attempts per game, a mark that would’ve had him sandwiched between players like Kyrie Irving and Victor Oladipo had he qualified (LaVine only played in 24 games). It was the highest free throw attempt rate of his career, and assuming he expands on that in a year where he should be completely healthy, he will be one of the best in the league at getting to the line. 

His efficiency will be helped by players like Parker and Lauri Markkanen, who will draw attention off of him. LaVine’s 3-point percentage last season was 34 percent, a number that was more of a reflection of that fact that he was still working his way back into game shape. That 3-point percentage will soon trend more towards the 38 percent mark he shot the previous two seasons. And his 3-point attempts were also down, another mark that is sure to trend upwards, especially with Parker’s inclusion as a scorer who does most of his half-court work in the mid-post area. 

The way the 2018-19 Bulls are built, there is little behind Kris Dunn in the way of a reliable backup point guard, though there is belief internally that Cam Payne can develop into that player. But there is a strong possibility that LaVine will be used as a backup point guard to free up minutes for one of Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine or Chandler Hutchison. And in his rookie year, playing point guard, LaVine had an assist rate of 24 percent, but also an incredibly high turnover percentage. Since making the full-time switch to shooting guard, he has not posted a turnover rate above 10 percent. So, if he can adjust to the fact that there are other players capable of scoring 20 points on the floor—like he did in Minnesota—it is entirely possible for LaVine to be a player capable of getting you 20 points and five assists per game while scoring efficiently and avoiding turnovers. Even if his defense continues to be dreadful, a player who can keep the offense running well from either guard spot is definitely valuable in today’s league. 

In his last season with Minnesota, LaVine had a usage rate of 21.7 percent, a number much lower than his extremely high 29.5 usage rate last season with the Bulls. And while many think of LaVine as a high-volume shooter, his usage rate last year was likely a result of him forcing the issue to try to prove he was worth a significant investment. With his shiny, new contract in tow, LaVine should be focused on making the team better, and get one step closer to his Timberwolves self. On that squad, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins each scored 20+ points per game, while LaVine was averaging 18.9 points per game. And the team finished in the top 10 in the NBA in offensive rating.

It is not crazy to think the Bulls could have their own high-scoring trio in LaVine, Markkanen and Parker. And if that is the case, then the expectation is for LaVine to be a efficient scorer who can occasionally spot the open man. Hyped? Yes. But overhyped? No one is banking on him being an All-Star, though it remains in the realm of possibility. The idea that he is overhyped is based on the fact his new contract is $78 million and he is poor at defense, but this is overlooking the fact that LaVine has proven he is a player capable of having a large role on a top-10 offense. September 30 can’t get here fast enough.  

Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short


Fun with tall people: Lauri Markkanen takes photo with Yao Ming and looks short

Lauri Markkanen doesn't often feel short.

The Bulls forward is 7-feet tall, which even in the land of NBA giants makes him one of the tallest players on the court at all times. So when Markkanen stands next to Yao Ming, it changes perspective quite a bit.

Markkanen posted a photo with him and the 7-foot-6 Chinese Hall of Famer. Markkanen looks like a child.

Makes you wonder if Markkanen pulled some "What's the weather like up there?" jokes just because he otherwise never can.