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.
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.
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.