Bulls

Bulls: Joakim Noah wants another shot at pairing with Pau Gasol

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Bulls: Joakim Noah wants another shot at pairing with Pau Gasol

When the Bulls made their expected coaching change, one of the on-court changes many expected was to break up the tandem of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol in the frontcourt.

In fact, when Fred Hoiberg had his availability on Media Day, the new Bulls coach anticipated it would be among the first three questions. The notion stemmed around Noah limping around last season and to a lesser extent, Gasol advancing in age. With Gasol being an All-Star player, the speculation was growing louder that Noah should come off the bench to balance out the floor.

But Noah feels Hoiberg should hold off on making a decision based off the tape from last year. The film doesn’t lie that the duo looked uneven last season, despite the gaudy record posted by the starting five for the few games they played together (16-5).

“I think we should give it an honest evaluation while I’m healthy,” Noah said. “Last year, I wasn’t healthy. Let’s see how it goes and then coaches can make a decision from there.”

In some respects, Noah was kept on the floor due to loyalty and a level of comfort from Tom Thibodeau, even as his left knee affected virtually every aspect of his game, including his confidence.

[MORE: Derrick Rose will resume basketball activity in two weeks following surgery]

The numbers fell across the board, which have been well-documented. And he wasn’t able to cover Gasol’s back defensively, contributing to his 102-point defensive rating, his highest in the Thibodeau era by far.

So Gasol, who underwent nasal surgery in June to alleviate breathing issues, is keeping an open mind to the pairing, although he knows he’ll see considerable time with Nikola Mirotic as a way to maximize the Bulls’ offensive prowess.

“That's got to be the coaching staff's decision, obviously, not ours,” Gasol said. “I think each player will do the best he can to be on the floor as long as possible and have significant minutes. It's good to see Jo healthy and moving well.”

Everything should be prefaced with saying it’s the first days of camp so bodies don’t have the wear-and-tear on it that will be around in February, but Noah won’t be limited by minute restrictions or the mental fears that he can’t do it physically.

“He looks fresh,” Gasol said. “He looks like he's in really good shape, has worked hard during the summer. Now he does feel and look bouncier. It's great to see him that way. From what I've seen so far, yes. The day and a half I've seen him, he looks really good.”

[RELATED - Bulls excited for Noah: 'Joakim looks like Joakim']

Moving well means lateral movement being the biggest improvement for Noah, allowing him to cover ground quicker baseline to baseline and on high screen-rolls, should the Bulls decide to trap up high in an aggressive setting.

“I just feel bouncier, just lighter on my feet,” Noah said. “Just waking up in the morning and moving good, that’s a good feeling. Doing a lot of yoga every morning before I come in. Just taking care of myself a little different. This isn’t my first rodeo.”

Of course Noah has been through it before, and Gasol is a veteran of many training camps, so one wonders how much Hoiberg can experiment with the two playing together in the preseason, especially when the plan is to limit Gasol’s usage to under the 34.4 minutes he played per game last season, his highest mark since the 2011-12 season when he was a much younger man.

“Well, we'll see how the season goes,” Gasol said. “Ideally, I'll play less than I did last year and that's kind of the plan, I guess. But we'll see what happens. I've just got to be ready. Seasons are long, are tough, are demanding and as a professional, you have to stay ready. It's not going to be ideal all the time. It's never ideal. You just have to work through it and do the best you can.”

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

In a five-game span Wendell Carter Jr. saw preseason action against Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Myles Turner. The 19-year-old rookie had his share of expected ups and downs but performed well enough that Fred Hoiberg officially announced him a starter for the team’s season opener tomorrow night.

His reward for all that hard work? A matchup against All-Pro center Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’ll be an eye-opening experience for the Duke product, who just a year ago was readying himself for his first season of college basketball and a season-opening matchup against Elon. It’s safe to assume Embiid will pose a few more problems than did Phoenix center Tyler Seibring.

“Joel Embiid was one of my role models growing up,” Embiid said before practice Wednesday. “He was someone I always wanted to pattern my game after. Just to go up against him is a remarkable feeling. He’s a very physical player. He’s a very talented player. I’m going to be able to stack up and see what all I need to work on to last in this league.”

While it’s no easy task against a talent like Embiid, who was named All-NBA Second Team last season, Carter’s most important job will be staying out of foul trouble. Carter piggy-backed an impressive Summer League with a preseason that included averages of 7.0 points and 5.6 rebounds in 21.1 minutes. But those numbers also included 7.7 fouls per 48 minutes. He racked up 17 fouls in five games, and had at least three in each.

Embiid only went to the line five times in Tuesday’s season-opening loss to the Celtics, but that was primarily against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Al Horford. Embiid won’t face as much resistance against Carter, putting the pressure on the rookie to stay on the floor.

“He’s going to have to navigate that without using his hands,” Fred Hoiberg said. “We have to be all five aware. It’s just not a one-man problem with Embiid. We have to have great awareness of him and try and mix up coverages and hopefully make him take tough shots, knowing that he’s going to hit some of those. You just can’t get deflated when he does.’’

The decision was a mere formality – Bobby Portis will start at power forward – after the frontcourt combination played considerably better in the Bulls’ final two preseason games. Though Jabari Parker was initially slotted in at power forward following Lauri Markkanen’s elbow sprain, Portis’ impressive preseason forced Hoiberg’s hand. Portis averaged 17.0 points and 5.8 rebounds and shot 55 percent from the field in just 22.4 minutes.

“It’s all about combinations out there and we felt like Bobby gave us a great start with the way he was playing,” Hoiberg said. “And then we kind of changed things up with that second unit and put the ball in Jabari’s hands, so it was more that in trying to get guys out there with the right combinations.”

Lopez may have an expanded role if Carter gets into foul trouble early, while Parker will be the facilitator on a second unit that doesn’t have much in the way of a point guard. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the frontcourt will play out once Markkanen returns in roughly a month; if Portis and Carter continue playing well, Hoiberg could opt to keep them together on the second unit and put Lopez back in the starting lineup.

But for at least Opening Night – the Bulls also get Andre Drummond and the Pistons on Saturday – it’ll be the seventh overall pick getting his NBA feet wet with a matchup against arguably the best center in basketball. But’s it a role he’s earned, and on a Bulls defense looking for any sort of improvement, Carter is the player who can anchor it.

“His defense is always going to be important for us. He’s the guy that’s the anchor in that starting unit at the rim,” Hoiberg said, “and he’s done a really solid job of making perimeter guys taking contested shots when he gets switched off, or staying vertical at the rim and trying to make a big finish over the top of him, so yeah, again it’s a great challenge, great opportunity for Wendell.”

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski sits down with Kendall Gill and Will Perdue to discuss all the need-to-know topics to get you ready for the season opener. The guys analyze how Lauri’s injury will make its mark on the early season rotation, whether Jabari will return to the starting unit or embrace the 6th-man role and why Portis betting on himself is the right move. Plus, Kendall has the key to unlock a “6th Man of the Year” award for Portis this season.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: