Bulls

Mirotic starts, Noah sits in Bulls' preseason win over Pacers

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Mirotic starts, Noah sits in Bulls' preseason win over Pacers

With the regular season seven days away, it appears Fred Hoiberg is beginning to give a glimpse into the decisions he’ll make before the Bulls host Cleveland for the NBA’s season opener.

He started playing his starters heavier minutes against the Indiana Pacers and strategically made substitutions that displayed who he likes on the floor together—like Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic on the frontline—which put veteran center Joakim Noah on the bench.

Whether its more tinkering or his true feelings—or even out of respect for what Noah has meant to this franchise since being drafted in 2007—there certainly appears to be the possibility of a paradigm shift at the position.

Noah played 15 minutes, some due to foul trouble and also because Hoiberg didn’t play the duo together, subbing each other in every quarter in the Bulls’ 103-94 win at the United Center Tuesday night.

“I may keep them together. I thought Noah played great tonight,” Hoiberg said. “I was thinking either Jo or Niko to finish things off. Since Niko didn’t get the minutes last night, we wanted him in there for the last five.”

Hoiberg bemoaned the lack of pace offensively in their loss to the Charlotte Hornets 24 hours prior, so while the players provided the quick pace, Hoiberg’s frontcourt of Gasol and Nikola Mirotic gave the Bulls enough space to operate.

[NBA GM SURVEY: Bulls squarely behind Cavs in the East]

Mirotic hit four triples, including three in the first quarter when he played off Gasol and Jimmy Butler for easy looks, illustrating the new dimension of this offense.

The first was off a double-team from Gasol where he fed the post, leaving defenses to wonder to leave Gasol alone for single coverage or double down as a perfect pick-your-poison option.

The next was off a baseline drive from Butler where he drew multiple defenders and Mirotic just floated to an open spot where Butler could spot him.

Mirotic didn’t play the crunch-time defensive minutes as Hoiberg, as Taj Gibson played those minutes after seeing plenty of time off the bench playing with Noah, playing past his target minute mark of 15 for the second straight night.

“I thought they played very well together,” said Hoiberg of Gibson and Noah together. “I thought Jo gave him some high-low passes. That’s the good thing about this roster, we have the versatility to play a lot of different ways. Hopefully we find the rotation or at least the five to help us finish games.”

The Bulls’ defense improved in the second quarter, holding the Pacers to 11 points and looking quite reminiscent of a different era, while both sets of bigs were on the floor due to deft substitutions which gave them plenty of time in each quarter.

Holding the Pacers, a team that wants to get out to early offense just the same as the Bulls, to under 40 percent shooting is no minor feat.

They had to survive the Paul George early onslaught, where the All-Star who’s a little over a year away from a gruesome injury in Las Vegas decided to show up in regular season form.

He scored 15 of his game-high 26 in the first quarter while grabbing 13 rebounds in 35 minutes, outplaying his counterpart Butler.

[RELATED: Hoiberg likes McDermott coming off bench for Bulls]

Butler scored 12 with six assists and five rebounds while the bench guards, Aaron Brooks and E’Twaun Moore, two players who want to stay in the rotation when Derrick Rose makes his return, made his own case.

“I thought they were better after that first stretch where we dug ourselves a hole,” said Hoiberg of the bench. “Our bench really got it turned around for us and got us going.”

Brooks hit four 3-pointers on his way to 22 points, six assists and five rebounds while Moore hit 5 of 7 from the field for 13 points and seven rebounds. He guarded George for a stretch in the fourth and did more than held his own.

But whether its experimenting or a sign of things to come, another layer of this Bulls season was revealed, with more questions yet to be answered.

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

The Bulls ‘rebuild’ seems to be just a one-year experiment after the team signed Chicago native Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40-million dollar deal on Saturday. Although on first look Parker’s contract would seem to restrict what they can do in free agency next summer, the reality is that the 2nd year team option gives the Bulls plenty of flexibility with—or without- Parker next year.  

If the Bulls pick up the option on Parker, they will still be able to sign a max free agent next July if they make the right moves between now and July 1, 2019.

The NBA projects the 2019-20 cap will rise to $109 million, up from $101.9 million for the upcoming season. The league bases a ‘max’ salary on years of service. A 10-year vet like Kevin Durant is eligible for more ($38.2 million) than his teammate Klay Thompson ($32.7 million), an 8-year vet. If the Bulls keep Parker, they’ll enter free agency with approximately $15.4 million next summer—far short of the cap space needed for a player like Durant or Thompson, but that number is misleading. The $15.4 million also includes cap holds (salary slots assigned to a player based on several factors including previous year’s salary). The cap hold is designed to prevent teams from completely circumventing the soft cap model the league uses. The cap holds for Bobby Portis ($7.5 million) and Cameron Payne ($9.8 million) are just theoretical if the Bulls don’t sign either to a contract extension before the October 31, 2018 deadline. 

Let’s say the Bulls are in line to sign a star free agent like Thompson; all they would need to do is rescind any qualifying offer to Payne or Portis, and then renounce them as free agents. This would effectively take the cap holds off the Bulls’ cap sheet and give them approximately $32.7 million in cap space. Coincidently (or perhaps it’s no coincidence), that’s the exact salary a 7-9 year free agent like Thompson would command.

In order to create enough space for Durant and his increased ‘max’ slot, they would need to waive and stretch a player like Cristiano Felicio or incentivize a trade involving a player by attaching another asset in the deal, like a future 1st round pick.

If the Bulls decline the team option on Parker, then they will enter free agency with anywhere between $35 million and $53 million. 

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

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USA TODAY

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

"We felt we needed to start getting younger and more athletic..."

It was 2016 when Bulls general manager Gar Forman made this statement, drawing ire from many Bulls fans for what felt like—at the time—a disingenuous statement. A swap of Derrick Rose for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant making you younger and athletic? No one was buying it.

But fast forward to July, 2018, and it is clear that at the very least, Forman has finally made good on his promise. The signing of Jabari Parker has been met with mostly positivity, as a short-term commitment to a former No. 2 overall pick is something that is difficult to hate. But when you factor in the rest of the pieces currently on the roster, it is OK for Bulls fans to be downright giddy over the future.

Lauri Markkanen is 21 years old, Wendell Carter Jr. is 19, Zach LaVine is 23, Jabari Parker is 23 and Kris Dunn is the elder statesmen of the group at 24 years old. If these five become the starting group moving forward, as expected, it would represent one of the youngest starting groups in the league with an average age of 22. 

And athleticism can be checked off the list as well. We know Markkanen has hopsLaVine showed off the explosiveness he was known for last season and Dunn had some dunks last year that legitimately gave fans a Rose flashback

Markkanen and Carter Jr. have both flashed the ability to switch onto guards for a limited amount of time and guard in space, a huge component of any defense that wants to switch a lot. And it also is the type of athleticism that is much more important at their position.

At this stage, Parker represents the biggest question mark athletically speaking. Despite his young age, the two ACL injuries make you wonder if there is any room for him to improve his agility. But at the least, Parker can drive to the basket and finish over the top with authority, even if his defense doesn't catch up.

So, Bulls fans are starting to become intrigued with this roster.

Fred Hoiberg wants his teams to play an up-tempo game, and last season was the first year during Hoiberg's Bulls tenure where the team actually ranked in the top 10 in pace. So if you have followed the Bulls carefully since Thibodeau's departure, you see a front-office that supports their new head coach, yet wasted a couple years to commit fully to his vision, and to a direction for the franchise.

But the point is Forman finally chose a direction.

The Bulls have a young core, and financial flexibility moving forward. And for all the jokes the "GarPax" regime have endured over the years, they have put the team in a position to have sustained success if they hit on all the young players they have acquired. 

And if they are wrong in their assessment of their young talent? 

The Bulls would be able to let Parker go, now that we know the second year of his contract is a team option. LaVine's offensive skill set will allow him to still have trade value years from now, as his contract won't look nearly as bad over time. 

And if the Bulls flurry of moves make the team significantly worse in a year where many expect them to take a step forward, all it would mean is being equipped with a high lottery pick in what is shaping up to be a top-heavy 2019 NBA Draft.

So Gar Forman wanted the team to get younger and more athletic, and though it took longer than it should've, the front-office made good on their promise. That is something that Bulls fans can believe in.