Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has a good problem on his hands entering his first year as the skipper in Chicago. The Bulls are loaded with big men, even if they’re currently thin at the guard and wing spots. Hoiberg has a multitude of lineups to play with in the group of rotation bigs including Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic, and even rookie sensation Bobby Portis. Assuming none of those players are traded or injured before the start of the season, Hoiberg has a tough decision to make: Who should be the starting frontcourt to begin this season?
Luckily for Hoiberg, Thibodeau experimented quite a bit with frontcourt rotations last season out of necessity. The numbers from those big man pairings paint a picture of who should be starting for the Bulls this season:
**Statistics courtesy of NBA.com**
**Rating statistics are points per 100 possessions**
Mirotic, who led the Bulls with a 6.1 net rating last season, played well in every big man pairing last season. All three of his pairings led the Bulls in net rating among the team’s contingent of big men, including when he shared the frontcourt with Noah and Gibson (both outscoring opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions).
The Montenegrin’s ability to stretch the floor while playing competent defense makes him capable of fitting in any lineup. Mirotic can take on a more prominent role offensively when he plays next to Noah or Gibson, and he can also play off of Gasol when he dominates the ball. The other Bulls big man pairings didn’t fair so well.
Gasol and Noah, who shared a whopping 1,258 minutes together last season, have shown little cohesiveness with each other. Both players thrive as playmakers on the elbows, making their fit together less than ideal. Noah’s injuries played a factor in his inability to fit next to Gasol, but even during this preseason the two have proved they don’t mesh well. Hoiberg needs to be less stubborn than Thibodeau and stagger the minutes between Gasol and Noah.
Another encouraging big man pairing last season was Gasol and Gibson. Although their defensive rating of 102.6 was poor, the two had the best offensive rating of any Bulls frontcourt at 106.1. However, starting this frontcourt is less than ideal with Gibson shaking off the rust from his offseason ankle surgery. One lineup that Hoiberg can not even consider starting is anything including Noah and Gibson.
The two shared the worst offensive rating AND defensive rating of any big man combo last season, adding up a pitiful net rating of minus-7.4. To put those numbers in perspective, when Noah and Gibson shared the court last season, the Bulls had the offensive output of the Knicks (97.1 offensive rating) and a defense as ineffective as the Raptors (104.8). Yuck. The combo thrived with each other over more minutes during the 2013-14 season, but the offensive ineptitude of Noah and Gibson makes them a nightmare pairing.
Although Noah is looking like a shell of himself so far this preseason, Hoiberg’s best bet might be starting the former Defensive Player of the Year alongside Mirotic. The two had the best net rating of any Bulls big man combo and stylistically make sense together. Noah can man the paint and take the tougher defensive assignments while Mirotic spot ups and creates space offensively. Noah’s still outstanding playmaking skills would work well alongside Mirotic.
Gasol and Gibson, who played well with each other last season, could come off the bench and overwhelm other team’s second units. Convincing a perennial All-Star to come off the bench would be a tall task for a rookie head coach, but Gasol is as level-headed as any player in the league.
Of course, that leaves Portis, who’s averaging 12.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game in the preseason, out of the frontcourt rotation to start the season. Portis has looked like a steal in the Summer League and preseason, but he’s still a raw prospect. Hoiberg would be better off letting the veterans eat up the rotation minutes to begin the season while Portis gains some valuable reps in practice. A spot in the rotation will be made available for the rookie at some point this season if he keeps up this kind of production.
There are so many ways Hoiberg can go with his starting frontcourt, but every scenario needs to include one constant: Nikola Mirotic. If not, Hoiberg may soon suffer the same fate as his predecessor.