There are a lot of reasons for optimism based on what we’ve seen from the Chicago Bulls through two games. Of course, the season is young and the Bulls have only played a banged-up, mess of a Cleveland Cavaliers squad and an awful Brooklyn Nets team, but it doesn’t change the fact that Fred Hoiberg’s group has improved to 2-0 with a pair of quality victories.
Not that we need to continue to discuss the Bulls’ former coach, Tom Thibodeau, but there have been a few noticeable differences in how Hoiberg has handled the team beyond just being an offense-first coach.
The first and most important difference that we’ve seen so far has been that Kirk Hinrich has played a grand total of five minutes in two games. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit facetious about this. But this is kind of a summation of what has impressed me most about Hoiberg. We all watched Hinrich be the worst player on the court the last two seasons (especially last year), and Thibodeau kept running him out there. E’Twaun Moore, on the other hand, has played 15.5 minutes per game through the first two.
Having the more talented players on the court while keeping the less talented players on the bench seems like common sense, but it’s more layered than that. The coaching change allowed Joakim Noah’s transition to the bench — and subsequent scaling back of his minutes — to happen without a ton of fanfare. It was a move that was necessary, but I feel like this would’ve been a bigger story had it happened with Thibs at the helm.
Noah, meanwhile, has grabbed 7.5 rebounds and dished out three assists per game in his new bench role, playing just 17.5 minutes a game. That’s quite a bit less than his career average of 29.8 minutes per game and the 30.6 minutes a game he dragged his shredded knees through last season. Noah may not be much more than an “energy guy” who grabs rebounds and can handle the ball fairly well for a center, but those guys are a bonus to have off the bench in the playoffs if they’re healthy.
Jimmy Butler, the Bulls’ young star many had worried would be burnt out by the heavy minutes load of the last two seasons, played 37 minutes in the Bulls’ opening night win over the Cavs. But Hoiberg made it clear that he was basically following the substitution patterns of the Cavaliers to keep Butler on LeBron James. JB played just 34 minutes in Brooklyn, and that’s probably a more comfortable number for Butler and the Bulls.
The starting lineup, in general, is a bit different than last year. Obviously with Noah on the bench, that means somebody has to take his spot. Nikola Mirotic playing with Pau Gasol makes for some hilariously bad defense, but there are natural positives to having two big men who can shoot it from the outside. It draws shot blockers away from the rim and allows Butler and Derrick Rose to drive to the basket uninhibited.
It also gives us more of this:
New favorite thing: Mirotic sizing up some chump-ass big man and drilling a three in his face https://t.co/VOcR4tHhZM
— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) October 29, 2015
The other change to the starting lineup is Tony Snell in for the injured Mike Dunleavy. Snell played 29 minutes against the Cavs and just 22 against the Nets, scoring 11 and 10 points on nine and seven shot attempts, respectively. He’s a much better defensive player than Doug McDermott, who’s come off the bench and played considerably less minutes thus far.
Snell looks like he works well with this starting unit, and that’s consistent with his run as a starter last season. In a stretch of 21 games from early February to late March, he started 13 games and averaged 32.9 minutes and 11.4 points on 45.5 percent shooting overall and 44.7 percent from three-point range. He’s far more athletic than Dunleavy and is, at this point, possibly as good a shooter. I’m not totally convinced the starting spot wouldn’t have been taken by Snell whether Dunleavy was healthy or not.
The last big thing I noticed about how Hoiberg has handled the team is the way he managed the starters in the second half of the game in Brooklyn. The Bulls held a big lead after a monster third quarter, and a lineup of Moore, Noah, McDermott, Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks played a huge part of the fourth quarter.
When Derrick Rose reentered the game with six-and-a-half minutes left, he’d only played 23 minutes. Pau Gasol came back at the same time and had only played 24 minutes. It’s obviously just one game, but the takeaway here is something that Bulls fans aren’t used to seeing — when the Bulls have a big lead, finding time to rest the starters and not burn them out against a bad team that was trailing by double digits is important.
It hasn’t been perfect and two games is certainly a small sample, but there are reasons to be optimistic about the Bulls. The new-look offense has been a work in progress, but is clearly an improvement. If they can play even just a little bit of defense, a team with the kind of offensive weapons the Bulls have could be a real challenger to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong between now and the playoffs, but at least Bulls fans might not have to worry about bad players playing big minutes or Hoiberg running his players into the ground.