It started off as a rumor that Joakim Noah might be getting moved to the bench to make way for Nikola Mirotic to start alongside Pau Gasol. And now that it’s working to being semi-official with Noah making comments on it, it’s worth taking a look at the numbers to determine the reasoning behind the move.
Noah is on board with it, telling Sam Smith of Bulls.com:
“I’m down with whatever coach says is best for the team,” said Noah. “I’m a worker, never going to stop working. I’m excited for this team. We have a lot of talent and we just got to keep grinding and keep getting better. I’ve always been about the team and it’s not going to change now. I played well with Taj (Gibson) in the past. It’s not about me or Taj. It’s about what we can do to make this team better. It’s definitely an adjustment but at the end of the day it’s basketball. I’ve got to go out there and bring energy and do what I do.”
Using the Play Index+ at Basketball-Reference.com, I viewed all 386 lineups the Bulls used last season in the regular season or the playoffs. Here’s the big picture. Click here for an interactive look in a separate window:
The basic idea of the chart is top left is good; bottom right is bad. The further up a lineup is, the more points they scored. The further to the right they are, the more they gave up.
The color indicates net rating. Red means they got outscored; green means they did the outscoring.
The size of the dots indicates the number of possessions they were on the court. (At this point it bears mentioning that Basketball-Reference uses a slightly different formula to calculate possessions than NBA.com, so if the numbers seem “off,” that’s why.
If you view the dots in the interactive chart, by hovering your mouse over the dots on the top left, you’ll notice a trend: Mirotic’s name is in most of them. So, the notion of starting Mirotic is certainly justified, but why him over Noah, and not Gasol?
To get a bead on that, I trimmed down the lineup-look to the big-man pairings, where they included two of the four bigs (including Taj Gibson) and only two of the four bigs, thereby eliminating lineups where Mirotic played the 3 (or the one weird one where Gibson did).
This is what the Bulls looked like with each of the big-men tandems on the court:
Now, what’s not surprising here is that Mirotic was part of the Bulls’ best offensive tandem. When he and Noah were the bigs, the Bulls posted an offensive rating of 113.89, which I’m sure Bulls fans could get used to. But that would seem to suggest that Gasol coming off the bench would be ideal, wouldn’t it?
What may be somewhat surprising is that Mirotic was also part of the best defensive tandem along with Taj Gibson. Those two yielded a rating of just 99.413. The next-best was Noah and Gasol’s 102.753. However, the Gibson-Mirotic supremacy may be due in part to the fact they were typically coming off the bench together.
But what’s most surprising is the absolute disaster that Noah and Gibson were as a pairing, posting the worst offensive rating and the worst defensive rating. But between the two of them they had two good legs, and they have a history of being great together that precedes last year.
Gasol and Mirotic were middle-ground in both areas. So, if you’re looking for a balanced tandem, that’s the way to go. This also diminishes the notion that the pairing of Spanish nationals would soften the defense, as that duo gave up two points fewer per 100 possessions than the Mirotic/Noah combo.
Finally, the caveat to viewing last year’s lineups is that it shows how they played “Thibs Ball,” as Tom Thibodeau was their head coach still. How they play together in Hoiball could be entirely different.
Two of the things which Hoiberg has emphasized are pace and threes. Let’s look at how the tandems performed in each of those two areas:
As you can see, the only pairing that played with pace while fostering a large number of threes was the Gasol and Mirotic one. While all of the Noah combos had a high number of attempts from deep fired up as a result of his elite passing ability, he tended to slow down the pace, which is a bit surprising.
There are a few possible explanations for that. Noah’s their best offensive rebounder, so it’s possible he’s “slowing things down” things by resetting the shot clock. But he was also hampered by a knee all season, and he was actually slower than his normal, bouncy self last year.
Even considering that, though, with Mirotic and Gasol, the Bulls were effective on both ends of the court and the most in sync with what Hoiberg wants to do in the offense. Furthermore, the same lineup that starts doesn’t have to finish games. If something is working better, Hoiberg seems to be flexible enough to roll with it.
A Noah move to the bench might not be what we anticipated, but there’s sufficient reason to give it a chance.