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Sorting Out the Chicago Bulls’ Frontcourt Logjam

Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports

In an era that increasingly favors point guards, shooting guards and little guys in general, the Chicago Bulls may well represent the counterculture.

A quick scan of the Bulls’ roster or depth chart inevitably leads to this observation: They’re huge. Rotoworld lists five power forwards and two centers. And that’s with Doug McDermott, arguably a 4, slated at the 3.

The big men are as follows: Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol (last season’s starters), Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson (last season’s primary backups), and a slew of unprovens, including McDermott, Cameron Bairstow and rookies Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis.

For those counting at home, that’s eight players potentially battling for the minutes of two positions. And as each position gets 48 minutes per game, that gives us 96 to disperse among the eight.

Now let’s be real, a few of the aforementioned Bulls have a long way to go before they’ll see any court time. But we can assume that Noah, Gasol, Mirotic, Gibson and McDermott will all be vying for rotation minutes from the opening of training camp. The first four in that group could all argue for starter’s minutes.

So how will incoming and first-year NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg handle the rotation? Does he go big like Tom Thibodeau did last season? Or does he embrace the sweeping trend of stretch- or playmaking-4s?

To get an idea of what Hoiberg should do, let’s examine how different frontcourt pairings performed last season.

First off, each of the top three in terms of individual minutes played (Gasol, Noah and Gibson) all fared best when sharing the floor with Mirotic, who spaced the floor better than any other big. He only shot 31.6 percent from three-point range, but the mere threat forced opposing defenses to stay honest at the three-point line. That allowed for more operating room around the rim for everyone else on the floor.

On the other hand, the combo that had the least shooting (Gibson and Noah) was well below league average offensively. Just as Mirotic spaces the floor, Gibson and Noah can make things very crowded in the lane. The Bulls got away with that when either Gibson or Noah was paired with Gasol, who at least commands attention out to 15-20 feet.

Finally, including McDermott in the table may not be fair, given that he played the 3 last season and doesn’t have a very big sample size in any pairing. But the fact remains, Chicago’s defense cratered when he was on the floor. Moving him to the 4, where he doesn’t have to chase wings around the floor, and pairing him with a rim protector could help.

The problem with that is, again, there’s only 96 minutes between those two spots. And it’s hard to justify playing McDermott over any other members of the frontcourt. Logistically, though, his skills make sense for a stretch- or playmaking-4. Chicago’s most effective frontcourts comprised of such a 4 (in last season’s case, Mirotic) and a more traditional big (Noah, Gibson or Gasol). With McDermott and Mirotic, the Bulls have the personnel to deploy such a combo both in the starting and second units.

That basically leaves one position to be shared among Gasol, Noah and Gibson, all of whom deserve more than 15-20 minutes per game. And none of this has taken Portis, who could potentially function in either of those roles, into consideration.

The logical solutions are either to thoroughly reduce someone’s role and minutes, or explore the trade market. Given their youth and Hoiberg potentially shifting the team to a more modern offensive scheme, McDermott and Mirotic probably won’t be made available. Noah has more or less been the face of the Bulls since Derrick Rose tore his ACL. And Gasol is a veteran who was just signed to a reasonable contract last summer.

That brings us to Gibson, who certainly isn’t the worst player in this group; he just doesn’t fit all that well. Plus, he should still have value on the trade market as a versatile interior defender for a team in need of a boost on that end of the floor.

Now, it’s certainly easier to not make a trade than it is to make one in the NBA. So assuming this entire core is together for the foreseeable future, here’s what a Bulls frontcourt rotation which embraces modern offense could look like.

McDermott could see a few more total minutes by spending some time at the 3, but as you can see, keeping all five could severely limit the playing time of everyone.

Trading Gibson for future assets or a player who isn’t down low could yield a rotation like this.

Trade or not, Hoiberg has his work cut out for him this season. And while some say that too much talent is a great problem to have, it can still be a problem.

Chemistry is a necessary ingredient for success, and adequate playing time for everyone inside will foster that chemistry. In a perfect world, devoid of egos, five (or maybe even six) players splitting 96 minutes sounds great. Everyone would be more fresh and there would be a lot of combinations available.

But the world isn’t perfect, and players want to play.

Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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