Mix and Match

chicagotribune.com
chicagotribune.com

I was certainly disappointed when the Bulls missed out on Carmelo Anthony, offseason priority number one. Adding one of the three best scorers in the league is always something you want your team to do, especially when your team is as offensively challenged as last years Bulls squad was.

Thankfully, the Bulls’ front office did not sit around feeling sorry for themselves when Melo resigned in New York. They still had a big chunk of cap space to spend and rather than cash in on one mega superstar, they made a handful of moves that transformed what was already a strength of this team into an absolute powerhouse.

Harken back to 2012, when Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and an interested Carlos Boozer composed the front court rotation, striking constant fear into the hearts of soft big men everywhere. The Bulls had so much big man talent they were closing out games with the backups on the court and everyone was totally cool with it. But after that fateful season, cut short by Derrick Rose’s ACL injury in the first round, the Bulls let Asik leave in free agency. Shortly thereafter, Carlos Boozer became the bane of my existence and a truly frightening foursome of big men had been cut in half.

This summer, Bulls fans finally awoke from the Carlos Boozer nightmare to a reloaded group of tall gentlemen who, while perhaps not the defensive stalwarts who patrolled the paint in 2012, will give the Bulls a plethora of options that will cause coaches to lose sleep. With the amnesty of Carlos Boozer becoming official, the Bulls signed Pau Gasol to a three year, $22 million deal and European sensation Nikola Mirotic for 3 years and $18 million. If you don’t know much about Mirotic, I wrote about him last year. For those of you who don’t feel like clicking on that link but still are curious as to who this dude is, Mirotic is a 6’10” 22 year old who shot 46% from three point range for Real Madrid in the Spanish League, Europe’s most competitive pro circuit.

Gasol, age 34, is certainly not the offensive wizard of yesteryear who played second banana on two championship teams in Los Angeles. But he definitely has a lot left in the tank, possessing a sweet shooting stroke and incredible passing ability, skills that tend to age quite well. Injuries robbed Gasol of big chunks of the past two seasons (foot injuries in fact, injuries that are quite frightening for a man of that size) but they did not rob him of his offensive skills. Gasol put up per 36 and pace adjusted numbers that fell right in line with his career averages, sporting a 19.3 PER to boot. Hopefully the Bulls will rely on Gasol far less than the recent Lakers teams have, saving his feet for a deep playoff push.

The Bulls were already incredibly strong at center and power forward before these exciting moves, with the tandem of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson proving to be one of the toughest to score on in the league. Noah and Taj shared the floor for 1257 minutes this past season, allowing only 97.2 points per 100 possessions. Opposing offenses shot a laughable 41.2% against Taj and Jo, defensive field goal percentage that would have led the league by a wide margin.

While Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol are incredibly talented players, neither is exactly well known for their defense. It would be fairly surprising to see these two on the floor together much this year.

What will be interesting to see for the 2014-15 season is how Tom Thibodeau mixes and matches his big man rotations. While Coach Thibs is likely to play things close to the vest, I feel that I am qualified to at least make an educated guess at what fans should expect.

The Bulls starting lineup on opening night will probably be Rose-Butler-Dunleavy-Gasol-Noah (we can debate Dunleavy vs. McDermott but that’s a conversation for another day). While Taj is probably more impactful to a game at this point of his career than Gasol, I expect Thibodeau to keep Taj slotted in the 6th man spot, acting as the Jamal Crawford of defense.

Bench units headed by Gibson and Mirotic will provide the necessary rim protection to stymie opposing teams’ second units while giving the Bulls some much needed spacing offensively. Any combination of McBuckets, Dunleavy and Mirotic will have defenses thinking twice about packing the paint.

Noah, Gibson and Gasol, the three high profile guys, are unlikely to ever share the floor together. While all three are competent mid range shooters, none of them provide the amount of outside shooting necessary to unclog the paint on offense. But swap in Mirotic for Gasol, and that’s a trio that could prove to be lethal. With Mirotic’s ability to play out on the wing and Taj’s ability to stay with small forwards off the dribble, this could be a lineup I spend embarrassing amounts of time oogling over on stats.nba.com.

If you’ve been watching Bulls games the last couple of years, you’ll know that it does not matter who starts the game, but rather who finishes it. Carlos Boozer spent most fourth quarters banished to the bench as Taj Gibson cemented his role as the closer at power forward. I expect Thibs to lean heavily on these two to finish games again this season, leaving our pricey free agent pickup out of the home stretch, at least to begin the season.

But don’t be surprised if Thibodeau begins to switch things up as the season progresses depending on the situation. As the new additions become more comfortable in the Bulls’ system, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Pau finishing games where the Bulls trailed by a small margin. And in contests where the Bulls need a big comeback perhaps Pau and Mirotic will get some run together.

However the lineup combinations shake out, just be thankful that we have the personnel to make this debate worthwhile.

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