The Lineup Laboratory

Tom Thibodeau’s greatest strength as a coach ultimately wound up as the source of his undoing in Chicago. Thibs firmly held belief that repetition, attention to detail, and trusting that your efforts will propell you to victory worked marvelously in his first few seasons. A young roster that lacked an identity was the perfect match for the stern Thibodeau. But as the team matured and expectations grew, Thibodeau was reluctant to deviate from his routines and processes. His starting lineup was always set in stone (health permitting) and you could set your watch by his substitutions. Thibodeau’s commitment to consistency was perfect for bringing a young Bulls team to the precipice of contention. But as the team matured, the Bulls needed creativity and the ability to adapt on the fly to get over the championship hump.

Thankfully, a new era arrives in Chicago in 2015. Fred Hoiberg gained notoriety  at his alma mater Iowa State for running a fast offense that was never shy about swinging the ball around the court and attempting threes. Hoiberg’s willingness to run a pro-style offense at the college level hints at his overall ability to adopt whichever strategy will give his team the best chance to win.

Much has been said about how the Bulls offensive style will evolve in 2016. They will work to play quickly and get into their sets early in the shot clock. They will run many creative plays to create easy scoring opportunities. But what I really hope to see from Hoiberg and the 2015-16 Bulls is a willingness to experiment with different lineups over the course of the season. Thibodeau’s relentless devotion to continuity led to the Bulls trotting out the same lineups night in and night out, staying the course regardless of results. I would be shocked to see Hoiberg repeat that mistake.

One of the most compelling events of the Warriors Finals victory was not a single moment in a game or a performance from an individual. Rather, it was the suggestion of 28 year old assistant Nick U’Ren to insert Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup in place of Andrew Bogut that will, for me, be the defining memory of the 2015 NBA Finals. Coach Steve Kerr, who had shown a willingness to mix and match several different small lineups during the regular season, rode that crazy suggestion all the way to the championship. Much has been said about the incredibly talented team in Golden State, but had their coaching staff not been flexible and open to thought-provoking ideas, it just as easily could have been LeBron James hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy last June.

There have already been some early indications that Hoiberg is going to change up the lineups. Sam Smith wrote that it is unlikely Noah and Gasol will both start next season, news that has Bulls fans very excited. Blessed with four incredibly talented big men, Tom Thibodeau insisted on trotting out two centers for long stretches of games. The Noah-Gasol pairing forced Joakim to chase forwards away from the paint and turned Gasol into a turnstile for guards on the way to the hoop. Seeing Hoiberg come out early and say he plans on breaking up the most used big man pair from last season is reason to rejoice.

As long as we’re on the verge of shaking things up, I would like to submit an unorthodox five man unit for consideration: Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell, Mike Dunleavy, Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah. News of the Dunleavy injury will put this crazy idea on hold for at least the first month of the season, but when the team is at full strength I believe this a group that can swing the outcome of games.

The glaring omission in this idea is the lack of point guard. I’d really love to see this pretty novel proposition get a chance for a handful of reasons. First and foremost, I believe Jimmy Butler is capable of running the offense for brief stretches.

Butler was fantastic last year running the pick and roll, especially at creating contact on drives to the hoop that drew free throws and three point opportunities. In an interview with Sam Smith, Butler describes himself as a point guard and detailed the skills he has been working on this summer to support his claim. Butler is certainly going to have opportunities to hone his point guard skills in games, even when he’s playing with Rose or Brooks. Hoiberg’s offense will rely on multiple pick and rolls on single possessions, meaning multiple players will need to be able to assume point guard duties.

The other reason I left any traditional point guard out of my lineup is that there will be, at times, no good options behind Rose. Let’s have a look at the cupboard. Aaron Brooks is due for some (gnarly) regression, and we all saw what happens to Brooks when teams really dial up the intensity against him. He was basically unplayable in the postseason, getting shut down on offense and abused on defense. Kirk Hinrich is not good at anything (past getting dressed in the morning). E’Twan Moore simply doesn’t have the skills needed to run an offense. I would be shocked if Jordan Crawford made the team. In the minutes that Rose is on the bench (and lets hope it’s around 15-18 a night), it doesn’t make sense to roll with inferior players just because they fit the traditional lineup archetype.

And it’s not like Butler will be the only man on the floor comfortable running the offense.  Joakim Noah has averaged four or more assists a game in each of the last three seasons, and is one of the best passing centers to play the game. Joakim struggled mightily scoring the basketball last season, but he was still an excellent facilitator from the elbow.

What this lineup lacks in ball handling, it more than makes up for with shooting. Dunleavy (40.7%) Butler (37.8%) and Snell (37.1%) are all above average three point shooters. Niko only connected on 31% of his nearly four three point attempts a game, but as a stretch power forward, his impact is not only felt by his three point makes. Teams respect Mirotic as a shooter and cover him at the three point arc, resulting in the middle of the floor being wide open for his teammates to drive. Having just one non-shooting threat in Joakim Noah is not enough the cramp the team’s spacing, especially considering the passing skills Jo brings to the table.

There will be times this unit struggles to score, surely. Butler may struggle to create against opposing teams’ best on-ball defenders. There will be nights where the shots just don’t fall and the offense looks flustered. But on the defensive end, this group will bring a level of intensity and versatility to absolutely shut down opposing benches.

It all starts with 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah being able to stay in front of dribblers when forced to switch on a pick and roll. Having players capable of guarding multiple positions in crucial when defending modern NBA offenses. Teams like the Warriors and Bucks have really embraced the chaos of switching and make position versatility a top priority when constructing the roster and deciding which players share the court. Just take a look at the massive contracts Draymond Green and Khris Middleton earned this summer. Having a true center in Joakim Noah who is able to cover guards in a pinch is a luxury few teams enjoy.

In front of Noah, this theoretical lineup is full of versatile players capable of putting up a fight against multiple positions. Jimmy Butler is a phenomenal defender who possesses the speed to stick with guards and the strength to battle LeBron James in the post.  The 6’7″ Tony Snell can defend point guards and shooters on the wing. His slender frame can cause him to die on screens, but the 23 year old Snell will hopefully continue to grow into his body and become a more complete defender.

Mike Dunleavy doesn’t look like a lock down defender, but he’s shown a willingness to use his body and do the, uh, dirty work to benefit the team’s defense. Dunleavy is a very underrated defensive rebounder and and uses his long arms to bother shooters.

Nikola Mirotic is probably the weakest defender of this group. His miscues on the defensive end are what kept him from playing big minutes under Thibodeau last season. Mirotic was often guilty of mental mistakes, unforgivable blunders under the perfectionist former boss. While he was prone to screwing up pick and roll coverages, the effort was never lacking with the rookie. Grasping the complexities of  NBA defense is difficult for all young players, and I expect Mirotic will learn from his mistakes faster with more opportunity to play.

I’m not saying this should be the starting lineup, or the group that finishes close games. Obviously, this team is at its best when Derrick has the offense humming. But for the stretches of time the oft injured MVP is not on the court, this unconventional lineup could provide some serious quality minutes. Last year’s Warriors were great because their bench was able to turn an early lead into a halftime blowout. The Bulls believe they have the talent to compete for a championship in 2016. And now they have the creative minds on the bench to match.

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