The Lineup Laboratory: Let’s Make Space

We know who is going to be playing for the Bulls. A flurry of moves this offseason resulted in one point guard being shipped out and another high profile one being signed on. The Bulls followed up the Rondo signing with the (second) most surprising move of the summer by luring Dwyane Wade from the Heat on a two year deal.

In a vacuum, both of these signings are very justifiable. After the Rose trade, the Bulls were able to get a proven veteran coming off a very good season on what is basically a one year deal. Compared to some of the supersized contracts that were handed out the first week in July, Rondo is almost a bargain, and fills a clear positional need.

Wade, coming off his healthiest season in years, absolutely has gas left in the tank. The Bulls are more than a wing short of being able to contend with the Warriors and Cavaliers of the league, and adding Wade, despite the high cost, bolsters what is generally a shallow position across all 30 teams. While Wade has never figured out how to shoot threes, his herky-jerky “dad at Lifetime wearing a knee brace” game figures to age well.

These would be great signings if basketball was baseball. Baseball is a game of one on one battles, and the team that has more talent in their lineup tends to win. In basketball, simply acquiring talent is not enough. In basketball, a player’s ability to succeed is impacted as much by who he shares the court with as how good skilled he may be as a shooter or driver. Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler would make a killer 3-4-5 in a batting order. But as a 1-2-3 on the basketball court, these undeniably talented players add up to less than the sum of their parts.

The projected Bulls starting lineup – Rondo, Wade, Butler, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez – features just one above average three point shooter. The streaky Montenegrin is going to need to improve his consistency from beyond the arc if the Bulls starting group hopes to have any space to operate on offense.

The severe shooting deficit in the Bulls backcourt will ultimately limit one of the few strengths of this roster. Between Mirotic, Lopez, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio, the Bulls have a very deep PF/C rotation. Unfortunately, it will be spacing suicide anytime two of these players share the floor and one is not Niko. To cover up the flaws of the roster’s architecture, Chicago is going to need to get creative and find a way to squeeze 48 minutes of outside shooting from the power forward spot.

Already we are hearing about Fred Hoiberg‘s plan to have Doug McDermott play power forward. The 6’8″ McDermott is far too weak a rebounder to hold up at the position for long stretches. But against some of the other stretch fours in the league, McDermott may be able to provide valuable spacing on offense while avoiding his biggest weakness: perimeter defense.

I expect the Bulls will also use Jimmy Butler at the 4 at times during the season. Butler is strong enough to hold up in the post against most big men (including LeBron James). Butler has the quickness to torture other power forwards on the perimeter, and his less than great three point shooting upgrades to average when he’s considered a four. Lineups with Wade, Tony Snell and Butler will give the Bulls the flexibility to switch often on defense, the strategy used by the Thunder and Heat to stop the Warriors in the playoffs.

I imagine Taj Gibson, who has played 89% of his career minutes at power forward, will see most of his playing time come as the backup center. A Taj and Lopez pairing, which should be superb on defense, is just not going to result in a functioning offense with the spacing issues across the roster.

The real losers in this roster shakeup are Portis and Felicio, two players who desperately need on court experience to improve their feel for the NBA game. There are just not going to be enough minutes for these guys on a consistent basis. Both players showed they are not afraid to take a perimeter jumper last season, but until defenses start respecting Portis and Felicio outside the paint, their presence will only further clog the dirty drain that is the Bulls offense.

We still have a long time between now and the start of the regular season and the Bulls may not be done tinkering with the roster. Just a few hours ago it was announced the Bulls signed Isaiah Canaan, who instantly becomes the best shooter in the Bulls backcourt and will provide value off the bench and off the ball. The team could also shake things up by trading Taj Gibson, making $9 million in the last year of his contract, for a three point marksman. Should the Bulls stand pat with this group, Fred Hoiberg is going to have to get very creative with his rotations.

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