First it was the point guards and wings, and now I finish up my three-part Bulls' roster preview with a look at the bigs. It might be the strongest part of the Bulls' roster, but it also comes loaded with quite a few questions. Let's get to it.
Preseason stats: 23.6 MPG, 5.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 3.9 APG, 0.7 BPG, 43.8 FG%
We've already talked quite a bit about Noah this preseason. He was limited minutes-wise due to his probably not-so-minor offseason knee surgery, and he didn't really look like himself at times. There are some concerns his knee issues will linger throughout the season, and the Bulls will try and keep his minutes reasonable, at least to start:
Thibodeau indicated Rose and Noah will play similar minutes to end of preseason (both approx. 32 minutes vs. Timberwolves).— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) October 28, 2014
In terms of actual on-court stuff, the combination of Noah and Pau Gasol is a work in progress. Both players are natural 5's, and that has created some awkwardness on both ends of the floor. Both Noah and Gasol are superb passers, but there have been some issues with spacing as the two work to gain chemistry with each other.
On the other end of the floor, Noah has been primarily guarding 4's...which I'm not all that crazy about. When the Noah/Gasol duo is facing a more "traditional" big-man pair, it's not that big an issue. But Noah was chasing a lot of stretch 4's around in preseason, and he was burned badly by Thaddeus Young and others on multiple occasions.
Noah's strength is anchoring the defense from the back line, and it seems a waste to have him running around guarding shooters. This also doesn't seem ideal given his lower-body injuries. The guy already does plenty of moving around on the court in terms of miles, and this just adds to the work load.
The Bulls need Noah at his best if they want to win a title. I'm a fan of their approach so far when it comes to minutes management, and hopefully the strategy continues throughout the season.
Preseason stats: 27.5 MPG, 10.8 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, 3.0 BPG, 40.3 FG%
When the Bulls missed out on Carmelo Anthony, they immediately turned their attention to Gasol. Chicago got the veteran big man at a nice price, beating out several other contenders for his services. But was it the right move?
It's FAR too early to make any conclusions about Gasol, but the preseason wasn't all that promising. I've already highlighted how the Noah/Gasol pairing is a bit awkward, and independent of that, Gasol looked old and bad for chunks at a time. Not only did he barely shoot over 40 percent, but he also turned it over three times per game, including seven in the final preseason game.
Defensively, Gasol used his length to his advantage, averaging 2.4 blocks. However, he was also torched by Anderson Varejao and Anthony Bennett, and there will be major questions about how he'll handle pick-and-roll defense against really good point guards.
Gasol was brought in to be the starter, but the bigger question many have had is who will close games. Noah and Taj Gibson were the mainstays in the closing lineup last year, and Tom Thibodeau even called Gibson the team's best fourth-quarter player last season.
Gasol has expressed the desire to be one of the primary closers, and he got first crack at it during the preseason. However, Thibs used situational subs on several occasions with Gibson, and Gasol was benched during the collapse against the Wolves after a particularly ugly stretch. Based on this quote from Gasol, the fourth-quarter bigs rotation will indeed be situational, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
"(Thibodeau) more or less told us that he's going to try and get a feel for the game," Gasol said. "We have three really good interior players he feels comfortable can finish. He said he's going to put the guys out there he feels more confident and comfortable to win that particular game. We have to trust his abilities and judgment and work hard to deserve to be out there."
This really should be the way to go, although I think Gibson should be the "primary" closer because I feel he's just better. But considering Gasol's comments and the fact that he was the Bulls' "big" free-agent signing, I'm not sure that'll be the case.
I still have faith in Gasol to be better moving forward, but there are some warning signs that should be noted. Hopefully this isn't Carlos Boozer 2.0.
Preseason stats: 26.4 MPG, 11.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.1 BPG, 47.8 FG%
I wouldn't blame Gibson one bit if he was a bit peeved about the Bulls bringing in Gasol to take the starting position that seemed earmarked for him. Gibson was the Bulls' best player in the playoffs and was consistently really good last season, and he gets rewarded by playing behind somebody he might be better than. Sound familiar?
Of course, Gibson is still in line to play plenty of minutes, so he doesn't have too much to complain about. And even if he was miffed, it certainly didn't show on the court. The big man delivered his typically consistent play in the preseason, ranking third on the team in scoring and rebounding.
There were a few negatives. One was a penchant to get tunnel vision when getting the ball in the post, which caused him to miss some open shooters. Another is a somewhat questionable fit with Nikola Mirotic. Just like Noah and Gasol are more natural 5's, Gibson and Mirotic are more natural 4's. Gibson can play some center, but he struggles in certain matchups against bigger players. There are also some rebounding concerns with that pairing, something that wasn't the case when Omer Asik was around.
Preseason stats: 16.6 MPG, 6.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.6 APG, 1.5 SPG, 36.4 FG%, 35.0 3P%
Mirotic is clearly a super-skilled prospect with a high ceiling. He didn't shoot great from deep, but he made a respectable 35.0 percent from long range. He showed an ability to take people off the dribble, and he was surprisingly competent on defense. He was active and physical on that end, leading to a good amount of steals and blocks.
But there's still a lot of work to do. Mirotic passed up too many good looks from deep, instead opting to use a litany of pump-fakes. While those pump-fakes were often effective, I'd rather see him let it fly on most occasions. I already mentioned the rebounding issues, and he'll have to add some strength to get better in that area and on defense in general.
Mirotic played just eight minutes in the final preseason game, and it wouldn't be all that surprising if he struggled to find minutes early on. With Noah, Gasol and Gibson in place, there just aren't many other minutes to give.
However, I really hope Mirotic can find a niche in the rotation. The Bulls spent a good chunk of money to bring him over this year, and it would be a shame to waste his skill set on the bench. Derrick Rose has never really played with a legitimate stretch 4, and those two could do some serious damage together.
I've seen multiple people on Twitter say they like the idea of Noah/Mirotic, Gasol/Gibson frontcourt pairings. I can't see this happening on a regular basis this season, but it's an intriguing proposition.
Cameron Bairstow and Nazr Mohammed
Preseason stats: Negligible
If these two are counted upon to play significant meaningful minutes, it's not a good thing. The end.