There was some concern heading into the season about the pairing of Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Both players are natural centers, so there were questions about spacing on offense and how the matchups would work on defense.
We're nearly halfway through the year, and those questions still exist and then some. The conversation is really taking off after an atrocious 121-114 loss to the Magic at the United Center, another in a long line of poor showings at home against bad opponents.
Orlando has one of the worst offenses in the league and were without Tobias Harris and Evan Fournier, but it didn't matter, as they shot nearly 60 percent from the field. Nikola Vucevic destroyed (literally) Gasol, and while Channing Frye shot only 2-of-10, the threat of Frye's outside shooting forced Noah to respect him and created space for others.
As poorly as the Bulls played, they had a chance late in the game thanks to a fourth-quarter charge led by Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic. But Tom Thibodeau opted to go with Gasol and Noah down the stretch, and they couldn't buy a stop. To be fair, Mirotic had some defensive miscues as well before he hit the bench, but I still found it baffling that Thibs went back to BOTH starting big men late in the game.
I'll admit that Thibs has a tough job juggling a loaded frontcourt rotation. (Especially if the short-lived three-big lineup is dead.) Having four (okay, it might be three right now, but more on that in a bit) quality bigs with different skill sets means there has to be some sacrifice, and starting the year with Gasol and Noah in the starting lineup was fine. Gasol came to Chicago with the expectation to start, while Noah was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Yeah, the fit was awkward, but the hope was it would improve with time.
Sadly, that duo really hasn't improved yet, and it may be time to re-think the lineups, or at least try and juggle rotations in a way where different combos get more time together. Here's a look at the raw numbers for each big-man duo (stats via NBA.com):
First off, the numbers of that Noah/Gibson pairing is shocking. Those two were the linchpin of the Bulls' dominant fourth-quarter defense last season, but now they don't play together often, and it hasn't been good when they have. (It should be noted that their play together has improved of late.) A defensive rating of 103.8 isn't terrible, but it's rough when you compare it to the 97.2 rating that duo put up last season.
Looking at the Gasol/Noah duo, you can see that the offense and defense suffers. The spacing has been a problem, especially with Mike Dunleavy out, and Noah guarding 4's just isn't an optimal way to use him. It's an even bigger problem considering Noah's apparent lack of mobility as he tries to get right from offseason knee surgery and an ankle injury from earlier in the season.
Now that I've brought that up, I guess now is the time for an aside of about how poorly Noah has played this season, and especially the last few games. In January, Noah is putting up 5/9/3 on 35.9 percent shooting. For the season, he's at 8/10/4 on 44.4 percent shooting. He's also shooting 59.5 percent from the line, which would be a career-worst by far. Teams don't respect his offense, and he can't make layups to save his life. He's shooting just 50 percent at the rim and 45.7 percent overall in the paint, per NBA.com. That's awful.
I've already mentioned the defensive issues, and the on/off splits for Noah aren't pretty. The Bulls are better on both sides of the ball with Noah on the bench thus far this season, and they're 5.0 points per 100 possessions better total with him on the pine, per NBA.com.
What's interesting is the Noah/Mirotic duo has been the best pairing of the bunch, albeit in a small sample size. This does make some sense, though, as Noah is allowed to play the more typical center role he has excelled in and Mirotic helps space the floor as a stretch 4. This helps mitigate the fact that Noah has been a liability on offense.
So what should be done here? I really don't anticipate any changes to the starting lineup, but it could be a decent play to swap Noah and Gibson until Noah gets right. This could either mean Noah coming off the bench or shutting it down for a few weeks until he gets healthy. The Gasol/Gibson pairing has been bad of late (Gibson hasn't exactly looked like himself either), but it's a more natural 5/4 pairing that has had success over the course of the season.
Another option is starting the Noah/Mirotic pair, but it would be tough to bench Gasol, especially considering how well he has played this season. If anything, we just need to see more of the Noah/Mirotic duo, while limiting Gasol's minutes a bit more in an attempt to help conserve him for the long haul. Gasol is playing 34.8 minutes per game this season, which is too much for my liking (the whole first and third quarter thing still mystifies me), even despite his big production.
Maybe this is just an especially bad stretch, exacerbated by the loss of Dunleavy, and the Bulls end up being fine just the way they are. Maybe Noah turns it on like he often does after slow starts to the season. However, with the sample sizes getting larger and larger, there's reason to have serious concerns about the frontcourt. Noah needs to get better and get healthy, and Thibs may have to show more flexibility with his pairings if the Bulls are going to improve and win a championship.