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Bulls vs. Hornets game preview: injuries for once give Bulls a frontcourt edge

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

[Thanks to Jeff for today's game preview -yfbb]

Trying to make heads or tails of what’s going to happen to this team on a nightly basis is an unenviable task. But at this point in the season, when the Bulls are playing undermanned, have solidified at least the 5th seed in a relatively weak Eastern Conference, regular season losses are of little consequence, it’s important each game to find one area to focus on that could prove valuable when games become important again.

The good news going into tonight’s game against Charlotte is that the Hornets will be without Al Jefferson and Cody Zeller up front. Being without the most talented offensive pieces of their frontcourt will severely hamper a team that already struggles to score (27th in PPG, 28th in Off. Eff.). It also may provide Noah and Gasol a nice break on defense after the young, active legs of Thomas Robinson and Nerlens Noel gave them a workout on the glass Wednesday night. Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and Jason Maxiell don’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses.

March 13th, 2015 - Projected Starters/Rotation
Charlotte Hornets (28-35)
Chicago Bulls (40-26)
Mo Williams
Aaron Brooks
Gerald Henderson
Tony Snell
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Mike Dunleavy
Marvin Williams
Pau Gasol
Bismack Biyombo
Joakim Noah
Lance Stephenson
Nikola Mirotic
Kemba Walker
Kirk Hinrich
Jason Maxiell
Doug McDermott

The bad news is that the Bulls will be tested on the perimeter by a good Hornets defense. Looking at their "Four Factors", they struggle forcing turnovers, but rank in the Top 10 in both EFG% and FT/FGA, while leading the league in DRB%. Jefferson and Zeller may be gone down low, but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Lance Stephenson are two of the more aggressive wings in the league when it comes to defensive rebounding. It’s on the perimeter where the Bulls could struggle.

Mo Williams, who has averaged better than 21 PPG since being traded from Minnesota, and Kemba Walker, just returning from injury, are lacking on the defensive end at the point position, but Gerald Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist and Stephenson are all long, active defenders that could frustrate the Bulls wings. Dunleavy is crafty enough to get by and Hinrich, if he’s stuck at the off-guard, should know better than to challenge these guys off the dribble, but it’s the performance of the young players in this game that I’ll be watching.

The main positive coming out of the Bulls injuries recent rash of injuries, especially to Jimmy Butler, has been the development of the young players on the perimeter (Mirotic, Snell and McDermott), both for the future and added depth come playoff time. While McDermott is just working his way into the rotation now (10 MPG in the last 6), Snell and Mirotic have stepped up to show they are part of the core moving forward. I include Mirotic here with the idea that a stretch 4 is part of the perimeter group (his average shot distance this season is 15.2 feet). Thibodeau has been generally averse to giving young players the benefit of the doubt, but given the number of Bulls out, he’s had no choice. With the built-in safety net of a lack of options, both Snell and Mirotic have performed admirably.

Snell/Mirotic - 12 Games Since ASB MPG PPG RPG USG% TS%
Tony Snell Pre 15.4 4.8 1.9 13.8 0.582
Post 30.3 9.7 3.8 15.5 0.544
Nikola Mirotic Pre 17.1 7.1 4.2 18.9 0.551
Post 25.9 15.2 7 27.4 0.549

Going up against a defensive squad that could frustrate young players will be a test for Snell and Mirotic tonight. Whether it’s Stephenson, Henderson or Kidd-Gilchrist, Snell will have trouble generating any offense on his own. Because the Hornets play small with Marvin Williams at the 4 and Kidd-Gilchrist is long enough to play the position defensively, Mirotic will have a similarly tough matchup. My hope is that given the absence of Jefferson and Zeller and the strength of the Hornets on the wings, the Bulls plan of action on offense will go something like this:

1) Initiate the offense will a high pick and roll with Brooks and Gasol or Noah OR getting it immediately to Gasol or Noah in the high post.

2) Use the wings only after getting initial penetration forces a collapse or a look into the post forces a double. Station Snell, Mirotic and McDermott on the perimeter and continue to build their confidence with clean looks. This will eliminate some of the pressure off the young players in a tough defensive matchup.

But this plan, although simplistic, would require the Bulls to be more creative offensively. Gasol and Noah are two of the best passing big men in the league and they’re being wasted with the lack of creativity on the backside of plays. Screens and motion on the backside frees up shooters for clean looks that the Bulls’ posts can get them due to their passing ability. This hasn’t happened on a consistent enough basis this season. Too often, the offense becomes stagnant and results in Aaron Brooks attempting to take his man to the basket or launching a deep, contested 3. Anyone familiar with the work of the Derrick Rose Stand-Ins (my name for the group of undersized, high usage PGs the Bulls have employed under Thibodeau) knows this offense well. The lack of dribble creators without Butler and Rose makes motion, passing and sharing the wealth a necessity. It also means getting the young players looks before their roles are limited when the regulars return.

Finding out how much playing time Mirotic (definitely a member of the rotation, but will his offense justify more time at the 3), Snell and McDermott will get come playoff time isn’t important. Keeping their confidence high, getting them low pressure opportunities and raising their level of play is a must right now. That continues tonight against the Hornets.