After a media day filled with vague platitudes, Fred Hoiberg tipped his hand just the slightest Thursday after practice when he clued us all in on some of the lineups the team is experimenting with in training camp.
Fred Hoiberg said the Bulls are trying some lineups with Taj Gibson at center.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) September 29, 2016
The biggest question going into this season is how the Bulls will be able to uncramp the the floor and allow Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler space to drive to the basket. Today’s tidbits from coach Hoiberg shine some light on how the Bulls will play unconventional lineups to make this unconventional roster function.
The Bulls quietly have quite a log jam at the power forward spot, making the choice to play Gibson at center a wise one. While Taj himself will not stretch defenses far beyond the rim – Gibson’s middling mid-range game is not high up on anyone’s scouting report – playing him at center will allow the Bulls to get more shooting on the court at other positions.
Sliding Taj up a position creates more minutes for him to play alongside Nikola Mirotic in the front court. A season ago, the two of them shared the court for 409 minutes and posted a net rating of -.2, which isn’t bad considering the context of last year’s 82 game slog. Also, nearly half of those minutes came with Pau Gasol also on the court in lineups that hemorrhaged over 109 points per 100 possessions. If Mirotic and Taj can develop some chemistry on the back line of the defense, I suspect they will form a very effective front line tandem.
Finding minutes for Taj at center will have a positive trickle-down effect for Bobby Portis. While Portis showed flashes last season as a guy who can make an impact on both ends of the court, his general play is still very raw. A chance to earn consistent minutes is crucial for the Portis in his second season, and an unclogging of the power forward depth chart will go a long way to securing playing time.
The Bulls would be wise to try some really unconventional lineups when Gibson is playing center. There was plenty of offseason speculation that Doug McDermott will get an opportunity to play power forward this year. I personally would love to see the Bulls give Jimmy Butler some run at the four. Butler is stout enough to battle LeBron James in the post, and his low-thirties three point shooting looks a lot better shifted up a spot in the lineup.
Taj’s natural position since entering the league has been power forward, but the league is a drastically different place than it was a few short years ago. Very few teams have even one center comfortable working from the low post, let alone two. Outside of Al Jefferson, I can’t think of a one-on-one matchup that would concern me against Taj. While the 31 year old Gibson is not the freak athlete he once was, he still has above average mobility for a big man and can protect the rim as the defensive anchor.
Backup Point Guard
Denzel Valentine said he's been playing on wing 70 percent, at point 30 percent.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) September 29, 2016
As for point guard, it’s a given that Rajon Rondo will run point about 30 minutes a game, but what the Bulls will do with the remaining 18 minutes is one of the great mysteries heading into the season. The Bulls already have Jerian Grant, Isaiah Canaan and Spencer Dinwiddie on the roster, and today Hoiberg threw another name into the backup point guard conversation. Denzel Valentine has plenty of experience running an offense. After averaging over seven assists a game as a senior at Michigan State last year, it’s no surprise that Hoiberg is intrigued with his rookie’s potential.
Valentine’s most NBA-ready skill is his shooting. If his three point shot commands respect from defenses, Valentine will be able to facilitate effectively in pick and roll. If opposing point guards feel pressured to fight over every screen, Valentine will be able to poke holes in the defense, despite an inability to drive to the basket. I’m not sure anybody wants to hear their new lottery pick compared to Greivis Vasquez, but that’s exactly the player Valentine should emulate on the offensive end.
Valentine is by no means an elite athlete, and will likely struggle to keep up with the freak athletes who populate the wings of NBA teams. But at 6’7”, Valentine’s size and length advantage at point guard could cover up some of his physical shortcomings.
Both of these statements by Hoiberg feed into his desire to play a more aggressive style of defense this season.
We’re going to impact the ball more on our ball-screen defense. I think you saw some improvements that we had in the summer league this year, some experimenting that we did that led to deflections, led to turnovers that got us some easy baskets on the other end. We didn’t have enough of those last year. We were last in the league in forcing turnovers.
While Robin Lopez has never been asked to trap guards in the pick and roll, Gibson will let the Bulls employ aggressive schemes that will generate steals for the defense. And having the very tall Valentine at point guard will allow the Bulls to switch freely on defense without fearing a mismatch in the post.
Will either of these moves propel the Bulls to a championship? Lol no. But, after a frustrating season for the Bulls and their rookie head coach, it’s an encouraging sign that the Bulls are trying to think outside the box in order leverage whatever advantages exist on this imperfect roster.