Four games ago, Chicago Bulls head coach, Fred Hoiberg, instituted a minor change to the Bulls starting lineup: He would start Chicago’s resident hard hat and lunch pail guru, Taj Gibson, over young and promising power forward, Nikola Mirotic. The move was met with applause as there were many doubts as to whether a Mirotic/Gasol pairing could hold up defensively and separately the two men seemed like a logical conclusion. The Bulls have gone 3-1 since the switch happened and it appears that Coach Hoiberg is close to finding the right combinations to maximize the potential of this team.
With all the talk about the Bulls wanting to play faster, the Bulls are currently 9th in the NBA in PACE (an estimate of possessions per 48 minutes) at 97.4. The general thought process was this would help the offense get into a flow and become more productive. I’m not sure I agree with the premise. Almost this exact same core was 21st in PACE last year and were 11th in Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possessions). Maybe Thibs knew this team just didn’t play as well fast? It’s hard to argue with how little success they’ve had offensively. This season, the original starting 5 of Rose/Butler/Snell/Mirotic/Gasol was only +1 on the season w/ PACE of 95.5 which would be 21st in NBA per basketball-reference.com. The new starting group of Rose/Butler/Snell/Gibson/Gasol is +4 on the season w/ PACE of 91.5 which would put them 28th per basketball-reference.com. Slowing the pace hasn’t made much of a difference. Here are the Bulls stats on the season compared to the past 4 games:
- Bulls on the season: 98.9 ppg, 97.5 opp. ppg, 100.6 ORtg, 99.2 DRtg, 42.4% FG, 36.6% 3pt
- Bulls the past 4 games: 99 ppg, 93.8 opp. ppg, 100.4 ORtg, 95.1 DRtg, 42.8% FG, 33.7% 3pt
Almost exactly the same, only the defense is more stingy. In fact, if the Bulls maintained that opponent’s points per game and Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), they would rank 3rd and 2nd respectively. Also, you can see the Bulls point differential has increased from a mere +1.4 to +5.2. Maybe Coach Hoiberg has finally found a happy medium with the style that he wants to play versus the style these Bulls are capable of.
Also, I think Hoiberg is finding lineups that work. I’ve already mentioned inserting Taj Gibson into the starting lineup, but Hoiberg has basically abandoned E’Twaun Moore and brought back the fiery Aaron Brooks. I absolutely am loving the bench combination of Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, and Joakim Noah. Watch this sequence from Saturday’s game against New Orleans (video via
@BullsNationPH). The ball movement is beautiful and THAT looks like the image of “Hoiball” that we had in our heads prior to the season. Stats are backing up their talk as well. This group is +17 on the season, the best of any Bulls lineup that’s played a minimum of 10 minutes this season per basketball-reference.com. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but the early returns are promising. There are many fans that advocate for Doug McDermott to start over Tony Snell, but the original starting 5 with McDermott in Snell’s place netted a -2 on the year with PACE of 103.8, which would be first in the entire NBA if for an entire season. With both McDermott and Taj Gibson, that lineup was a painful -10 with a PACE of 93.4, which would be 29th in the NBA. It seems like McDermott has found a nice niche off the bench with this group and has become something of a sparkplug. Also, Nikola Mirotic is playing more consistently from the bench. Below are Mirotic’s stats as a starter compared to his stats from the bench: per NBA.com/stats:
- Mirotic as a starter: 11.8 ppg, 6.3 reb, 39% FG, 32% 3pt, Player Impact Estimate 10.4
- Mirotic off the bench: 10.5 ppg, 6.5 reb, 44% FG, 45.5% 3pt, Player Impact Estimate 15.8
While the raw scoring numbers and rebound numbers are similar, his shooting percentages are remarkably higher, as is his Player Impact Estimate (PIE – basically analogous to PER). I’ve said one of the strengths of Joakim Noah is his ability to find guys shots where they like them. I think it’s becoming a benefit for not only Mirotic, but McDermott, Brooks, and even Hinrich. This bench unit seems to have chemistry and play well together.
Hoiberg has also shaken up the closing group and recently has been playing Brooks alongside Rose and Butler with either Noah, Gasol, or both. I love this closing group and I think it has a nice balance to it. Speaking of Derrick Rose, in the past 6 games, he has shot 40% or better 5 times. In the previous 14 games, he only accomplished that 4 times. Maybe he’s finding a rhythm or consistency. I’m not sure, but the Bulls need Derrick to not be a liability if they expect to continue winning basketball games. As we’ve seen the past couple of games, he doesn’t necessarily need to shoot in volume or score 20-30 points for the Bulls to win. This isn’t 2010. He can be a facilitator and kind of become a third option, but he needs to remain aggressive and bring something to the table. Hopefully this trend will continue.
The Bulls are gradually showing signs of improvement and hopefully some signs of becoming the team we thought they’d be before the season. Either way, they’re still right in the thick of things in the East and are finding ways to win games. Let’s hope it continues and that this team finds consistency with these new changes.