Bulls positional preview: The Bigs

It has been easy to miss with the NBA draft, free agency, and most recently the FIBA World Cup, but the NBA  season is right around the  corner. Training camps are opening, preseason games are coming, and soon the NBA season will be fully underway.

There has been a lot roster turnover for the Bulls this off-season, but a tweak or two aside the roster is complete.

Where do the Bulls strength and weaknesses reside as the season approaches? In the last post I addressed the Bulls wing position group, in this one I will address the Bulls big men.

-THE STARTERS-

Joakim Noah: Noah was exceptional last year. He won Defensive Player of the Year, posted a career high PER,  and usage rate.  He had the best offensive and defensive season of his career. For his efforts  he was awarded with some MVP votes and All-NBA 1st team selection.

There were centers who had a similar defensive impact, and centers who were more productive offensively, but no center was as integral to their team’s success on both ends of the floor.

The only real black mark on his resume was that he  shot just 47% percent from the field, which is a pretty poor percentage for a big man.

Noah never has, and never will be, a gifted scorer, but a big part of last year’s decline in scoring efficiency was due to his increased role as facilitator.

It is hard to get a lot of easy baskets as a big man when you are spending so much of each possession doing that for others.

He won’t be asked to carry that burden on a team that is adding Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, and Nikola Mirotic , but I think we should see increased scoring efficiency.

Noah won’t have as many accolades at the end of next season, but he should still be excellent.

Pau Gasol:I am pretty enamored with Gasol’s fit with the Bulls. I have already talked about how secretly impressive (20-11 per 36 minutes) he was on offense for a terrible Lakers team but more important than the production was the way he produced, which was largely in the post.

The Bulls under Thibodeau are known for playing a very deliberate  pace, and with Gasol’s low post scoring they should be able to take it to another level.

The worry is how the Bulls as a pick and roll team would mesh with Gasol, but Gasol was pretty deadly in P&R last year scoring 1.1 points per possession in those opportunities.

Overall he both fills a need and fits the culture offensively.

Defensively he is remarkably poor in pick and roll defense, and pretty substandard overall. He showed this with the Lakers last year and even  when he was dominating the FIBA tournament.

Thankfully he is about to attend the Thibodeau school of defense and he will be flanked by excellent defenders. This should mitigate the amount of damage he does.

I don’t expect him to become a good or even average defender in his tenure with the Bulls, but on this team what he brings is so much more important than what he takes away.

-THE BENCH-

Taj Gibson: Gibson could start for a lot of teams based on his defense alone.  His length, bounce, and strength allow him to guard spots 3-5 credibly. There is an argument to be made that he is the Bulls best defensive player.

Much like Noah, Gibson had a career year offensively. Where Noah used his passing skills primarily to reach new heights offensively, Gibson displayed impressive post moves to go with with his already devastating finishes.

He averaged a career best in points per 36 minutes (16) and true shooting percentage (52.4).

When you factor in offense and defense he is just a small step from being an all-star caliber player. As it is, he is well above average as a starter and all world coming off the bench.

Nikola Mirotic:  Had Mirotic played for Kentucky last year as opposed to Real Madrid his arrival would be greeted with greater fanfare among the general public.

Bulls fans, for our part, know that he has been a wunderkind  in Europe from  the YouTube clips we have viewed repeatedly in the years since he was drafted.

If his first game is any indication he was worth the wait.

Watching him against actual NBA competition, on an NBA court, and in an NBA scheme was very educational, even if it was just one preseason game.

The most pleasant surprise was how well he moved,  he looked a bit rigid playing in Europe, but against the more athletic players in the NBA he looked light on his feet and very fluid.

This is important because he does look noticeably smaller among NBA competition.

I compared him to Rasheed Wallace awhile back because I thought his size and skill would make him an inside out presence. This looks to be inaccurate, but the fact the he moves around and handles like a guard is going to make him much more of a nightmare to guard on the perimeter than i thought.

He is going to be an exciting player to watch this year.

Nazr Mohammed:There isn’t much positive to say about Naz as a basketball player. Bringing him back was a definite locker room move.

He had a PER of 10 last year and about the only above average skill he has anymore is rebounding as he averaged over 11 per 36 minutes last year.

Chances are he will play very sparingly with the Bulls new found front court depth, but his experience in Thib’s system could make him valuable teacher to new big men Gasol, Mirotic and Bairstow.

I wish the Bulls had tried to find somebody better, but bringing Naz back does makes sense from a locker room perspective and the importance of good chemistry can’t be overstated.

Cameron Bairstow: It is tempting to paint a picture of Bairstow as rugged scrapper. He is a 4 year college player with limited athleticism, but he actually emerged as an NBA prospect on the strength of his scoring prowess as detailed by draft express below.

“Speaking of incredibly diverse offensive players, Cameron Bairstow was one of the most diverse offensive players in the country, and his 18.4 possessions used per game were tops in this group. With 28% of his offense coming from post-ups on 1.08 points per possession, as well as 29.4% of his offense coming from jump shots at an incredible 1.04 points per possession, few had the inside-outside game that Bairstow flashed. Bairstow has some defensive concerns, and it would be beneficial if he could extend his range out to three point territory, but the diversity of his skill set could get him a look.”

Per draftexpress.com

Most of this won’t translate to the NBA. He looks to be a sub par athlete by NBA big man standards, and though he is skilled, he isn’t exactly Luis Scola.

If he could be a pick and pop guy from mid-range and give them some of the same things Kurt Thomas did a few years ago, I would be pretty happy.

I am not expecting anything of the sort though, he really only has one college season of elite production (a statistical red flag)  and the washout rate for 2nd picks is really high.

Overall grade for bigs: A

The big man rotation is loaded. There is an All-NBA first team center and 3 other players who are above average starters….well two for sure and Mirotic will prove to be one as well.

Also each player brings something unique to the table so there isn’t a ton of a redundancy.  Gasol can play in the post, Gibson can play above the rim, Noah can lead a fast break and Mirotic can stretch a defense.

Because of this, Thibodeau will be able to mix and match with some of the big men to create different looks and match ups.

The only pairing we probably won’t see a lot of is Gasol and Mirotic because of obvious defensive deficiencies, which is actually kind of a shame because offensively Gasol manning the post while Mirotic spots up from outside would be thing of beauty.

I would have given this group an A+ grade, but 2 things stopped me. The first is that they don’t go 5 deep. Bairstow and Mohammed are fringe players so that hurts their depth a little.

Secondly, although Noah was great last year, they don’t have a “dominant” big man in the vein of a young Dwight Howard, for instance.

There is some concern about how Thibodeau will manage the minutes of the 4 players, but with 96 minutes to split between the 4 of them there should be enough minutes to go around. The ideal minutes distribution would be something like this:

Noah-28 minutes

Gasol- 25 minutes

Gibson-23 minutes-

Mirotic-20 minutes

I am not sure if Thibodeau can resist playing Noah less than 30 minutes, but I would be surprised if it is much over.  What will likely happen is Noah and Gasol each play around 30 minutes, Gibson plays just over 20 and Mirotic plays about 15 or 16.

However the minutes are split up, this is a good problem to have. The Bulls should have the advantage with this group against just about every team they face.

statistics courtesy of basketballreference.com and ESPN.com.

 

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