As the Chicago Bulls fight their way through the early portion of the 2013-14 season, head coach Tom Thibodeau is trying to find the optimal rotation for his squad.
With Derrick Rose back running the show alongside a strong front line, the team has a great mixture of playmaking skills and defensive prowess.
However, there are several issues to sort out in regards to playing time, and Thibs has a new-look bench to work with. Gone are key weapons Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli. Now Chicago aims to incorporate newcomer Mike Dunleavy and increase the role of Taj Gibson.
A 3-3 start has produced mixed results, but once D-Rose finds his All-Star form, the Bulls will be a formidable unit.
How can the Central Division hopefuls build the perfect rotation to maximize their potential?
The Starting Lineup: Slight Adjustments in Backcourt
From top to bottom, the Bulls have a magnificent starting lineup, and there aren't many in the league that can rival it.
Thibodeau doesn't need to change the actual starting lineup, but there are some tweaks that would be highly beneficial.
The frontcourt's disbursement of playing time will round into shape once Joakim Noah actually reaches 100 percent effectiveness. With him and Carlos Boozer playing 30-34 minutes per contest, the Bulls will be more than satisfactory in the defense, rebounding and offense in the paint categories.
The backcourt, on the other hand, should see a boost in minutes from both D-Rose and Jimmy Butler. Both are playing a little over 31 minutes right now, but if they each increased their involvement by 3 to 5 minutes, it would reduce the team's dependency on the veteran legs of Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng.
You could make an outside argument for Taj Gibson to sneak into the starting lineup, but then you run the risk of losing offensive efficiency and valuable experience. The starting lineup Thibs uses is undoubtedly the right one.
The "Big Three" Off the Bench: How and When to Use Them
There are three critical reserves who shoulder the lion's share of bench responsibilities: power forward Taj Gibson, swingman Mike Dunleavy and combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
If used properly, they could be the X-factors that spark an NBA Finals run.
Taj Gibson's 25.7 minutes per game is about right, as he supplies athleticism, energy and a much-improved arsenal of low-post skills. Any less would be a disservice to the club.
The key to utilizing Gibson is ensuring he pairs with Boozer as well as Noah. Some may think Chicago should use him primarily to rest Boozer, and let Nazr Mohammed spell Noah most of the time. There are two problems with that setup: The Bulls might use the unproductive Mohammed a little too much (9-12 minutes), and they would be depriving the world of a Gibson-Boozer pairing.
In their limited time together, Gibson and Boozer have had favorable net points per possession. As the league becomes more small-ball oriented, this duo will get the job done when Noah is banged up or needs a rest.
As for the guards, Hinrich (24 MPG) and Dunleavy (20 MPG) are seeing appropriate amounts of playing time.
Scoring margins suggest the team fares well when the two are on the court together, and that makes sense because they are both savvy veterans who can collaborate easily. What the Bulls sacrifice in dynamic playmaking and athleticism, they gain in shooting efficiency.
The End of the Bench: Trust vs. Trainees
When he looks to the end of his bench, at his peripheral contributors, Thibodeau will constantly face the decision of whether to lean on known commodities or roll the dice with exciting youngsters.
Sometimes, Thibs won't be able to avoid playing Mohammed, just from a size standpoint. But otherwise, he should give stretch four Erik Murphy ample opportunities.
Rookies like Murphy and Snell might not be world-beaters, but they certainly aren't erratic teenage one-and-dones. Murphy played four years under Billy Donovan at Florida, and Snell played three years at New Mexico.
The point is, the Bulls can trust them a little more than other, younger rookies.
Point guards Marquis Teague and Mike James shouldn't see more than 10-15 minutes on any given night, but if Thibs has to err one way, he should err on the side of Teague's development. The sophomore could make great strides in a matter of months.
Rotational Plan and Final Thoughts
To maximize the group's collection of talents, Chicago's minutes and rotation should look something like this:
Rose: 34-36 minutes, pair almost exclusively with Butler or Hinrich in backcourt
Butler: 34-36 minutes, pair with Rose and Hinrich, and ideally not with Teague
Deng: 36-38 minutes, use in almost any combination
Boozer: 28-32 minutes, use less than before in defensive scenarios (rely on Gibson more)
Noah: 32-36 minutes, use in any frontcourt combo (except for Mohammed)
"Big Three" Bench: Total of 70-72 minutes, with no individual exceeding 30 or going below 20. Pair Hinrich and Dunleavy for 6-12 minutes per game.
Tom Thibodeau is one of the most well-prepared coaches in the business, and he's a sharp strategist. Expect him to lean on his defensively competent units, but don't be surprised if he splurges for small-ball offensive groupings. It would serve him well.