Tom Thibodeau's basketball genius is going to be tested next season.
This is a good problem for the Chicago Bulls head coach to have—the byproduct of an embarrassment of riches up front.
Although the Bulls whiffed on adding Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol will call the Windy City home next season:
It hasn't been easy. After meditating it a lot I've chosen to play with the Chicago Bulls. Looking forward to this new chapter of my career— Pau Gasol (@paugasol) July 12, 2014
So, too, will 2011 first-round draft pick Nikola Mirotic:
Euro star Nikola Mirotic's deal with the Chicago Bulls will be three years, $17M-plus, league source tells Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 13, 2014
Rookie Doug McDermott can be thrown into the frontcourt logjam as well. At 6'8" with unlimited range and the ability to barrel his way toward the rim, his head down and his shoulders out, he is equipped to see time as a stretch 4.
All three join a 4-and-5 rotation that already includes Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Carlos Boozer is gone. He's been gone, even though he's technically not gone. The Bulls, as we've known for roughly forever, will amnesty him or unload his $16.8 million salary via trade.
Those other five forwards are Chicago's primary ingredients on the frontline. How well they mesh together, along with how effectively they're used, will say everything about the Bulls' season.
Derrick Rose's return and subsequent capacity to stay healthy matters; Jimmy Butler's continued development is crucial too. But it's this band of big men that will be expected to push the Bulls toward undeniable contention, toward the Eastern Conference Finals.
It's this band of big men that Coach Thibs must manage and monitor to perfection.
What Do the Bulls Need?
Nothing has changed about the Bulls' plans. They still need offense. Lots of it. And they need it now more than ever after swinging and missing on Melo.
And they need it from those up front.
Anthony would have given them an established, healthy perimeter scorer. They don't have that now. Rose is still a question mark from a health standpoint, and even if previous injuries don't flare up he alone will not be enough.
One must hope Butler can add that self-sufficient punch, but he's been wildly inconsistent on the offensive end and already seems destined for a catch-and-shoot role that is ancillary to his defensive abilities.
Bringing in Gasol is an extension of the Anthony pursuit. He provides offense first and foremost—not from the perimeter, but he has range, while his playmaking abilities are second to none at his position. He averaged 17.4 points and 3.4 assists per game for the tanking Los Angeles Lakers last season, and his passing acumen provides a boon for a Bulls team that ranked 28th in offensive efficiency, per Basketball-Reference.com.
That, above all else, is what Thibs must remember when building his frontcourt rotation: assembling the most dangerous offensive combinations possible without sacrificing Chicago's defensive integrity.
Figuring Out the Rotation
Part of this process is easy because the outcome is a given.
Gasol wasn't brought in to ride pine, and the Bulls aren't benching the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Noah. They are Chicago's starting power forward and center, and like Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta points out, that's a good thing:
The other thing, and perhaps the hidden beauty to the Bulls' thinking here, is the pairing of Joakim Noah with Gasol in the paint. Among forward/centers last season, the two were first and third, respectively, in assists per game. That’s quite a passing tandem to have up front.
In Gasol and Noah, considering both sides of the ball, leadership and basketball IQ, the Bulls have arguably the most complete tandem at the position in the NBA.
Basically, Noah and Gasol balance each other out. The former is defensive muscle; the latter is offensive firepower. And both are competent passers from the high block in. It's a match made in basketball paradise.
Slotting the small forward is more difficult work. Gibson was told he would be starting in 2014-15, according to the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley, chatter the forward himself would later deny:
Nobody told me anything, this is why I don't talk to media.— Taj Gibson (@TajGibson22) May 23, 2014
Starting Gibson makes sense in a perfect world. He improved by leaps and bounds last season, coming on during the playoffs, averaging 18.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
But starting him alongside Gasol and Noah would be a senselessly risky gambit. It would be Thibs trying to will something that cannot exist into existence.
Gibson is not a small forward. End of story. Though he has some range, it's not enough for a small forward.
Less than 20.3 percent of his shot attempts came outside 16 feet last season, according to NBA.com. He converted just 38.1 percent of those attempts as well.
Small forwards need to hit shots outside 16 feet regularly. Gibson, meanwhile, struggled between eight and 16 feet, too, hitting only 37.5 percent of his field-goal attempts within that range.
Thibs can make it work with Gibson at the 3 for short spans. He has the lateral quickness necessary to defend opposing small forwards, and Gasol's near-three-point range coupled with Noah's awkward-looking, I-don't-care-I'll-still-shoot-bombs-if-I-have-to jumper helps mitigate what would be a spacing nightmare in most cases.
Spreading defenses is supposed to be a primary focus of the Bulls' offense next year, though. Rose, when healthy, can score on a 50-foot brick wall that stretches the width of the floor right in front of the rim, but giving him more room to operate makes his job easier.
Hence the excitement surrounding McDermott's and Mirotic's arrivals, as the kind folks over at Blog A Bull detail:
Gasol's presence would also mean the Bulls will be largely operating with a two-post offense. Gasol and Noah are each gifted passers, but the idea of playing four-out with Mirotic at power forward is part of what makes next season so intriguing. Surround Rose with Dunleavy, McDermott and Mirotic, and he's going to have a lot of space to operate in the halfcourt.
Said visions are mangled with the addition of Gasol and retention of Gibson, but similar versions of the same scheme can exist.
Bringing Gibson off the bench is the easiest solution. He instantly maintains his candidacy for Sixth Man of the Year and is someone who can guard power forwards and centers; opposing 4s and 5s combined to average a 14.8 player efficiency rating against him last season, per 82games.com.
None of those center inclusions are typos. Gibson should see minutes at center when both Noah and Gasol are out of the game.
And, incidentally, those are the moments in which the Bulls can elect to field smaller lineups. Although Gibson isn't the ideal rim protector, he offers enough interior insurance to play McDermott and Mirotic at the same time.
Mostly, though, he'll play forward. Gasol isn't being brought in to log 30-plus minutes every night. Thibs will have to manage his minutes, which, while not a strong suit of his, should be easy with all the frontcourt options at his disposal. The ponytailed sensation, Noah, might even be able to snag some rest.
Pinpointing the starting small forward is more complicated still. Using Thibs-based logic, the veteran Mike Dunleavy would appear to be a lock since he can hit threes and defend some.
The last part is important. You don't play for Thibs if you don't understand NBA defense. Novices typically receive limited action—if they play at all—because they're not in tune with the intricacies of Chicago's team defense.
Boozer would appear to be the exception, but even he looks less than atrocious in Chicago's system. That's by design and nothing short of magical.
Maximizing the potential of the Bulls' many, many players up front entails something different: Thibs stepping out of his comfort zone.
Rolling with McDermott or Mirotic as the starting 3 comes laced with advantages. Either one of them instantly becomes the second-best individual shot-creator in the starting lineup, behind Rose. Staggering their minutes would also ensure Thibs doesn't have two rookies running wild simultaneously. Having both come off the bench will be a lot for the Bulls and their defense to accommodate.
Both Gibson's offensive and defensive ratings improve when playing next to Dunleavy, per NBA.com, so there's that to consider. Playing both off the bench keeps whatever chemistry they've developed intact.
Placing such a substantial burden on the shoulders of neophytes like McDermott and Mirotic isn't Thibs' style, but they both offer what the Bulls need while diminishing the team's already monstrous reliance on interior scoring.
Options, Options, Options
Problems are rarely good.
This is an exception.
There are plenty of different ways Thibs can approach his new, improved and unfathomably deep frontcourt. He could technically bring Gasol off the bench and start Gibson if he wanted to (he won't). He could abandon an emphasis on spacing and shooting altogether.
What is the biggest challenge Thibs and the Bulls face up front next year?
Or he can do what we've outlined here, pairing Gasol with Noah, bringing Gibson off the bench, relying on two offensively inclined rookies and, to some degree, embracing out-of-position basketball.
"You make your presentation, we think we have a lot to offer," Thibs said of missing out on Melo, per ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. "We feel we have some good options, and we're looking forward to the challenge of next year."
Challenges certainly abound next year.
Provided Thibs keeps an open mind.