The Chicago Bulls made quite a few moves during the summer of 2014, and no spot was more impacted than the power forward position.
Longtime starter Carlos Boozer was amnestied, which created the financial means to add veteran Pau Gasol and successfully negotiate a contract for their promising Euroleague star Nikola Mirotic. Their additions, along with the perpetually improving Taj Gibson, give head coach Tom Thibodeau terrific frontcourt versatility.
So, what should be the expectations for this new assemblage over the course of the 2014-15 campaign? Well, before setting a bar for future anticipations, a baseline must be established.
First, last season’s personnel has to be analyzed and graded. Then the unique talents of the current crop need to be weighed against their predecessors’ in order to establish a clear projection. Only then can a reasonable forecast be offered.
Evaluating the 2013-14 power forwards
Last year’s power forward rotation was primarily a two-man show starring Boozer and Gibson. Here’s how their final per-game numbers ended up:
For a long time, these two were like yin and yang in terms of their expectations. Boozer was the designated offensive support, while Gibson was a defensive force off the bench. The former USC Trojan gradually improved his scoring repertoire while remaining strong defensively, and he was able to pull even with his positional peer in court time.
In fact, Gibson was the only one of the duo progressing. Boozer posted career-lows in field-goal percentages the past two seasons, and his scoring average in 2013-14 was 2.5 points lower than the campaign prior to that.
Thibodeau’s preference shifted so immensely that his usual alternating between the two big men in the fourth quarter became an outright benching of the starter in favor of the second-string player.
The lack of a reliable third frontcourt bench player and the nullification of Gibson’s progression against Boozer’s waning limited the impact this position could have had on helping the Bulls win. This unit gets a C on the standard A-F scale for both men playing in more than 70 games and accounting for over 25% of their squad's scoring, which wasn’t hard to do considering they were dead last in team points.
Who’s new on the frontline
Chicago’s power forward rotation now has international flavor and skill-set versatility. General manager Gar Forman was able to land a veteran with championship pedigree and a promising international talent with tremendous upside.
Gasol has had a phenomenal 13-year run. His career averages of 18.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 blocks per contest should have fans ecstatic about the player who will likely be the first starter at the 4 in the post-Boozer era.
Not only does the Spaniard give the team a legitimate low-block player, but he is also a great passer and help-defender. When paired with Joakim Noah, the Bulls have a tandem that will wreak havoc on both ends of the court.
Mirotic is somewhat of a wild card since his experience has been against European competition, but there is no denying that his skill set fills glaring needs for Thibdoeau and company. The former Real Madrid standout can shoot the pull-up, run pick-and-roll and take other bigs off the dribble. He can also run the floor and is very agile for a man of his size.
This group is bound to bring some much needed stability to the team's halfcourt set.
What to expect
Gasol, Gibson and Mirotic are going to collectively enhance many aspects of the Bulls’ play on both ends of the floor.
The offense will flow much smoother with Gasol’s passing. Just recall the high-post set the team ran through Noah with much success in 2013-14, then imagine it turned all the way up with another big man who’s a proficient passer.
This enhanced facilitating should relieve Derrick Rose and allow him to play off the ball more, giving foes a new set of problems about which to worry. And if the former MVP decides to keep the rock, he does not have to worry as much about the blitzkriegs he once faced since he’ll have Mirotic on the wing with other sharpshooters like Mike Dunleavy and Doug McDermott.
On the defensive end, Gibson and Gasol give Thibodeau’s defense two shot-blockers and fierce rebounders. Granted, the one-time Laker is not adept at one-on-one stoppage, but his ability to give rotational help, challenge shots and secure missed field-goal attempts will pay off big.
Gibson is the team’s second-best post defender behind Noah. He is able to play physically and challenge most post-up bigs.
The most underrated characteristic of this group is their versatility. While Mirotic may be playing the power forward role most times, his offensive prowess could also earn him minutes at the 3 should Thibs want to floor a sizable lineup.
Gasol and Gibson can slide up one more position and play center. That flexibility will come in handy for managing minutes and keeping key players fresh for the postseason.
Good things are in Chicago’s future. This team finally has the frontcourt personnel that establishes true balance on offense and bolsters an already potent defense. Thibodeau has exactly what he needs to bring his throwback style full circle.
Chicago’s 2014-15 game-play will be inside/out in its purest form. Opponents will have to make some very tough decisions on how to stop the Bulls, none of them promising much in positive yields. A very productive year lies head for this power forward collective.