The duo of score-first big men—one a veteran (Gasol), the other a rookie (Mirotic)—should pair nicely next to Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, two of the NBA’s very best front-line defenders. But the team’s new embarrassment of wealth down low opens up some slippery questions about minute distribution and lineup mixing and matching.
Gibson is at the middle of these concerns. A steadily improving player since the Bulls drafted him from the University of Southern California in 2009, Gibson had his best season yet in 2013-14. His campaign peaked in the playoffs, when he put up a 26.5 player efficiency rating in an increased role against the Washington Wizards. Gibson’s dominant play was the silver lining in a disappointing 1-4 series loss.
Gibson’s impressive 3.64 defensive real plus-minus ranked him third among power forwards with at least 20 minutes of average playing time—only Nene and Tim Duncan placed higher last season.
A runner-up, and arguably a snub, for the Sixth Man of The Year Award, Gibson was the second-most important player in last year’s surprising 48-win Bulls season. He developed into an elite rim-defender, one who could also chase players out to the three-point line. Only Noah carried more weight for Chicago.
But even though Carlos Boozer, who started ahead of Gibson, is now gone, expect to see Gibson reprise his role as first man off the bench. Head coach Tom Thibodeau seems to favor seniority when starting decisions reach a gray area, and Gasol’s recent run of brilliance with the Spanish national team makes it clear that the choice between Gibson and Gasol won’t be easy.
The luxury of having so many able players in the post, however, also means the Bulls might wisely give the 34-year-old Gasol more time resting (as well as the workhorse Noah). Even if he starts ahead of Gibson, Gasol could average fewer minutes.
As with Boozer last year, a starter’s spot doesn’t mean a starter’s playing time, especially given Thibodeau’s well-documented obsession with defensive perfection and Gibson’s heightened comfort in the coach’s system.
Gasol’s chemistry with Noah and Gibson will go a long way toward the team firming up its lineups. Gibson, a delicious dunker, should benefit greatly from Gasol's passing vision, just as he has from Noah's. But defensively, his workload will increase next to the aging Spaniard. These are some of the factors that will determine how the big men should be used—when and in what tandem.
The Bulls will have to make certain decisions between the three—it’s simply not reasonable to have all of them on the floor at once. Thibodeau says he’s not worried, calling the conundrum a “great problem to have” on The Game 87.7 FM in Chicago:
I’m not sure on who’s starting and who’s finishing yet, and I’ve told all three of those guys – Here’s the thing, I know all three are going to have a significant role. I have 96 minutes there, and I look at all three of those guys as starters. So, we’ll see how it unfolds when we get to training camp and we let them play together.
Mirotic is clearly the odd man out. The Bulls are looking to win now, and the young Spanish League star from Montenegro will likely have to do a lot of his NBA developing during practice time, barring an injury to Noah, Gasol or Gibson.
Gibson’s emergence as a scorer last season makes this even more true. Previously more of a defensive specialist, Gibson took 10.9 shots per game last year—his prior high was 7.7—and shot 48 percent from the field. His jumper was effective all season, but he also looked increasingly comfortable dribbling to the rim from the high post against Washington.
Gibson’s continued evolution on offense will guarantee that Thibodeau faces a lot of tough decisions between Gibson and Gasol.
Under almost any other circumstances, Gibson would be an NBA starter next year and a player of particular intrigue. But the Bulls added a Hall of Famer next to Noah and last year’s Defensive Player of The Year, and they bring back the always controversial Derrick Rose.
Gibson is flying under the radar again. If his career-long improvement continues in 2014-15, though, he won’t go unnoticed too much longer.
Advanced statistics courtesy of ESPN.