The problem with big men: Nikola Mirotic should be starting

Taj Gibson is tired

The Chicago Bulls have four big men who seem capable of playing at a solidly above-average level on a consistent basis, if not quite a bit higher than that. Thus far, we have seen Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol starting games, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic coming off the bench and Taj paired with both Noah and Gasol — usually at the end of the first/third quarters and in the middle of the second/fourth, respectively. But I’m guessing you pretty much knew all that.

There are some definite advantages to the current big man rotation. Noah and Gasol are excellent passers and they can make beautiful music together at times. Mirotic’s shooting opens up the lane for Taj, both in the post and as a finisher in the pick and roll. But it’s easy to look at the current situation and think it could be improved.

To wit: Nikola Mirotic should be starting in Pau Gasol’s place. You heard me.

For the record, this has much less to do with Pau and much more to do with Mirotic and how he fits with the rest of the starters. Watching last night’s game against the Detroit Pistons, the Bulls bench went on a tear offensively in the second quarter, and their spacing was impeccable. Mirotic did essentially nothing in five minutes (one steal, one block, one foul and nothing else) but his mere presence — along with Doug McDermott’s and Kirk Hinrich’s — opened things up for Aaron Brooks and Taj Gibson.

We’ve all seen what Aaron Brooks has done leading the bench. We’ve seen what Derrick Rose can do with the starters as they are. Now imagine that we gave Rose the same spacing to work with as Brooks as had. Wouldn’t that be great? Spacing is especially important when Noah’s on the floor, because teams don’t really guard him when he doesn’t have the ball outside of 8 feet or so.

Pairing Mirotic with Noah also helps Noah because it means he can go back to guarding centers and staying closer to the rim instead of chasing power forwards around, which might also help the Bulls’ defensive rebounding woes — though said woes admittedly weren’t really on display last night. Pau and Noah isn’t too awkward offensively, but it is defensively, and Mirotic would help there.

Meanwhile, Pau and Taj started together while Noah was out for a couple of games over the past two weeks and did well with each other. Both can post up, and Pau’s ability to play in the high post meshes well with Taj’s skillset. Both can step out and hit from midrange. Most importantly, playing with Pau keeps Taj from having to bang with bigger centers inside, while playing with Taj keeps Pau from having to chase quicker power forwards.

Obviously, you’d probably still finish games with Noah and Pau or Noah and Taj, though I’m personally of the opinion that Thibs should go offense/defense with the Spanish combo (Pau/Mirotic) and the New York combo (Noah/Taj). But if Mirotic opens things up for Rose and the starters as much as I think he would — and if Pau/Taj wreak as much havoc against opposing bench units as I think they would — maybe crunch time wouldn’t even really be a thing.

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19 Responses to The problem with big men: Nikola Mirotic should be starting

    Brad S. November 11, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    Good thoughts!

    Jay November 11, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

    I love this article so much, but how long do you think it will be before Mirotic even gets to play more than 15 minutes a game consistently? Dougie too for that matter. This team should have amazing depth, but they won’t get there if the coach is unwilling to play his dudes for more than 5 minutes against the Pistons of all teams.

    Dan November 12, 2014 at 11:58 am #

    I had the same thought but starting with Pau and Gibson and bringing Noah off the bench with Mirotic. I too am considering Noah’s knees this year. Next year, we switch to Noah starting (hopefully healthier). We will need to start a transition plan that will play Pau as a game changer and keep him fresh for the playoffs. Regardless of the status quo rotation is deployed or the Bulls move to a more spread rotation, Mirotic should be getting physically stronger which will canapult him to another level. The challenge is not selfishness, but rather Noah has waited a long time to play with Rose again.

    Rustyw November 12, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    I agree with you, Dan. Politically, Gasol would balk at not starting, but with all Noah’s injuries, the case can be made for him coming in off the bench. Plus, he then plays his more efficient position. So start Gasol and Taj, then bring in Noah and Mirotic. Simple, no?

    BTW, next increase the minutes for Brooks and reduce Hinrich’s.

    David November 12, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    The answer to your question is no, Mirotic should not be starting. if anything it would make more sense to start Taj and Pau, but neither will happen. Thibs won’t bench a starter no matter how nice it would appear to be hypothetically. Bottom line is Mirotic can’t defend well and though he has a lot more experience than the average rookie, he’s more along the lines of Taj or Doug – regular rotation guys but not good enough yet to start.

    Tony November 12, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

    The problem with that theory is Mirotics defense causing him to be a liability on the floor with the starters. Yes he could definitely help spread the floor for Rose but it won’t help much if he’s in foul trouble in which will cause the team to be in foul trouble early.

    PolitiJim (@politiJim) November 12, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

    I like this as soon as Mirotic learns the team defense. Even though Pau is still adapting, he is clearly a huge force that puts the onus totally on a still limited minute and healing Noah.

    I also have floated Dan’s suggestion about swapping Noah and Taj, giving the 2nd team a true “big” passer, although if Mirotic can improve enough on D by All Star break (and everyone gets/stays healthy) I like the idea putting Dunleavy on 2nd team with Pau, and putting Taj/Noah (who closed out 80% of games last year) with Mirotic/McBuckets playing in Dunleavy’s place.

    It will be interesting to see how creative Thibs will get further into the season. I was a bit disappointed both Mirotic and McDermott only had 5 minutes each, but since it was the first night that all “starters” were playing – maybe he wants to establish what he KNOWS he has – before he starts playing with pieces.

    What a great problem to have. Could you have imagined this flexibility last year? I couldn’t have…

    Bob Edwards November 12, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    I think it makes more sense to start Gasol at C and Gibson at PF. Protect Noah’s knees and bring him and Mirotic off the bench. Both McDermott and Mirotic have to get comfortable and earn Thib’s trust on defense before they see significant playing time, although for Bulls rookies 15 to 18 minutes is significant. I believe both will get more playing time as they develop their team defense. This Bulls team has 50% turn over from last years playing roster. One new guy knows the defense but hasn’t played it for two years (Rose, and only has significant playing experience with three guys (Noah, Gibson and Hinrich), the other six guys have no experience in the Bulls defensive scheme (Gasol, Mirotic, McDermott, Brooks, Bairstow and Moore). This team won’t be fully settled in until late December or mid-January. I would love to see the Bulls release Moore and bring in Ray Allen.

    Patel November 12, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

    Sounds good but not realistic.

    The proposed spacing for Rose would result in less spacing for Brooks, who needs the space to really be the effective bench scorer we need.

    Mirotic is not capable of guarding NBA starting PFs and could routinely get beat on that end, he needs more time in Thibs defensive schemes, which makes sense for him to ease into that role and gain experience on the bench. Gibson/Gasol combination works really well offensively as they both able to post and shoot, and defensively they have proved to be shot blockers that can guard the rim. Benching Noah does not work either because he sets the tone defensively, he is the reigning DPOY afterall. I like Noah Mirotic combination, Mirotic can put the ball on the floor and get to the bucket from the 3, McBuckets is an effective cutter as well.

    Snell should be given more touches on offense as well, he has shown the ability to score shooting and via driving in the Summer League and it would be interesting to what he can do with more touches at the NBA level.

    Michelle November 13, 2014 at 12:10 am #

    So, I’m a little confused by your logic regarding Mirotic. your words: “Mirotic did essentially nothing in five minutes (one steal, one block, one foul and nothing else) but his mere presence — opened things up for Aaron Brooks and Taj Gibson.” So if he did nothing to contribute to the tear what makes him a better choice for starter than Pau? In the scenario that you pointed out, any big man presence would have been just as effective since by your words.. “he did nothing”. Pau has proven himself not only over the years, but already this season to be effective. I’m not saying Mirotic doesn’t have his place on the team, but lets let him prove himself night in and night out the way Pau has.

    husker November 13, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    great post Caleb. my quick take:

    * mirotic needs to play to develop and be key factor in playoffs. i like him starting as you suggest, but he has to play and not get frozen out by Thibs rookie phobia stuff…
    * i realize everyone is loving gasol and he is way, way better than boozer, but his defense except right around the rim is horrible… at the rim he can block shots — further than 4 feet from the hoop and he is a major liability in pick and roll defense that could be a real problem down the road…
    * our other biggest risk is thibs as coach — in my humble opinion he is totally overrated as a head coach….. great defensive coach yes. great assistant coach yes. but bottom line is he has no clue how to manage a team to win a championship… he’s like the horse trainer who just runs his thoroughbred full out every day and then they break down before the biggest races… he is clueless

    Demetrius November 13, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    The author is an idiot and anyone remotely agreeing with the thought is an idiot. Only an idiot would bench an All-NBA first teamed to find minutes for a stretch four, who can’t defend, and doesn’t understand the nuances of the NBA game for spacing. Noah is first team All-NBA! There is no discussion benching LeBron, KD, Blake or Steph but in Chicago, we’re talking about benching Noah for someone who may very well be a scrub.

    Roy November 13, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

    Demetrius you are clue less! Authors recommendation on Noah is to have him healthy & fresh for the playoffs.He is recovering from off season surgery and is injury prone. What your not realizing is we have a very over rated coach who burns his players out. Read Huskers blog. He’s spot on. Think Noah would care if he starts if they won a championship? Here”s a question for all. Would the Bulls win a championship with Popovich as coach?

    Brandon November 14, 2014 at 1:59 am #

    Lol… have any of u watched how lost mirotic has been on both sides of the floor? Dude has been nothing short of terrible. In tonight’s game it was no different, when he is on the floor we have no spacing, no defense, and definitely no rebounding. So far he has played soft. This is why Thibs doesn’t play rookies much. There is no way mirotic should be starting, absolutely no. He has to get better and I’m sure he is. Just because he’s been a pro for years he is still an NBA rookie. Doug has played well but still plays like a rookie, so neither should start. The one thing that needs to happen is Kirk should play less min and Brooks should play more. Thibs is not over rated have u lost your mind? Do any of u remember what basketball was like in the years before Thibs in chicago? And no popovich wouldn’t have won nothing here in Chicago the reason why he wins is because all his players take half of what they are worth. They have two solid lines, now the bulls do but no where near the experience. No one wins championships when their best player is out for the whole year. Did Phil Jackson win a championship when Jordan left?

    Mexican Panther November 16, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

    I blame garpaxdorf. Too cheap to sign offnesive talent. And no balls to make moves. They lucked out with rose and noah and still cant get it right. They squandered rose
    and noahs BEST years with bogans, r.i.p. Hamilton, the looz cruise, among others.


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