For months, Bulls fans have sighed heavily at the thought of pairing Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol in the starting line-up. Therefore, this paragraph from Sam Smith should instil plenty of optimism:
Perhaps the biggest question coming into the season is who will start at center. The Bulls have two All-Star centers in Gasol and Joakim Noah, and starting both last season obviously didn’t work well. Though new coach Hoiberg has been circumspect about his plans, it seems likely Gasol and Noah will no longer both start.
He doesn't quite cement it, because how could he? Even if he got this bit of info directly from Fred Hoiberg, training camp is still months away, and no one really knows how Noah's knee will look by then, or if Gasol suits the system.
What's interesting are the pairings Smith offer later on in the piece. He includes Gasol/Mirotic, Gasol/Gibson, Noah/Gibson, and Noah/Mirotic, but leaves out one, which by sheer coincidence is my preferred line-up; Gibson/Mirotic. My best guess is benching both Noah and Gasol would wreck hell on locker room chemistry, so I get the reasoning if that's the idea.
Now it seems that at least one of Noah or Gasol will start. This was to be expected in the case of Gasol, but Noah's name being involved is slightly surprising given his season last year. Again, as mentioned above, his knee plays a vital role in his abilities, so if that's gotten better somehow, there's logic in pulling him into the debate. But even on a healthy knee, you have to wonder how Noah would fit into a spaced out offense, as Mark Karantzoulis touched on earlier this week.
You won't experience spacing issues with Gasol, Mirotic, and to some extent Taj Gibson. Hell, even Bobby Portis shot 43.5% on jump shots last season and projects as a perfectly suitable pick-and-pop option. The trade-off here, obviously, is that even on a bum knee, Noah is dimensions above everyone else when it comes to defensive communication and know-how. You could survive with Gibson mimicking Noah's role - which is why I prefer him - but you'd lose size.
At the end of the day, every single line-up mesh comes with significant trade-offs, which is less than optimal:
Noah: Regardless of who you pair him with, there will be spacing issues, and potential efficiency issues (TS% of .482 last year) if the knee proves difficult.
Gasol: The best high-volume scorer on the team, is also the worst defensive big and is forced near the rim so opponents can't abuse his lack of movement.
Gibson: The best two-way big on the team still isn't a high-volume scorer, and tends to get tunnel vision. Thus, he needs an offensive front-court partner at all times. Not the best rebounder, however.
Mirotic: Consistency issues, especially on defense. Is better than Gasol on the perimeter on both ends of the court, but doesn't provide much in the paint. Best shooter.
The age-old idea of having players who can cover for each other's deficiencies is outdated and generally a poor way of pairing players. For four years, the idea was to hide Carlos Boozer behind Joakim Noah. The Bulls' defense was awesome overall, but that didn't stop Boozer from clearly being the weakest link, and having to sit down for entire fourth quarters, as he couldn't be relied upon.
With Mirotic turning into a surprisingly clutch scorer last season, and with Gibson having experience in closing games for half a decade, it'd be worth a shot pairing those two at the end of games, even if they aren't going to start together. Their combined motors and explosiveness - they're the two quickest big men on the roster, and it's not even remotely close - could serve as huge factors in Hoiberg's screen and quick shots play. Gibson can hit jump shots, even if he did struggle with them last year (34.7% compared to the season before when he connected on 37.5%), and with Mirotic draining 99 triples last year, there's no denying that teams won't just let him stand out there unguarded, even if he shot well below league average from depth.
You could also make the point that Gibson and Mirotic are both quick enough to hedge hard, and Gibson in particular can switch onto smaller players for stretches. Mirotic isn't as savvy or strong, but his speed and annoyingly enthusiastic motor is enough to at least bother opponents. Additionally, I suspect having a year in the NBA under his belt will help prepare him better for what's to come.
But while Gibson and Mirotic may present the best all-around option, how does one justify benching an All-NBA player, and a former DPOY? You could maybe get away with Noah due to last year, but Gasol is the guy who's difficult to find a seat for. He's still be the best scorer of the group, still pulled in almost 12 rebounds a game, still sent back 147 blocks, and started in the bloody All-Star game.
My guess: Gasol starts with Gibson.
If Noah's knee is as bad as last year, you could make the case that Gibson leap-frogs him as the team's best defender and is the obvious choice to start not out of necessity to cover for Gasol, but because he'd flat-out be the second best big. For Gasol, even with his defensive issues, it's hard to argue that he isn't amongst the best two bigs on the roster, and he should have enough range on his jumper to fit into Hoiberg's system.
With Noah and Mirotic coming off the bench, you'd instantly have a duo who could benefit greatly from playing against inferior competition. If Noah's no longer a primetime player, he's at the least a solid one overall, who would be able to give the Bulls a significant boost as a defensive/rebounding/passing specialist off the pine, and with Mirotic flanking him in a sixth man scoring role.