Four of the five spots have been filled in the Chicago Bulls' starting lineup.
Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade have arrived and slotted straight into the backcourt, pushing Jimmy Butler up to his original position at small forward. No one will beat out Robin Lopez for center. You can lock those players in as starters for opening night on Oct. 27 against the Boston Celtics, leaving one open spot for filling.
By design, coach Fred Hoiberg will be using the preseason period as an ongoing audition for the starting power forward role.
"It's an open competition. That's the thing I'm most excited about," Hoiberg said. "Today was a great indication of the competitiveness of the practice -- guys were out there flying around, they were competing, they were talking. We're going to play a lot of different combinations in this preseason."
It's a smart move by the second-year coach. Unlike last preseason, which saw long time starting center and former Bull Joakim Noah unceremoniously dumped for a then sophomore Nikola Mirotic, Hoiberg has clearly learned how to handle the politics of professional basketball, using competition as a guise to best select his starters. Making it easier to adopt such a strategy, the power forward spot just so happens to be the Bulls' deepest position, one which Hoiberg is using to his advantage.
"We ran Taj (Gibson) with the first group today, we ran Bobby (Portis) a little bit with the first group, Niko (Mirotic) a little bit. It's going to be ongoing and we'll see who earns that spot."
Taj Gibson, last season's starter, is more than qualified to fill the role once more. Nikola Mirotic may be the long-term solution at power forward, and he too would start for many teams around the league. Sophomore forward Bobby Portis is also an outside chance at laying claim to the starting power forward position, though it would appear to be a two-man race at present.
Each big will get their chance to work with the starting unit as preseason progresses. Gibson was first up, getting the nod ahead of his younger competition for Monday's opening exhibition game against the Milwaukee Bucks. As always, the dependable veteran delivered, scoring 11 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in the 93-91 loss to the Central division rivals.
While Gibson rose to the occasion, Mirotic and Portis struggled, combining for 8 points on 3-for-15 shooting.
It's unclear who will start in the remaining six preseason games, though Hoiberg's rotating policy will offer all three ample opportunity to outplay each other. So far, Gibson has the lead. Should that trend continue, it could create a philosophical problem for Hoiberg that could greatly shape the Bulls' offensive vision.
It's been endlessly noted how shooting deprived the Bulls' starting unit projects to be after signing Rondo and Wade in free agency. And for good reason. Rondo, Wade and Butler combined for 133 made 3-pointers last season. For measure, Kirk Hinrich, the Bulls' all-time leading 3-point shooter, connected on 144 made 3-balls in his rookie season. That was 14 years ago. The game has since changed, and reliance on the 3-point shot has never been greater.
Chicago's new wing trio can't provide enough volume from behind the 3-point line, meaning the Bulls will be leaning heavily on their big men for offense behind their 3-point arc. This reality has to make one question if a battle for the starting power forward spot truly exists.
Notwithstanding merit, the desperate need for shooting has propelled Mirotic ahead of Gibson in the depth chart. Offensively, it makes the most logical sense. Theoretically, Mirotic's long-range bombs would compliment the drive and slashing game of Butler and Wade, and his shooting touch would give Rondo an easy out in pick-and-pop sets.
Though Gibson's play in preseason may currently have him in the lead for the four spot, it's Mirotic's role to lose simply due to the premium the Bulls have consciously (or unconsciously) placed upon on his sweet shooting shoulders. But is shooting alone enough of a factor to promote the Spanish forward over the Bulls' longest tenured player?
The same question was posed last season. When Mirotic's shooting went awry, he had no other discernible skills to rely upon, forcing Hoiberg to insert the defensive-minded Gibson into a starting role. Mirotic's threat as a jump shooter couldn't keep him in place as a starter, and should he fail to find his stroke in preseason, he may again find himself being cast as a reserve forward.
How plausible is it that scenario repeats itself?
It may have been the correct decision last season for the Bulls, who had the luxury of a returning Mike Dunleavy from injury to take the reigns from Mirotic as the designated shooter in lineups, which eased the shooting burden and eventually smoothed the transition of Gibson to power forward.
Now, however, with Dunleavy gone and no shooters capable of being placed into the starting one through three positions due to the presence of the "Three Alphas", the dynamic has changed.
Ultimately, lineup net ratings and 5-man on/off metrics will decide who fills time as the starting four, even if it means benching the player who's individually producing more. Typically, lineups featuring Mirotic have performed strongly in advanced offensive metrics. That trend will likely continue with the need for his shooting ability.
Gibson outperforming Mirotic on an individual level during preseason but remaining a bench role-player is a scenario that certainly exists for the Bulls. As elementary as it may seem to reward the most in-form player with the starting duties, the betterment of entire rotations will outweigh the performance of the individual.
Theoretically, Mirotic is best placed to fit next to the shooting-deficient starting perimeter players. Hoiberg may claim that there's an open competition for the starting power forward position, but an imbalanced roster suggests that it's a veiled ploy to ease Gibson back to the bench.
So long as Rondo, Wade and Butler remain on the perimeter, Gibson can't start at power forward. If the goal is to have a functioning offense that resembles some modicum of modern basketball, Gibson won't be the opening night power forward, even if he's outperforming his counterparts.
Style over substance will win out, and it will be the right decision. Hoiberg has no other choice but to play rotations that make most functional sense, and Mirotic with the starters is as obvious as it is mandatory.
The difficult part for Hoiberg will be selling Taj Gibson on sacrificing for the team once more, even if he's more deserving of those ahead of him. Fortunately for Hoiberg, doing what's best for the team is something Gibson has consistently done during his time in Chicago.