We knew things were going to change under Fred Hoiberg, we just didn’t know by how much.
Wildly heralded for his progressive nous, a new offensive approach was expected to be the major difference between Hoiberg and the outgoing Thibodeau. Early signs certainly suggest this, with the promotion of Nikola Mirotic into the starting unit a clear symbol that opening the floor offensively and playing 4-out basketball is among the top priorities for the rookie head coach.
So far, Mirotic has responded to the increased role by continuing his terrific preseason play into the first three games of season. Averaging 19.7 points, eight rebounds, and making 50% of his three-point attempts, the young power forward has been the Bulls’ best player to date and has benefited the most from Hoiberg’s arrival.
The Bulls, too, have needed the increased production from Mirotic. As per NBA.com, with Nikola on the floor, Chicago have scored 105.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have them ranked 13th overall on last seasons offensive rating standings. Though this only suggests an above average offense, surprisingly, with Mirotic off the floor, the Bulls have only managed 84.5 points per 100 possessions.
These numbers certainly illustrate the worth of the young forward this season, even if the sample size alarm is ringing loudly in my ear. Be that as it may, can anyone seriously argue that Nikola Mirotic hasn’t been a necessity for this team?
Whilst his individual scoring prowess has been vital to the team’s offensive makeover, it’s on defense that the biggest shift has occurred with Mirotic, and ultimately, the Chicago Bulls.
Yes, that’s correct, defense. You’ve read this far, so hear me out and keep going.
We’ve all heard about Tom Thibodeau’s legendary “ICE” defense, right? Whether it’s through reading about his defense, watching play-by-play frames or literally hearing him yelling “ICE!” from the sidelines, we know of its existence and importance to his schemes during his tenure as Bulls coach.
Designed to nullify side pick-and-roll action and minimize the effect of on-ball screens, the guard would position his body away from the screen, forcing the ball handler to use the entrapped space created, which would lead the offensive player straight into the awaiting Bulls’ big men.
Though brilliant and completely revolutionary, times haven’t stood still. Offenses have reacted to most defenses using Thibodeau’s genius scheme as the norm, and in their own way, have provided the league with an equally devastating counter – supreme spacing and passing.
To combat those teams who have been downsizing positions in an attempt to make spread pick-and-roll schemes even more potent, modern defenses are now electing to handle pick-and-roll coverage by constantly switching on on-ball screens.
The Bulls, too, are juggling with the merits of this approach. By using the natural footwork and lateral quickness Mirotic has displayed on offense, Chicago is also experimenting with power forward as a switching option in pick-and-roll.
As an example, using several defensive sets in the first loss of the season to the Pistons, you will notice the constant switching of defensive assignments from Mirotic when guarding opposing teams in their use of pick-and-roll plays.
As the footage indicates, so far, we’ve seen mixed results.
In several possessions shown, Mirotic has showcased his ability to stay in front of teams’ point guards, even if only on segments of a possession. His length and size has challenged shots, and he has done a good job at moving his feet. But, there have also been lapses.
At times, he will get caught out of position. When this occurs, the team defense will help, forcing others to shift their position. In doing so, if communication breaks down, driving lanes are created, offensive rebounds can be swallowed and second chance points can kick start a dying offense. Unfortunately, this is exactly what occurred against the Pistons, a team who is now good enough to capitalize on others mistakes.
For the Bulls, Nikola represents the new wave; a big man who can move like a perimeter player. Using his raw physical gifts and building his defensive guile as a switching option makes sense if they wish to follow trend. It’s a noble idea to start the season with, but the problem is, Mirotic is not a natural defender, even if willing.
Often caught ball watching, he has the propensity to lose touch of his man, which causes flow-on effects that break down defensive rotations. He doesn’t communicate on defense, and as the man who has replaced Joakim Noah in the starting unit, this loss of talk only compounds any potential help defense assignments that are required to cover for Nikola’s frequent mishaps.
As the Golden State Warriors stomped the league in 2015, teams all over are doing their best to emulate the current World Champions. Everyone is busy trying to find their own iterations of Draymond Green, in an attempt to fuel their own small-ball lineups that can be effective on both ends of the floor. Doing so sounds easy enough, but unfortunately, stumbling upon highly intelligent players who are built like line-backers and move like they shouldn’t, is anything but.
Though Mirotic is tough, resilient and versatile like Green, he is also slight, weak and movable. Opposing guards don’t fear being matched up against him, nor do they worry about his additional length and size. His credibility as a power forward who can guard multiple positions is non-existent in comparison to some of the game’s best and most flexible defensive stoppers.
Coaches are also game-planning against Mirotic defensively. They see him as a weakness. Frankly, I would, too. David Blatt sent Kevin Love straight into Mirotic in hopes of exposing him (he didn’t). Stan Van Gundy, as expected, ran a lot of pick-and-roll action for Reggie Jackson. We should expect this to continue, not only because of the perception of Mirotic’s defensive flaws, but because the league is now so reliant on pick-and-roll basketball.
As someone who has had concerns about the pick-and-roll coverage for some time now, this has only intensified when Hoiberg announced Mirotic and Gasol as the team’s front-court starters. Already questioning the potential defensive identity crisis the Bulls were likely to face under their new coach, adding a switching defense and using a noted “poor” defender in a primary role within this scheme has done nothing to curb previous doubts.
Despite my trepidation, surprisingly, the defense hasn’t been an issue for the Bulls. Through three games, Chicago rank 10th in defensive rating and 7th in defensive field goal percentage. The Mirotic and Gasol pairing, too, has been very solid defensively. As per NBA.com, as a two-man combination, the Spanish duo have held opposing offenses to 98.3 points per 100 possessions. Should this continue, Hoiberg’s decision to start the national teammates will prove to be as effective as it was ballsy.
Mirotic, like the team, has also posted some very impressive numbers defensively. With Nikola on the floor, the Bulls have squeezed their opponents, only allowing a measly 83.7 points per 100 possessions. Without Mirotic, however, the defense has plummeted to 109.2 points per 100 possessions. Put simply, the Bulls need Mirotic on the floor.
Once again, the timely tones of the sample size alarm go off before I can delve too far into these likely meaningless numbers, but nonetheless, the results are encouraging, albeit shockingly. Be that as it may, these statistics haven’t fully convinced me, and I will need to see more before buying completely into this notion that a switching defense can work in Chicago with Mirotic as its main foil.
Should the Bulls continue with this new defensive mindset, they must pick their moments carefully. Despite Reggie Jackson’s huge new contract and his thirst for a starting role, he isn’t an elite point guard. How will this switching approach match up against Oklahoma City in less than a week?
Will it be able to contain Russell Westbrook and negate the pick-and-roll heavy Thunder, or will he thrive when the Bulls send their power forward to guard his relentless carnage?
As the numbers indicate, Nikola’s has been hugely valuable on offense, so much so that any cheap body fouls that he picks up as he tries to check the explosive guards of the league could hurt defensively, but perhaps its largest impact will be felt offensively should he be required to sit with foul trouble.
It will be interesting to see if the Bulls continue with this approach as the season matures. Should that remain the case, I don’t see my skepticism subsiding.
At least, not yet.