Get ready, Bulls fans. The time is almost here.
With the start of the 2015-2016 NBA season just over twenty-four hours away, there is a lot for Bulls fans to get excited over. Derrick Rose is back from his latest injury hiatus, newly-minted superstar Jimmy Butler is ready to show the league he deserves his huge payday, and the starting front-court duo of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic are fresh off of amazing Eurobasket performances and ready to bring the Spanish connection to the United Center in a big way.
All of that you probably knew.
A better kept secret is that the bench unit rookie head coach Fred Hoiberg has cobbled together may just be the Bulls secret weapon. Before we get into why, let’s take a ride in the (sort-of) wayback machine and look at last year’s bench production.
The 2014-2015 Chicago Bulls bench was, to put things gently, a bit of a mess. A logjam at the small forward spot brought irregular defensive and offensive performances as veteran Mike Dunleavy Jr competed with sophomore Tony Snell and rookies Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic for minutes in Tom Thibodeau’s rotation. As a result, the Bulls’ bench ranked only 15th in the league, with a woeful -0.2 defensive efficiency and an average rebounding score of 12.7 rebounds per game, good for a bottom-five finish among bench units across the league. Some of this was due to the inconsistently borne of constantly moving players such as Aaron Brooks from the bench to fill in for Rose, but watching last year’s Bulls bench was often an exercise in agony, as they seemed unable to get stops and only occasionally found a rhythm offensively.
That should all change this season, and there’s one really big reason why.
Joakim Noah has, though his boundless energy and irrepressable spirit, defied expectations for his entire career. Coming out of college, there were questions as to whether the undersized, lanky center could ever develop into a reliable option for the then-young Bulls team.
It’s safe to say that Noah has put those questions to rest.
He became the heart and soul of a Bulls team which contended year after year for Eastern Conference supremacy and earned a reputation as one of the most fearsome defenders in the game. He garnered serious consideration for the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2014, leading an injury-shattered Bulls roster to the playoffs before a balky knee finally gave up on him, bringing that season to an ignominious close. His performance was down in nearly every statistical category from the year before, as the offseason knee surgery he underwent obviously impaired his ability to deliver on the court.
If Noah’s career has been a roller coaster, than this season should be one the more thrilling turns in recent memory. CBS’ James Herbert wrote at length about the efforts the veteran has made to prepare himself after a disappointing 2014-2015 campaign, taking advantage of the same training regimen which allowed Kyle Korver to have the best season of his career at the advanced (for pro athletes) age of 34.
Bench Mob 3.0
Beyond Noah, the 2015-2016 Chicago Bulls’ bench has been almost completely overhauled. Due to the overwhelming performance of the Gasol/Mirotic duo in Eurobasket, Fred Hoiberg announced his intention to have Noah come off the bench, where he will be joined by veteran “hard hat, lunch pail” player Taj Gibson. Both starters under former head coach Tom Thibodeau, Noah and Gibson once formed one of the most feared defensive tandems in the NBA. The move allows Noah to return to his natural Center position, where he thrived in seasons past. It also allows the bench to capitalize on the chemistry between the two longtime teammates. This version of the bench is constructed in an inside-out format, with pick-and-roll maestro Aaron Brooks well-equipped to create ball movement in Hoiberg’s fast-paced system. Combine Noah’s superb passing ability (a rarity among players at his position), Gibson’s defensive tenacity and solid mid-range game, Brooks’ penetration ability, and a w ealth of long-range marksmen in Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and Mike Dunleavy (once he returns from injury), and you have a lineup that could contend with most starting units in the East.