The Bulls’ starting five is set and healthy before Thursday’s season opener against the Boston Celtics, with Fred Hoiberg announcing that Taj Gibson will start at power forward after his strong preseason.
Or, if one chooses to be a little more realistic, Gibson won the competition in large part due to Nikola Mirotic’s underwhelming showing, as Mirotic came into camp as the favorite with his outside shooting making him a more natural fit offensively.
With Gibson’s insertion, the Bulls will be one of the worst 3-point shooting starting fives in the league, although Mirotic and Doug McDermott can balance things out when they’re on the floor.
“We feel like he has played excellent basketball throughout the preseason,” said Hoiberg of Gibson. “He’s been good in practices. We’ve talked to our guys about that. Niko has had a couple good practices in a row now. You try to get him in a good rhythm coming out of the gate. But that’s the way we’re going to start.”
Hoiberg has touted Mirotic’s practices as being stellar, but he struggled though most of the preseason. It seemed like Hoiberg was attempting to give Mirotic the benefit of the doubt before announcing what should’ve been obvious to those who’ve watched the Bulls in the preseason, that Gibson was the better performer.
“Taj is a fighter,” said Jimmy Butler, who wasn’t surprised with the outcome. “That’s one thing you know you’re going to get from him. He’s one of the toughest guys that we have, somebody that’s always working.”
One of Butler’s main concerns last season was that the Bulls lost their defensive identity, that their toughness left the building when Tom Thibodeau was fired and the offensive-minded Hoiberg was ushered in.
Presumably, Gibson’s nod can be taken as a return to the Bulls’ roots—although anyone in their right mind wouldn’t be wrong to think if Mirotic had been the least bit consistent, he would be a starter and Gibson would be a reserve.
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“I think everybody is trying, man,” Butler said. “I’m not going to say that we’ve got the best defenders, that’s for sure, but as long as you’re putting in the effort. Sometimes good defense is just getting in the damn way. I’m telling you.”
The Bulls finished as a middle of the pack team in terms of defensive efficiency last season, but experienced a steep decline after the All-Star break, leading to their first lottery appearance since 2008.
“As long as guys are out there competing, we’ll take it if someone hits a tough shot over you or whatever,” Butler said. “When we think about the offensive end entirely too much that’s when we get down a lot.”
With Dwyane Wade, Butler and Rajon Rondo needing Mirotic to provide the necessary floor spacing to keep defenses honest, it means there’s more pressure on Hoiberg to stagger minutes and alter his rotations early in games.
Wade has shot the ball well in the preseason, but is a career 28-percent shooter from deep. Rondo shot 36.5 percent last season but like Wade, is at 28 percent for his career.
Butler is the best of the bunch, having shot 37.8 percent in 2014-15 but dipped to 31 percent last year, and is a 32.8 percent shooter for his career.
“We just have to step up, take them, shoot them with confidence like we do every day in practice,” Butler said. “I think we’ll be fine. As long as we’re guarding, the offense will take care of itself. We’re constantly in attack mode. There’s more than just shooting 3s.”
Which means a tough task just became all the more complicated. Hoiberg typically replaced Wade with McDermott midway through the first quarter and then brings Wade back to finish up in place of Butler.
More tinkering and some downright wizardry will have to be worked for things to go smoothly—but then again, it doesn’t have to be smooth to be effective.
“if we can things staggered it the right way---and we’ll continue to look at things---what you see on Thursday might not be what you see in the middle of the season,” Hoiberg said. “We have to start somewhere. We’re comfortable with the lineup and the rotation plan we have.”
CLEVELAND — As the Cubs readied themselves to play in the franchise’s first World Series game since 1971, a number of players were able to look over at the Cleveland Indians and seen an opposing team transformed by good-dude-in-chief Mike Napoli.
Those players, specifically, were catcher David Ross and starters Jon Lester and John Lackey, all of whom teamed up with Napoli to win the 2013 World Series with the Boston Red Sox.
“I know their players are going to be ready just based on one player alone and that’s Mike Napoli, I know what he brings to the table,” Lester said during the Cubs’ pennant-clinching celebration. “He helped transform our 2013 team.”
Napoli’s impact on the 2016 Indians stretches beyond his career high totals in home runs (34), RBIs (102) and runs (92). While he was only worth 1.0 WAR despite those gaudy totals, Napoli’s unquantifiable presence on the field and in the clubhouse helped keep Cleveland from breaking apart despite injuries to outfielder Michael Brantley and starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar.
“Having a guy that’s playing every day can unify the group is really tremendous,” Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo said. “I think it’s undervalued sometimes.”
Napoli played a key part in the Red Sox’ worst-to-first turnaround in 2013, quickly becoming a leader in a clubhouse Lackey said was a “zoo.” It was one of the 34-year-old’s best seasons in the majors, too — he hit 23 home runs with an .842 OPS — and he became a guy his teammates knew they could trust to come through in key situations.
“He’s a guy you want in your foxhole,” Lackey said. “He’s a winner. He steps up in big situations and wants to be in them. I’m not surprised to see him on another winning team for sure.”
Ross sees a lot of Napoli in the personality first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who’s emerged as one of the Cubs’ best leaders during their rapid ascendance to the top of the National League over the last two years.
“When you do things with Rizzo off the field, you have a good time. Napoli’s one of those guys (too),” Ross said. “No matter what you’re doing, you’re going to enjoy yourself. He’s one of those guys you’re like, Yep, I gotta have Napoli go with me, I gotta have Rizz go with me, because we’re going to have fun.”
A few minutes after Ross, Lester and Lackey filed out of Progressive Field’s posh club lounge, Napoli walked in wearing a Party at Napoli’s T-shirt. Ross said he wanted to get his hands on one of those shirts in time for Monday’s World Series media day, but had to settle for wearing a Cubs hoodie. But the whole “Party at Napoli’s” thing encompasses why he’s been such a good fit in clubhouses in Cleveland, Boston, and everywhere else he’s been in the majors.
“I’m just myself,” Napoli said. “I like to have a good time, I enjoy my teammates on and off the field.”
Said Lackey: “He’s a great teammate, a gamer and just a good dude.”