With opening night against the Celtics coming soon, Fred Hoiberg and his staff are dealing with some difficult choices in forming a consistent rotation for the opening weeks of the season.
Injuries are one factor complicating the situation, with top draft pick Denzel Valentine sidelined since the first preseason game because of a sprained ankle and Nikola Mirotic tweaking his back against the Hornets on Monday night.
And then there’s the trade the Bulls completed Monday that brought in former NBA Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams from Milwaukee in exchange for forgotten reserve Tony Snell. There’s no question Carter-Williams brings a much-needed dimension with his ability to provide quality defense at the 1, 2 and 3 positions. The Bulls were hoping Snell could be the guy to provide perimeter defense when Jimmy Butler is on the bench, but Snell wasn’t able to handle the physical nature of the NBA game. It was curious to hear Bucks coach Jason Kidd immediately anoint Snell as the likely starter at shooting guard in Milwaukee, but as Carter-Williams found out, Kidd has been known to sour on players very quickly.
After missing almost all of training camp, it will be interesting to see how quickly Carter-Williams takes on a major role with the Bulls. The minutes MCW plays will likely keep Valentine on the bench, and the Bulls were extremely high on the former Michigan State star, both at the draft and heading into camp. Both players are about the same size with the ability to play multiple positions. Valentine is clearly the better shooter, with Carter-Williams the better defender.
So, how will Hoiberg use the two lanky swingmen, and what will that mean for the playing prospects of backup guards Isaiah Canaan, Jerian Grant and Spencer Dinwiddie?
My prediction early on is Carter-Williams will get the first crack at the backup point guard spot behind Rajon Rondo, using his 6-foot-6 length to direct the offense and get the ball to shooters like Mirotic and Doug McDermott, with either Butler or Dwyane Wade in the lineup as a second facilitator. Valentine will probably get limited minutes early as the backup shooting guard, with Canaan also used in that role if the Bulls are looking to come from behind with his quick-strike 3-point shooting ability.
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The obvious losers in the MCW trade are Grant and Dinwiddie. The Bulls were pretty excited about acquiring Grant in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks since they had a lot of interest in the former Notre Dame lead guard going into the 2015 draft. Grant has played well at times during the preseason but doesn’t have the play-making ability or long-range shooting skills of some of the other candidates for backup guard minutes. It’s a similar story for Dinwiddie, who shined in some of the early preseason games with Valentine out but could be in danger of losing his roster spot after the acquisition of Carter-Williams.
The other major rotation issue for Hoiberg and his staff involves how to get playing time for young bigs Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio. Portis has the higher pedigree as a 2015 first-round draft pick and former Southeastern Conference Player of the Year at Arkansas. He’s also a solid threat from the 3-point line and is capable of scoring points in bunches.
Felicio is a more explosive athlete than Portis and seems a lot more comfortable playing the backup center position behind Robin Lopez. The native Brazilian is quick off his feet and seems to give the team a lift whenever he takes the court, either with a put-back slam or blocked shot. The question for Hoiberg is: How do you find playing time for Lopez, Taj Gibson, Mirotic, Portis and Felicio at the center and power forward spots? Clearly one of those players will be left out, which means either Portis or Felicio could wind up heading to Hoffman Estates to log some minutes with the D-League Windy City Bulls.
If Hoiberg goes with a full 10-player rotation to start the season, it should look something like this: Butler, Wade, Rondo, Lopez and Gibson start the game, with McDermott and MCW likely the first players off the bench. Mirotic, Felicio and either Valentine or Canaan will round out the second unit.
Quality depth is always a good thing in professional sports, and John Paxson and Gar Forman have done an excellent job of giving the coaching staff a variety of options to attack opposing teams. But developing a consistent rotation, where all the players know their roles can be just as important, and that will be a storyline to watch throughout the season.
For more on Carter-Williams and the Bulls’ rotation issues, check out our latest Bulls Talk Podcast. Kendall Gill and Vincent Goodwill join me for some spirited NBA conversation.