The hardest thing for any coach, especially a rookie head coach, is finding continuity in the starting lineup. Everyone is an expert these days, and having fans and media members alike criticize a coach merely eight games into a new season is the new norm. An 82 game regular season is a long time to figure out who works best with who, who is better coming off the bench and who is better starting. Some people think 82 games is too long, in fact. These are all struggles Chicago Bulls' head coach Fred Hoiberg is dealing with. Before last game against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Bulls were sitting at 4-3 and were in an awkward position. While they were still positioned decently in the Eastern Conference, they had no identity and were seemingly a different team night-in and night-out, an issue that traces back to the days of Scott Skiles coaching. Their offense looked revamped, but their defense looked lackluster early and often, with failed rotations and missed assignments plaguing how well they had been able to hold a lead.
So heading into the game against the 76ers, Hoiberg was reportedly considering a lineup change. Hoiberg already changed the lineup once, replacing Tony Snell with Doug McDermott, a move that proved well-worth it. McDermott has been averaging 12.7 points per game in 24 minutes per game on 56% shooting (including 53.8% from beyond-the-arc) in the three games he has started (including the game against Philadelphia). McDermott has been effective in the starting lineup, benefitting from playing next to guys like Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, and Pau Gasol. So knowing he can tweak the lineup and get good results out of it, Hoiberg pondered another change: Replacing Nikola Mirotic with Joakim Noah. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah started a lot together last year, but they never seemed to develop the chemistry that most people thought they would have. Mirotic had been struggling recently, scoring single-digits in three straight games while struggling from beyond-the-arc after a scorching start, so Hoiberg considered benching him for former Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah.
Just a few minutes before game-time, Noah was listed as the starter, alongside Gasol, McDermott, Butler, and Rose. However, as news that Nerlens Noel of the 76ers would be sitting out the game due to sore wrists seeped out, Noah was pulled from the starting lineup and Mirotic was reinserted. Noah did not end up playing in the game against the 76ers, a game that the Bulls won 111-88. Media members and fans alike pondered and criticized why Noah was removed from the lineup and why Hoiberg was considering benching Mirotic. Hoiberg cleared that up postgame when he stated that Noah said he had knee soreness in his surgically-repaired knee after warm-ups. When asked about not playing, Noah was diplomatic and non-revealing:
You don't plan on these things. I wasn't expecting it. I've been feeling great up to this point, and it just happened. I don't think it's [anything] too serious, but it was definitely a situation where I had to be smart. I wanted to play tonight really bad.
Whenever Noah is ready to play again, he should start a few games. Despite Mirotic's impressive showing against the 76ers (20 points and 10 rebounds), Noah is deserving of his chance in the starting lineup once more. This is the beauty of an 82-game regular season. This is the beauty of the Bulls' depth. This should also not be the last roster/lineup change Hoiberg considers. If the Noah-Gasol tandem doesn't end up working out well, he should consider benching Joakim Noah for Taj Gibson, or Pau Gasol for Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls frontcourt depth is one of their greatest strengths, and that depth has yet to be fully explored. The pairings that Hoiberg can instill in the frontcourt should excite fans. Another thing a lot of people are forgetting in the presence of McDermott's play in the starting lineup is Mike Dunleavy. The likelihood of Dunleavy starting once he is healthy is pretty high, but if McDermott is flourishing in the starting lineup around that time, don't be surprised if Hoiberg decides to have Dunleavy come off the bench.
This is why the Bulls' depth will be the key in how far they go in the postseason. These early-season lineup changes are actually a really good thing and these experiments, while they seem minor now, will prove vital later on in the season. The two constants in the starting lineup are Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler for obvious reasons. However, it will be interesting how many lineup changes Hoiberg considers and actually goes through with. One thing is certain: Hoiberg should continue to experiment with the starting lineup until the Bulls develop an identity.