It may have taken them 74 games to find it, but the Bulls have stumbled upon a starting lineup that finally makes sense. Stumble being the operative word. The current starting five wouldn’t have been something coach Fred Hoiberg would have implemented had Taj Gibson remained on the roster. Dwyane Wade injuring his elbow also forced this sudden change.
After trialing Bobby Portis as the team’s starting power forward in place of Gibson, Hoiberg finally came to his senses and moved Nikola Mirotic into the four spot. When Wade went out with his season-ending injury, Paul Zipser moved into the small forward position, shifting Jimmy Butler down to shooting guard. Rajon Rondo also replaced Jerian Grant at point guard.
Making a change to the starting lineup this late in the season isn’t an ideal situation, let alone making three. But as the Bulls tend to do, they buck conventional wisdom, and occasionally it pays off.
Oddly, Hoiberg has found a combination that works. In limited minutes (73), a five-man combination of Rondo, Butler, Zipser, Mirotic and Lopez is scoring 139.1 points per 100 possessions whilst holding opponents to 100.7 points. This is an insanely favorable proposition for the Bulls, and it’s dominance has been visible when the unit has shared the floor together.
Though the sample size is small, we shouldn’t be surprised that this lineup has had some success. In a very broad sense, only one weak defender exists in the unit (Rondo). There are two capable three-point shooters (Mirotic, Zipser) and three shot creators (Rondo, Butler, Mirotic). With Lopez manning the middle, rebounding efficiency is still present, particularly offensively. Relative to the five-man units the Bulls have played, there’s also a hint of athleticism.
Comparing previous starting lineups, you’ll find more gaps. The Three Alpha units never had enough shooting and were exposed defensively with both Wade and Rondo guarding the perimeter. Gibson and Lopez combinations limited the Bulls’ ability to space the floor and to have more than two shooters on the court at one time.
Now, be it due to a conscious decision or by accident, Jimmy Butler is finally being paired with two forwards capable of stretching the defense and hitting threes. Since his return into the starting unit, Mirotic has made over 40 percent of his three-pointers. Though inconsistent, Zipser has made 34.3 percent of his threes since the turn of the new year. To add to their shooting, both forwards have performed adequately on defense, and on occasions, have created defensive stops in isolation possessions.
In effect, the Bulls have replaced Wade and Gibson with two 3&D options — or at least two players capable of imitating such a role for stretches. In doing so, Butler has more lanes to operate in, which has enabled a better balance between Butler the scorer and facilitator.
With shooting options on the flank, Butler can now kick out to the wing when driving with confidence. Previously, a double-team would come to Butler and would force the team to pass to poor shooters, but with Mirotic and Zipser capable of hitting open threes, it adds an element to the Bulls offense that had been missing, and Butler has suddenly turned into a double-double machine, recording 10 or more points and assists in the last three games.
The lineup change has also made Rondo playable. His individual offense has been strangely strong in March, making over 50 percent of his threes and scoring 10 points a game. The extra space has allowed Rondo to look for his shot more, while also being a secondary play-maker behind Butler. The two have struck a nice balance between sharing the play-making load, and with Rondo more than willing to let Butler handle and create, there is a synergy between the two guards that cannot exist when Wade is also part of the equation.
Replacing Wade as third creator is Mirotic, who has had a greater role in creating his own offense off the dribble. Previously cast as a stand still shooter with the reserves, an increased role with the starters and more touches in Wade’s absence has empowered Mirotic to return to his multi-faceted game, which we haven’t consistently seen since his rookie season.
With something to prove and a new contract to play for, Mirotic poured in 28 points twice in the last week. Naturally, with the additional floor spacing and a reduced burden on Butler to carry the scoring load, the Bulls won both games.
Again, to reiterate, the sample is small. It could all come crashing down if Rondo rediscovers his worst form and Mirotic returns to previous slumbers. Should that not occur, some form of a regression to the mean will surely strike at some point, but a balance between this unit’s offensive rating (139.1) and the Bulls’ overall season mark (104.4) would be a welcomed sight.
While it’s joyous to see the Bulls find something this late in the season, it’s also maddening. Building a functional lineup shouldn’t be this hard. It shouldn’t take a coach this long in the season to find a lineup that works, even if it’s politically difficult to make dramatic changes when those pulling the strings on personnel decisions are influencing rotations.
Nevertheless, this late-season success should form a blueprint for the franchise in the offseason. By looking to improve the roster with overall functionality in mind, there may yet be some hope in the Bulls fielding a competitive team around Jimmy Butler.