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Steve Aschburner

Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer
Center Joakim Noah (left) and forward Carlos Boozer have better numbers when they don't start together.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Bulls barrel on while starting bigs search for their groove

Posted Jan 17 2012 3:35PM

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls, since Tom Thibodeau took over as head coach at the start of the 2010-11 season, are 74-23, which has Thibodeau on pace to challenge Avery Johnson's mark as the NBA coach who100 victories. Johnson got there in his second season in Dallas, with a 100-31 (.7633) mark, leaving Thibodeau (.7628) 33 games to win 26.

The Bulls' defense has been stifling under Thibodeau. He has the league's reigning Most Valuable Player (Derrick Rose) and an indispensable secondary player (Luol Deng) performing at an All-Star level. Chicago has one of the NBA's deepest benches. And the shooting-guard position that so vexed the Bulls a year ago has been upgraded via an improved Ronnie Brewer and, whenever he gets back from a lingering groin injury, veteran Richard Hamilton.

So nitpicking over the inefficiencies of center Joakim Noah and power forward Carlos Boozer seems a little piggish, given Chicago's No. 1 record in the East (12-3) and No. 2 scoring differential (8.53). Life is good for the Bulls, all things considered. Dwelling on Noah-Boozer -- and Thibodeau's usage of them, particularly late in games -- seems something half-empty.

Better to notice the work of their replacements, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, and characterize that as half-full. Rare is the NBA coach who can shuffle through four quality big men the way Thibodeau can, a luxury for a guy who puts so much emphasis on protecting the paint and helping defensively.

"Omer would start for a lot of teams in the NBA," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said before the Bulls' victory over the Raptors on Saturday at United Center. "He's an effective big man. Length, size, strength, he knows how to play. He's experienced from playing over in Europe. And Taj would start on a lot of teams also. So [Thibodeau has] two pretty good players in those two guys who can step in and play. Both those guys are very effective."

Foul trouble and inconsistent play often turned Noah and Boozer into spectators in the fourth quarter through Chicago's first dozen games, with Asik and Gibson providing the defensive security blanket that Thibodeua grabs for down the stretch. To the coach, the 10-2 result was all the explanation needed for his rotation.

But a lot of fans and media saw the sight of the Bulls' third and fourth most-important players on the bench late in games as troubling now and crippling later. If that ends up being yet another thing to worry about -- like Derrick Rose's undue offensive burden -- the team would have to win in spite of that, rather than because of it.

Where the coaching staff might see only W's and L's, many others see $'s. As in, the $131 million still owed to Boozer (last four years of his five-year deal) and Noah (new five-year extension). Even if Bulls vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman don't have to re-sign Asik and Gibson anytime soon, it maybe ought to rankle the front office that two backups making about $3 million have been doing the work of guys being paid almost $26 million this season.

Order in the Bulls' pecking order appeared to be restored at Boston Friday, when Boozer and Noah both logged 10:31 in the fourth quarter and wound up with fat positives (plus-19 for Boozer, plus-13 for Noah) in an 88-79 victory. Asked about his use of the starting bigs down the stretch, Thibodeau laughed. "I was waiting for that one," he said. "Not enough, too much -- what's next?"

Thibodeau has cited matchups as the driver of his decisions, which explained the 4:05, combined, that centers Noah and Asik played against the Raptors over the weekend. But Noah and Boozer were back to watching in the fourth at a blowout loss in Memphis on Monday.

That makes four of the last seven games in which neither Noah or Boozer played a lick in the fourth quarter, and another game in which Noah (44 seconds) and Boozer (1:45) made only cameos. That is the hidden concern in glossing over this trend with the Bulls' bigs.

Noah and Boozer often don't look comfortable together on the court because, frankly, they haven't played together all that much.

A year ago, Chicago was 24-5 when the two players started together. But that meant Chicago played 53 games in which one or the other (or both) were not in the starting lineup. First Boozer missed all of November after breaking his wrist in training camp. Then Noah lost the middle third of his season to hand surgery. By the end, the two had started together for two nine-game stretches, a five-gamer and then the season's final half-dozen games. That was it.

In the games they started together, Noah averaged 9.4 points with 9.2 rebounds, and Boozer had 15.0 and 8.7. But in the games they didn't, Noah's numbers were 15.2 and 12.2. Boozer's were 20.0 and 10.5.

It seems logical to say that, if one key frontcourt player isn't available, the other's production goes up. But by that great a difference? The stats seemed to fuel theories that Noah and Boozer don't mesh well. Boozer is a pick-and-pop guy, while Noah is better in the pick-and-roll. Some though that they get in each other's way at times.

There is something to the notion that big guys have to develop a rhythm, a sense of the other. The best of them manage to adapt quickly. For all the praise he gets as the Big Fundamental, San Antonio's Tim Duncan actually has tweaked his game to suit the big man playing alongside him, from David Robinson to Tiago Splitter to everyone in between.

"[Tim has] really been unique," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He establishes some sort of environment in which these guys feel comfortable with him. In a low-key sort of way, he adjusts to what they can do. He looks at what a DeJuan Blair can do or a Malik Rose and he adjusts, and that makes it easier for them to just do what they're capable of doing."

Said Duncan: "For the big next to you, you have to develop a confidence in what they do, an understanding of what they do. So that it's a lot less thought and just a lot more play -- you know where guys are going to be, you can trust them and not hesitate when you want to pull the trigger on something."

Is it as simple as getting and staying out of the other man's way?

"Spacing is huge, probably the most important part," Popovich said. "Knowing when to be out of the block, when to be out on a wing or the dead area on the baseline, up on the elbows. We've had guys like Malik Rose or Blair or Splitter who could really clog up the middle, so Timmy's got to be the guy who adjusts and goes out."

Now consider Noah and Boozer, thrown together last season and then separated for chunks of time -- even in practice -- by injuries. When Boozer was out, Thibodeau used Gibson in his place. But when Noah went down, it was veteran Kurt Thomas who stepped in. That kept Gibson and Asik together with the second unit, which means they actually got more familiar with each other than Noah and Boozer ever did.

This season, no one has had much time together on the court outside of games. The desire to win each night is the reason Noah and Boozer have been sitting late in games. But winning in May and maybe beyond is why they shouldn't be sitting too long.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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