Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Versatility key to success for Bulls

Bulls closing in on a regular lineup rotation and playing style after experimentation in preseason

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By Sam Smith | 10.19.2015 | 8:10 a.m.

There was much discussion about size and speed and lineups and rotations last week when the Bulls lost in preseason to the Detroit Pistons. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah started together and the Bulls fell behind, later doing better when Gasol began the second half with Nikola Mirotic. Hoiberg said the Bulls this week as they play the Charlotte Hornets Monday will begin to close in on a regular rotation and starters in the fourth quarter after considerable experimentation in the 2-3 start.

Obviously, the lineup will remain somewhat uncertain with Derrick Rose still recovering from orbital fracture surgery and not yet scrimmaging in practice. Lineup decisions have to be made soon, and Hoiberg has made clear in comments and playing style he prefers a faster, more open, shooting game.

Joakim Noah is not one to focus on individual achievements or accomplishments. He always has been consistent in his outspoken beliefs that team first is the best measure of success.

Noah was chatting with reporters long after the Bulls loss to the Pistons. Noah generally is the last Bulls players to leave the locker room after games, sometimes working out, often with a long shower, his natural intensity often lost in the nuances of the result.

Small ball, transition play, quicker and longer shots have been the topics of much preseason conversation. Noah raised a question.

“It’s funny,” Noah said with more wry smile than belly laugh. “Golden State won this year and a lot of people are moving toward small ball. But Memphis really had a shot to win. If they win are we talking about this?”

Perhaps not, and the Grizzlies did give the Warriors perhaps their most difficult series, the Warriors trailing 2-1. And that even with Mike Conley out early and limited in the series after facial surgery.

The world, especially in sports, often takes the copycat route. If they won, they must have been doing it correctly.

The Warriors triumphed in the Finals often behind a lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green.

Ah ha! That must be it. The new NBA?

That probably would not be Noah’s first choice, and perhaps not for the Bulls, who appear to have maybe the best big man depth in the NBA with Gasol, Noah, Taj Gibson, Mirotic and rookie Bobby Portis.

But is that passé now in the NBA? Has the game’s evolution left the Bulls monkeying around with a fundamental roster in modernist times?

That will be much debated as the season progresses, and the test case as much as anywhere may be with the Bulls: Will they play big and use their advantage? Can they afford to? Can they match the smaller lineups elsewhere? Should they?

Noah, for one, wasn’t saying. But, you know in his observations about the Grizzlies, he was just sayin’.

Playing faster, fast breaking, scoring in transition, getting easy baskets generally are the talking points of preseason. Then the regular season begins, defenses begin getting back more quickly, coaches become even more insecure and controlling, the game slows down and then the running grinds to a halt.

That has begun to change to some extent, and the Warriors’ success - though last season they had capable big guys with Andrew Bogut, David Lee and Festus Ezeli — has been the template.

And now, heavens to Murgatroyd, the often languorous Eastern Conference seems ready to get in the left lane.

The bruising Pacers have done the biggest 180, which they’d like to be their speed. Paul George is their power forward with a team filled with guards. Washington has waved goodbye to the Gortat/Nene combo to turn Kris Humphries into a three-point shooter at power forward. Other small ball aficionados this season will be the Bucks, Hawks, Raptors, Celtics and the Cavs as LeBron plays plenty of power forward.

The run and fun East?

Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy discussed the phenomenon last week when his Pistons were in the United Center.

“People are focused on everyone going small,” Van Gundy agreed. “To me watching it is more the need for versatility and the need to play a lot of different ways. Can you play Memphis with (their) two big guys? Indiana with Paul George at the four? More versatility. I don’t think it’s that everyone is doing small.

“They’re trying to play fast here (Chicago),” noted Van Gundy. “Playing Joakim and Pau will they play fast? Will that slow them down? All I know is you have to be prepared for how everyone is going to play. You have to have the personnel and defensive schemes and coverage to play against all of it. I think that’s where the game has gone, so many styles of play and you have to be adaptable. Memphis is not downsizing to play against you. You have to be ready for all of them.”

Small ball is hardly new in the NBA. Mike D’Antoni is often credited with the sea change in the NBA with his high scoring Phoenix Suns with Amar’e Stoudemire their big man. D’Antoni was much condemned and laughed at in the early 2000s, supposedly playing a game that couldn’t win. Until it did as Miami won titles with LeBron and Chris Bosh their big men and now the Warriors. Now D’Antoni is a guru.

Playing small, however, has been a gimmick for many years, usually for less talented teams. If you didn’t have Kareem, then you tried to make him guard you outside. Same with Wilt. Opponents tried it all the time against them, Doug Moe in the 1980s, the Knicks with Jerry Lucas in the early 1970s. Don Nelson preferred it and even when he had a tall guy like Manute Bol, he told him to shoot threes.

But Van Gundy is correct about the versatility, which is the answer to true greatness.

It’s not so much the matchups of whether your smalls can outshoot their bigs or their bigs can outrebound your smalls. It’s whether your players can counter whatever the opponent presents.

That’s why the answer is the Bulls of 1995-96, though it’s almost impossible to repeat.

Can you put five guys on the floor who basically can play every position? It’s what Miami talked about so much with LeBron in their supposed positionless basketball. It wasn’t. Dwyane Wade didn’t play centers. Chris Bosh didn’t play point guards. Though he often was condemned for it, I recall then Atlanta general manager Billy Knight espousing the notion when he passed on Chris Paul and Deron Williams to select Marvin Williams in the 2005 draft. The idea was to get five players all about 6-7 or 6-8 to switch everything and play everyone. Williams wasn’t it, and Knight was replaced.

Basically, only the 1995-96 Bulls did it with Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman.

“Toni and Dennis played center,” then Bulls coach Phil Jackson recalled in a recent interview. “We had a mobile, manipulative ball handling group of guys. People had a very hard time against that lineup. It was that lineup, the mobility of that lineup that could be implemented in end game. It had guys 6-8, 6-8, 6-9 6-10, all capable of pushing the ball, rebounding the ball, organizing and playing any position in the offense.”

It was a group as magical as it was rare.

Yet don’t be fooled. Basketball still is a big man’s game. Though the big men have become more versatile.

The Bulls have the advantage once Rose returns of potentially having the kind of versatility on their roster that can match up with various teams. But how will the Bulls choose to play? We should get a better idea this week with the last three preseason games. Joakim Noah likely wonders as well.

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