Bulls focusing on the boards early in training camp

The Bulls hope to rebound this season from a disappointing finish without a playoff appearance for the first time since 2008.

They also hope to rebound.

Which is why as training camp practices began Tuesday morning in the Advocate Center, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg stressed that the starting positions weren’t decided.

Well, maybe one or perhaps two because, well, rebounding and who is going to do it may become one of the biggest issues dribbling into the 2016-17 season.

“I think we’re pretty set in the backcourt with Rajon (Rondo), Jimmy (Butler) and (Dwyane) Wade,” Hoiberg conceded. “We’re going to get baskets out of cutting and slashing and slipping out of screens when teams try to switch on us. I think the big thing with us offensively is we need to be a much better cutting and screening team.”

Then asked about Nikola Mirotic as the starting power forward to complement presumed starting center Robin Lopez, Hoiberg hesitated.

“It’s an open competition,” Hoiberg insisted. “That’s the thing I’m most excited about. Today was a great indication of the competitiveness of the practice. Guys were flying around, competing, talking. They were playing together, playing unselfishly. We’re going to play a lot of different combinations in this preseason. Not only in practice, but we’ll have seven opportunities in these preseason games to see who fits best with who and then plan the rotations accordingly. I ran Taj (Gibson) with the first group today. I ran Bobby (Portis) a little bit with the first group. I ran Niko a little bit with the first group. It’s going to be ongoing and we’ll see who wins that spot.”

Hoiberg even hesitated to award Lopez the starting center position, though it seems unlikely anyone else could jump in. And Butler praised working with Lopez Tuesday.

“I got a wide open layup because he sealed everyone off,” said Butler. “The way he’s crashing the boards, sets incredible screens, and he can shoot it a little bit. He has great hands, nice footwork. He’s going to be big. Everyone is going to love him.’’

There will be times against small lineups, like Golden State’s use of Andrew Bogut last season, the Bulls will go without a center or perhaps Gibson or Portis at center. But Lopez seems locked in to start for now.

“Again, it’s open right now,” Hoiberg insisted about the center position. “But Robin is another guy who has been really, really impressive since he’s been here. His ability to seal in transition, he has great strength. He can pass. He’s always going to defend. And the great thing about Robin is he’s not going to play outside of who he is. He’s going to know what his role is and he’s going to play it.”

So that’s probably four.

But the fifth really is an open question because Lopez is just an adequate rebounder.

Lopez’ career average is just 5.4 rebounds per game, though he didn’t play much his first four years in the league while in Phoenix, and they didn’t much care about rebounding. Lopez averaged a career high 8.5 rebounds per game in 2013-14 with Portland and 7.4 last season with the Knicks. He’s proven exceptionally durable, which is rare for the Bulls. But he’ll be trying to replace two of the best rebounders of the last decade, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. Gasol was among the league leaders his two seasons with the Bulls, averaging at least 11 rebounds per game both seasons. Noah in limited play last season in 22 minutes per game still averaged more rebounds than Lopez in his best season.

And even with that, the Bulls were one of the league’s more disappointing rebounding teams last season.

The Bulls were third best in total rebounds. But their differential of plus 0.4 per game was 12th. They were last in the league in giving up offensive rebounds and 25th overall in opponent’s rebounds.

The positive is they have added two excellent rebounding guards.

Rondo is one of the league’s top rebounding guards, averaging 4.8 for his career and six rebounds last season. That was third among guards, behind only Russell Westbrook and James Harden, fourth if Nicholas Batum is considered a guard.

Hoiberg also said again how engaged Rondo was, if not nominating him for The Voice TV show.

“He’s got the best voice on the team,” Hoiberg said, referring to Rondo’s floor directions. “When you have a point guard out there who can get you into something and talk the way he does, that sets the tone for everybody. If you have a guy not only offensively getting you into something, but defensively making sure guys are pointing and talking and getting back and matched up in transition, that’s where it starts. He’s been great. He got us off to a great start.”

Wade has a career average of 4.8 rebounds per game and last season was still pulling down more than four per game. Jimmy Butler averaged more than five rebounds per game each of the last two seasons at guard. He’ll play more forward with Wade at shooting guard. The Bulls arguably can claim the more versatile rebounding perimeter in the game.

They may need it, though it could be asking a lot for Wade to repeat that both end performance and Rondo to run the team and hit the boards like that.

Which likely is why the coaching jury is still out on the power forward position.

With Lopez sort of penciled in as the starting center and the Three not considered that adept at the three, it’s understandable the Bulls would want to balance the lineup by having Mirotic win the starting power forward spot.

With Lopez and Butler up front, the Bulls need someone to spread the court and get the defense to come out of the lane for that cutting and slashing, presumably of Butler and Wade, that Hoiberg discussed on Day One.

But can Mirotic rebound well enough? Will he?

He averaged 5.5 rebounds per game last season in what often was a weakened state after midseason appendix surgery and then complications. Mirotic averaged about 6.5 rebounds the first month and about six overall before his surgery and then fewer than five afterward. He has proven to be a good defensive rebounder at times. Five of his seven double figure rebound games last season were before his surgery.

But if you can’t get the ball off the backboard, you can’t run and push in transition, which the Bulls hope to do.

Gibson has been one of the Bulls best at rebounds per minute and he has improved his baseline shooting range some, though is not a three-point threat.

Portis can shoot threes, but the team probably remains wary of such a major role for a player who wasn’t in the regular rotation much of his rookie season last year.

“I think the biggest improvement with Bobby is his overall consistency,” said Hoiberg. “He had a great summer. We worked a lot on his shooting range, and he showed that in the summer league out in Vegas. But it’s such a big adjustment for those guys who come from college into the NBA, especially from a system like Bobby played [at Arkansas]; it was run and gun, it was press, 40 minutes of hell mentality. That’s a big adjustment. Early on, Bobby struggled a bit. But the big thing about that kid is how willing he is to learn, how much he wants to watch film and get in the gym early. He wants to work on his game, and it pays off. That work ethic that Bobby has I think is his biggest strength, and that’s a reason the kid has a chance to be a star in this league.”

And Butler said the players are in tune and relating as well as they have in awhile.

“I think for the most part, yeah, you definitely gotta like each other (to have success),” said Butler. “If you don’t, and you can say this doesn’t happen, but I feel like if you don’t like a guy you’re not going to pass him the ball. I think there’s a lot of liking on this team. Like I said, everybody wants everybody to be successful, and today we were really over passing the ball. We would get an open shot and we would pass it just so this guy can have it when really you were supposed to shoot it, you were supposed to drive it. Do we like each other too much? I hope so.’’

It’s the start of a rebound, at least.