Does Cristiano Felicio’s strong showing merit a closer look next season? And what are the implications of re-signing Joakim Noah this offseason?
Now that we know the Chicago Bulls are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention following the Indiana Pacers’ clinching the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, the offseason speculation about next year’s Bulls can begin in earnest.
In particular, the future of the Bulls’ frontcourt will provide plenty of intrigue thanks to some strong late play by Cristiano Felicio and Chicago’s suddenly reinvigorated interest in re-signing of Joakim Noah now that Pau Gasol’s departure appears imminent.
Felicio’s play over the past few months has been a minor revelation for the Bulls, and he has upped his production the more Fred Hoiberg has trusted him. In 16 games combining March and April, he has averaged 12.7 minutes, 4.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and a 2.4 plus/minus per game, which easily trumps his numbers from January and February (in 11 games, 5.3 mpg, 1.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg, and a -0.9 +/- per game).
Like fellow NBA rookie Bobby Portis, the 23-year-old Felicio brings an aggressive, high-energy mentality to defense and rebounding off the bench and has also proven to be skilled in the pick-and-roll game, creating easy opportunities for himself close to the basket.
His last two games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Orleans Pelicans were huge, scoring 16 points on at least 75% shooting (even a perfect 7-7 against the Cavs) with at least five rebounds in each contest. In the Pelicans game, with Gasol and Taj Gibson out, Felicio got the start over Portis. But perhaps more telling is the fact that Fred Hoiberg began to trust Felicio in important moments when the Bulls were still in contention, even playing him over Gasol in the 4th quarter of the Cavs game.
In fact, Bulls writer Nick Freidell has remarked that Felicio’s early returns further draw into question GarPax’s inability/refusal to trade Gasol at the trade deadline, noting that keeping Gasol as “part of the team’s core” took minutes away from Felicio and Portis and stunted the Bulls’ overall need to rebuild. While no one would claim Felicio is a better player than Gasol, the former’s ability to provide defensive energy and hustle in important moments—something Gasol is not well known for—may arguably more necessary than Gasol’s scoring for a team that sometimes struggled to get stops late in games.
With that in mind, Felicio’s strong showing, albeit over a small sample size, could cause the Bulls to look closely at giving him an expanded role next season. While he won’t go into next season as a starter in all likelihood, he appears to have earned a place on this roster for the immediate future.
This could have an impact on how the Bulls shape their frontcourt roster for next season as well. Following this season’s collapse, it now seems almost certain that Gasol leaves here for a team more likely to contend for a title right away, and Chicago appears to be resigned to that fact and have shifted to their attention to bringing Noah back instead.
Keeping Noah on the Bulls would add another body to a frontcourt mix that needs one more consistent presence, and his noted defensive ability (when healthy) and leadership could be a welcome infusion for a team that really looked to be lacking these things at the end of the year. Additionally, Noah’s passing ability was sorely missed during the Bulls’ frequency bouts with lack of ball movement and offensive stagnation. He and Gibson would also be great veteran presences, in theory, from which Portis and Felicio could learn, as they are still young and need to develop on the job.
The drawback is that Noah (aside from his excellent ’13-14 campaign) still does not score well, and re-inserting him into this frontcourt rotation would create some redundancy personnel-wise. Aside from Nikola Mirotic, all of the bigs projected to figure significantly into next year’s rotation are defensive-minded players that can’t be counted on to replace Gasol’s pure scoring ability—and Mirotic, despite a very hot stretch at the end of the season, has yet to provide this impact on a nightly basis. Noah basically has to be near the basket to score, and though Felicio, Portis, and Gibson have shown enough jump shooting ability to be respected from mid-range when they’re open, their scoring abilities are hardly formidable.
Also, could it be that re-signing Noah, while not without utility, basically follows the same faulty logic as holding onto Gasol at the deadline does? Does having Joakim Noah—at age 31 and struggling with health issues—as one of your core players get you closer to a championship? For nine years now, the answer has been no. This could potentially work both ways, too, if Noah decides that he would rather play for a contending team than be part of another rebuild and cede minutes to younger players.
We also have to see how the early season strife between Hoiberg and Noah over his role on this team could affect this decision, as Hoiberg’s philosophy could render Noah an ill fit for the Bulls during his tenure.
With that said, it’s no given that the Bulls can realistically upgrade over Noah in free agency if they chose not to re-sign him, as their missing the playoffs and looking dysfunctional while doing so does not make them a desirable location for top free agents right now. Whether or not Noah fits this current team well or even wants to return, he basically becomes one of their top frontcourt targets by default. In short, the Bulls front office have some interesting decisions ahead of them this summer, and this offseason could tell us a bit about their vision for the future.
Though the frontcourt rotation next year likely isn’t going to get as much press as whether or not Butler and Derrick Rose get along or whether or not the Bulls have a shot at landing Kevin Durant in free agency (which they almost certainly don’t), their roster moves at these positions could bear heavily on helping the Bulls escape the quagmire they’ve been creating for themselves.
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