Say what you want about the Chicago Bulls, but they have not built a boring team for this season. If you have even a passing interest in the NBA, you’re going to have an opinion on how this Bulls team is going to go.
There are, however, a number of narratives floating around about the Bulls that don’t ring true after more than a cursory examination. So here’s a look at some myths about the 2016-17 Chicago Bulls, and why they’re busted.
Myth No. 1: The Bulls will have no spacing
OK, the Bulls aren’t going to have the best spacing in the league, that’s for sure. They’re not going to be spread to the furthest edges with room for everyone to create and shoot. That’s not going to happen, but their spacing issues may have been a bit exaggerated.
For starters, just to make sure you’re up to speed, Rajon Rondo shot 35 percent in his 46 games with the Dallas Mavericks in 2014-15, and then 37 percent for 72 games last season in Sacramento. So we’ve got 118 games of him shooting over 35 percent from deep. Yes, it’s possible he falls off a cliff, but Rondo has clearly made a move to focus on improving that part of his game and it’s showing real promise.
That’s a good balance from spots outside of that top of the key mark. That’s promising because it shows Rondo isn’t in need of getting specific shots from specific areas.
The idea of “Rajon Rondo may be their best starting shooter from deep” caused me fits of involuntary laughter for a month after the Bulls put this team together, but it’s actually not that far-fetched.
Additionally, Nikola Mirotic could very well get the starting nod over Taj Gibson. Mirotic, a streaky shooter at the extremes, is lauded as a knockdown, lights-out shooter with his 39 percent season mark from deep. But Mirotic shot 33 percent from October through January, then shot 43 percent the rest of the season. He goes through great hot stretches and long droughts. However, if he settles in at age 25, the threat from the perimeter is still there, and that’s the important part for spacing.
Their biggest problem comes from their bigs. Taj Gibson shot a sterling 61 percent on spot-ups last year, but on very few possessions. Cristiano Felicio shows flashes but is unproven. Same goes for Bobby Portis. However, even a decent mid-range jump from either of those young guys gives Chicago a weapon to create some floor space — yes, mid-range shots can space the floor despite how trendy it is to ignore everything but 3-pointers.
The Bulls also have Doug McDermott, who is an absolutely lights-out shooter, and hey-he’s-pretty-good Tony Snell (36 percent from deep).
Their issues, of course, are Jimmy Butler (as Zach Harper touched on here, Butler’s a disaster from deep) and Dwyane “How did he possibly become a Hall of Fame guard with that 3-point shot?” Wade. One thing to remember, however, is that with Rondo handling the ball, it opens up more opportunities for Wade and Butler to draw defenders to guard their cuts. With Derrick Rose, you weren’t as concerned about his playmaking ability.
All of this is looking at the upsides of this unit, and not the downsides. If Rondo regresses, much of this falls apart, and there’s still a lot of bunching that’s going to happen. There will be games where the Bulls’ spacing will be bad. But there’s also a decent chance it winds up middle of the pack. There’s just very little chance it winds up being among the best of the league.
Myth No. 2: The three-headed backcourt can’t coexist
As I just touched on, with Rondo dealing to cutters, there are opportunities for Wade and Butler all over the place. The bigger key, though, is that Rondo and Wade both made it clear this is Jimmy Butler’s team. Saying things in August is easy, playing that way is tougher, but there’s been a very clear effort to try and establish a pecking order that starts with Butler. As long as Butler gets the ball and the focus he deserves as the team’s best player, that solves a lot.
Issues between Wade and Rondo are likely to be more problematic. The two have a history, and Rondo is very much a guy you have to get used to by all accounts. But bear in mind how similar this is to Rondo’s relationship with Paul Pierce. Pierce operated as the face of the Celtics, the spokesperson and the quote machine, which let Rondo kind of slip away as he’s not prone to enjoying such endeavors.
Rondo’s still an assist machine. He led the league not only in assists and adjusted assists (which factor things like secondary, or hockey assists and free throws), but was also high in the ratio of passes he made which led to such assists. That means when he passed, he passed with purpose. And Wade was still incredibly effective last year.
So you’ve got three productive players, a clear hierarchy and a personality balance that could work out.
The bigger concern is touches, right? Butler wants the ball, Rondo needs the ball to be effective and Wade has had the ball constantly for 13 years. How do they adjust to sharing?
Two things with Wade. One, he learned how to give up the ball when LeBron James showed up. At that time, he was in his prime, but knew James was better. Now he’s not in his prime, and because of that, he knows Butler is better. That leads to the second thing, which is that Wade has shown some signs in media comments of understanding he’s no longer 2009-era-MVP-candidate Dwyane Wade. This is kind of the key to all this. Wade has to be willing to let situations where he knows better wash over him. He has to not get hung up on wanting to correct situations and take over. That’ll be the biggest challenge, but if he can do that, it’ll help. He should take pointers from Pierce’s job with the Wizards in 2015.
For Rondo … look, he’s going to be Rondo. So this could blow up. It didn’t work in Dallas, mostly because of his relationship with Rick Carlisle, who’s not exactly king of the coaches who put up with male cow manure. Fred Hoiberg’s big knock is that (in part due to a heart condition) he’s too soft-spoken, but that might resonate more with Rondo, if Rondo feels trusted.
Again, all of this is delicate and if it falls apart, it’s going to be a train wreck falling into a nuclear waste dump in a ravine, but there’s at least a very clear pattern where his can succeed.
Myth No. 3: The Bulls have no alternatives
The weird thing with the Bulls is that this team very nearly never existed. On draft night, they were deep into talks with Minnesota to send Jimmy Butler to reunite with Tom Thibodeau in exchange for Kris Dunn. But those talks fell apart, as did talks with Boston, and so Chicago kept Butler, and then eventually pivoted into this team.
This team is basically a “We make a lot of money as the Bulls so let’s not rebuild” team. They’re not going to win the title, and they’re not going to really challenge. Wade and Rondo are on one-year deals (due to options). Gibson’s deal expires this summer. Mirotic and Snell are restricted free agents after this year.
So the team can look entirely different, and if need be, they can remake it before the trade deadline. With Felicio, Portis, Jerian Grant, McDermott and rookie Denzel Valentine, there’s a young core in place they can transition to very easily. This is an experiment, and not a bad one. If they make a run and become a trouble-maker in the playoffs, that’s a great season. If nothing else it gets some momentum behind Hoiberg, who had a disastrous first year.
Myth No. 4: This is a good, well-planned experiment
I’ve just explained several reasons why the Bulls have put together what could be a good team, and why all the criticism about the squad is overblown.
But let’s be very clear here: This whole thing is nuts.
The Bulls went from “We’re going to trade both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler inside of a week and start over” to “We’re going to build a playoff contender with Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Butler and Robin Lopez along with a bunch of young dudes.” That’s a turnaround so fast it’ll give you whiplash.
Hoiberg openly had players criticizing his approach last year and never seemed to get them on board with his systems (despite their defensive success), so the Bulls added Rondo and Wade, who has only played for three coaches in his life: Pat Riley, Stan Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra. Rondo is up there for “most difficult personality to get along with” and Wade will suffer no fools at this point in his career. Veteran players tend to rally around each other, so if Butler, Wade or Rondo have issues with Hoiberg (and Butler was one of the players openly running down Hoiberg last year), he could lose the triumvirate.
And that, like crossing the streams, would be bad.
The bench is all young guys, Gibson could be traded, and you’ve got a half dozen real defensive concerns in personnel going in. I’ve said this Bulls team is an experiment, and it is. But some experiments are carefully designed scientific endeavors with rigorous selection of variables and elements in play, and some experiments are “Hey, let’s throw some stuff up in the air and see what happens.” Some experiments have safety procedures and some are done in the backyard without safety goggles.
This Bulls team is definitely the latter, tossing caution to the wind and logic out the window. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, though, and that’s what could make this Bulls team one of the more compelling teams to watch in the upcoming season.
Source: CBS Sports / Busting four myths about the Chicago Bulls heading into the 2016-17 NBA season