The 2016-17 Chicago Bulls are a big bag of question marks and potentially fast-ticking time bombs.
After signing Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in July — two ball-dominant stars staring down the barrel of their thirties without their former athleticism — to then put around franchise player Jimmy Butler, the Bulls decidedly didn’t embrace the youth movement they had suggested undertaking at the end of a sourly disappointing 2015-16 campaign. This instead is a pivot into a mainstream-concerned roster weirdness that, while it suggests tons of fun of the cultural and celebrity kind, is perhaps too complicated, both emotionally and tactically, for sophomore head coach Fred Hoiberg to organize into an Eastern Conference contender.
What, though, if things worked out? What if these disparate, intricate puzzles of men formed a selfless and highly effective trio under the guidance of Hoiberg? How would that even look?
The most important hurdle towards this goal, for starters, is ball movement. Wade, Rondo, and Butler all lack fear-inspiring shooting depth — Butler is below 35 percent on his career, while Rondo and Wade are frighteningly worse, both shooting less than 30 percent. Doug McDermott projects to be the best three-point shooter on the team, but he’s still a big concern defensively and in most other regards as he enters his third season.
The best way for any team without a true three-point threat to compensate for their lack of presence at the arc is by way of a kinetic offense, in which the balls flies freely and is allowed to be what it is on all great teams: the fastest, most active player on the floor. Butler and Wade are both known to hold the rock for long stretches of time, dribbling and juking their defenders into submission over an extended series of tricks and slips before shooting, and Rondo — while a perennial league-leader in the assist category — takes a sort of artistic license himself with every possession. The former Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, and Sacramento Kings point guard has bounced around the league in recent years at least in part due to the stubborn streak he takes on when teammates and coaches don’t share his grid-breaking vision for the game.
Rondo, Wade, and Butler need to be on the same wavelength for the Bulls to have any chance. The ideal manifestation of their shared talents involves a ton of back cuts and other old-school misdirection. All three are smart enough to make this happen and build a chemistry that ties the opponent into confused knots, but it’s a tricky piece of alchemy, and who knows if Hoiberg can make it happen? An optimistic reading has him being the ideal coach for the combative Rondo, due to his tranquil, hands-off approach, but the line between laissez-faire and mismanagement can often be quite fine.
Hoiberg and company will need more than a well-fused veteran Cerberus to thrive this year, though. Youngsters Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis, Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and Cristiano Felicio — along with the aforementioned McDermott — will need to fill in where the leading trio cannot. Center Robin Lopez, acquired from the New York Knicks trade that sent Derrick Rose away, is likely to start alongside power forward Taj Gibson and will also play a large role. Lopez can’t shoot either, so Portis and Mirotic especially will need to provide some spacing in the frontcourt to make up for Chicago’s lack of it in the backcourt.
The Bulls’ young core is talented and exciting but needs to execute consistently enough to make their veteran counterparts play into their strengths. If first- and second-year players are turning the ball over and missing assignments, Wade, Butler, and Rondo are all the more likely to lapse into the plodding, spaceless half-court tendencies all their skeptics expect. If the Bulls aren’t pushing the ball far, fast, and often, they won’t win many games.
Hoiberg’s biggest challenge is getting them to accept the strange intersection of ages and talents that his front office has given him, and develop an identity idiosyncratic enough to belly the roster’s trends into the wrong NBA directions.