Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Why the Bulls expect to win without the long ball

Butler: We're going to 'catch people by surprise'

By Sam Smith

Jimmy Butler knows what they’re saying. No, not about the hair. About the shooting, about the offense, about the Bulls appearing, well, contrary to the latest NBA conventional wisdom about success: Speed, space and shoot those threes. They’re saying the Bulls are headed the wrong direction down a one-way street, climbing on a bicycle when everyone else is in a sports car, trying it much too differently. You know, things they said to the Beatles, Steve Jobs, Copernicus and the American revolutionaries. Hey, no way that can work!

“I think I know how it’s going to play out,” Butler said cryptically after Bulls practice Tuesday. “I think everybody overlooks us, anyway. All we can do is overachieve. I know the group of guys we’ve got. I know how we’ve been working and preparing. So I know how I think it’s going to go. I don’t pay attention to (the critics and prognosticators). But I hear what people say. People may come up and say to me, ‘Yo, y’all going to win X amount of games.’ I understand everybody’s entitled to their opinion. I think the first amendment says that. That doesn’t mean I have to take any of their nonsense.

“We made so much movement over the summer that everybody thinks we can’t play together,” said Butler. “It’s all fine and dandy until it happens and we’re playing extremely well. Catch people by surprise. We say there’s always a chance. They say, ‘Oh, they could be a top four or they could be a 10 seed in the East.’ It just depends on how we play and how we execute.”

Like the old coach said when asked about his team’s execution: “Yes, I’m all for it.”

And so this head scratching, uncertain, hopeful, mystery of a Bulls season drives toward its center jump, which is Thursday at home against Boston. The NBA regular season tips off Tuesday night, and the Bulls get a potential break with Boston coming in on the second of a back to back.

Though the basketball community, as a whole, has its doubts.

The Las Vegas betting line for Bulls wins is slightly below 40, and most of the national publications have the Bulls on the outside of the playoffs. Though there was widespread agreement there were issues about continuing with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, the Bulls adding eight new players, including veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, has left most uncertain of just what kind of team the Bulls will produce.

So the consensus thinking has come down to the view that lacking three-point shooting experts, the Bulls will not measure up. That outside view was enhanced Tuesday when Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg finally acknowledged that Taj Gibson—at least for now—will be the starting power forward since he outplayed Nikola Mirotic in the preseason. Though Hoiberg said closing lineups and later season changes remain open for several positions.

The numbers suggest the obvious, that teams might pack the inside and challenge the Bulls to make threes.

In the preseason, which is difficult to quantify with injuries and experimental rotations, the Bulls shot 31.8 percent on threes. Butler attempted just six, and Wade, historically a poor three-point shooter, was best at seven of 16.

Wade is a career 28.4 percent three-point shooter after 15.9 percent last season. Though Wade shot 52.2 percent on threes in the playoffs as he explained it was needed then.

Butler is a career 32.6 percent three-point shooter, though 31.1 percent last season.

Rondo is a career 28.9 percent three-point shooter, though a career best 36.5 percent last season.

The Bulls best three-point shooters are Doug McDermott, 41 percent for his career and among the league leaders last season, and Nikola Mirotic, 36 percent for his two seasons. But Mirotic shot just 24 percent in the preseason, had a back problem, and Gibson easily won the starting job. After all, you can’t have a competition and then reward the loser. Though Hoiberg said the Bulls will stagger lineups all season.

The Bulls did shoot a respectable 37 percent on threes last season and lost two of their poorest shooters in Rose and Noah. But E’Twaun Moore, Mike Dunleavy and Justin Holiday, though not with an extraordinary number attempts, combined to shoot more than 40 percent on threes among them. The Bulls do add a competent three-point shooter in Isaiah Canaan, though they’ll be counting most on McDermott and Mirotic.

But enough with the three-points shots, not long ago eschewed in pro basketball.

There are many ways to succeed, and many consensuses to have been proven wrong.

“We just have to step up, take them, shoot them with confidence like we do every day in practice,” said Butler. “I think we’ll be fine. As long as we’re guarding the offense will take care of itself. We’re constantly in attack mode. There’s more than just shooting threes. You have to get in transition. There’s pick-and-roll, free throw line. There’s a lot more to the game than just shooting threes. But yeah, I think we’ll take them and make them.”

What the Bulls do well, and especially Butler, is get to the free throw line. This is an especially efficient way of scoring since the clock isn’t running and you get to set your defense and slow the other team. In many respects, it’s preferable to three-point shooting since the misses with threes often become runouts.

Butler averaged more than seven free throws per game in the preseason in just over 20 minutes; and he looked like he was pacing himself most of the time. Wade also is good getting to the line as is new arrival Michael Carter-Williams, the latter also a weak three-point shooter but who draws a lot of free throws with his size advantage at point guard.

The mistake most teams make is trying to replicate success.

Lately it’s the Golden State Warriors. They shoot a lot of threes. But you can’t do what they do unless you also have, like they do, a lot of three-point shot makers. If you don’t, and the Bulls will acknowledge it’s not their specialty, you shouldn’t try to copy.

With Rondo, the Bulls have a point guard able to push the ball and beat the defense down the floor, and in Wade one of the game’s best mid range players. It didn’t hurt him in winning three NBA championships.

Success is bred on developing what you can do well.

“I don’t care, to tell you the truth (what critics say). Their opinion isn’t going to put food on my table. It isn’t putting clothes on my back,” said Butler. “So I’ll be completely content with the group of guys that are out there with me that are actually helping put food on my table and clothes on my back. They’re (critics) going to say and do whatever they want to do and say, anyways. Motivation is we get to go out and compete and put on for this organization every day.

“Obviously, everybody wants to win,” said Butler. “But for me, I really do think that we really have to take everything one day at a time. This is new to everybody. We can’t look too far ahead because we will definitely get lost in all this, with everything coming at everybody so fast. We’ve got a lot of new guys. But we’re out here working on our game, practicing hard every day, and (we will) worry about the first game we have on Thursday. Everything else will fall in line.’’

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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