Previewing the 2016-17 Chicago Bulls

The great Bulls 2016-17 mystery season opens Thursday in the United Center against the Boston Celtics. Perhaps no season in franchise history since the 1966 expansion year has started with so many new players, and so many uncertain about the quality of the team.

That 1966 team, expected to be one of the worst ever in the league, proved a major surprise in making the playoffs, still the only expansion team ever to do so, and elevating coach Johnny Kerr to Coach of the Year honors. This season looks like a similar treasure map with clues and hints about the prize, but uncertainty about the direction.

“We still have a lot of room to grow, a lot of improvements to make,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Wednesday on the eve of the opener. “But I love the competitive spirit. These guys have really gotten after it from the minute they stepped on the court. I give our veteran guys a lot of credit for that, for setting the tone early in camp and our young guys following along. It was a very demanding, very hard and very competitive training camp. I’m proud of the guys for fighting through it. We didn’t get many days off with this group. We felt like we had too much work to do. We felt we had to be in this gym to continue to make improvements. If we can continue to fight for each other, fight through adversity, we’re going to have a chance.”

For what no one can quite say. Outside observers have speculated the Bulls could finish anywhere between third and 12th in the Eastern Conference, a variance so wide it belies even making a prediction.

There are plenty of reasons for optimism, namely Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo.

The trio of recent All-Stars, some 18 among them with Olympic gold medals, not only has plenty to prove but seemingly an ability to do so. Their marriage has produced a chemistry and equanimity welcome and capable of leading to success.

“I wanted to come here and be a part of building this organization back up to where this organization should go and should be,” Wade said earlier in training camp. “I'm excited to play with my new teammates. It’s a dream to be back in Chicago.”

And it would seem to be an inevitable finish to his great career where he grew up.

Wade’s departure from Miami was shocking this summer, and many have speculated he would return after 13 years there, maybe even finish up in Cleveland with buddy LeBron James. But Wade seems to be planting deep roots here. He’s got a Youtube video out called, “Just a man from 59th and Prairie living out a dream.” It is a musical story of a love affair with a home town. He is acting like someone who knows where the gold is buried. He’s become something of a second coach, tasked by Hoiberg with even stopping practices to instruct. Which teammates have embraced.

“He is such a good decision maker,” Hoiberg said of Wade. “He was one of the top playmakers as far as getting his teammates shots at the time last year. We have three guys who can get in the paint and make plays for their teammates and hopefully we will get guys to knock down shots. Everybody sees (Wade) as a guy who has been an elite mid-range scorer, but he is really good in the pick and roll. He’s a guy who can take it to the rim and get fouled and get to the free throw line, a great veteran young guys can learn from.”

Then there’s Rajon Rondo, who came to the team with a reputation at times of supposedly being a cancer. Instead he’s been more of a cure, a player who has embraced, supported and bonded with teammates, who volunteered for summer league, extra work, organized team outings, led the charity work in the community. He’s been more like someone destined for sainthood than just the All-Star team.

That’s enabled Butler to relax, relieve himself of the pressure of having to take all the responsibility, along with the opponent’s best scorer. Butler seems almost to idolize Wade and hangs on his words like they are from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Wade and Rondo, appropriately, have made it clear at every turn that this is Butler’s team, that they are here to support him and enable development from everyone. It’s produced something of a basketball folk revival, like you’d expect them to be singing around a campfire.

And not to forget Taj Gibson, the selfless, old school forward who fought his way back into the starting lineup, and always into the hearts of his teammates.

“They (veterans) have been a model for others. Not just Rondo and Jimmy and Dwyane, but also Robin (Lopez) and Taj,” said Hoiberg. “Those guys have been great as far as being examples for our team. They’ve been extremely vocal and that has carried over to the rest of the group. Now it’s about playing within ourselves and giving ourselves a chance to win.”

Perhaps not the Big Four of other teams, but four pretty big guys.

“The thing I love about them is how competitive they are,” said Hoiberg. “They've been out there battling and warring against each other for a month now and they're ready to go out there and throw it out into a real game setting. I think all teams that have as many new faces as we do, you'll see that (feeling out) early on in the season. But I am confident that we'll go out and fight, go out and play physical basketball and play for each other and I'm excited about that.”

But there are the obvious questions about continuity with eight new players (nine if the 15th spot is filled, as expected), a starting lineup without classic three-point shooters and defense that requires teamwork and coordination.

Butler, obviously, is the prime defender given his recent history of all-defense teams. He, too, is a bit wary of defense to start.

“I think everybody is trying,” Butler said. “I’m not going to say that we’ve got the best defenders; that’s for sure. As long as you’re putting in the effort. Sometimes good defense is just getting in the damn way. Sometimes you find that you play hard and the ball just ends up in your hands, the rebound just falls to you because you’re in the right position, things like that. As long as guys are out there competing, we’ll take it if someone hits a tough shot over you or whatever. When we think about the offensive end entirely too much that’s when we get down a lot.’’

The offensive end, clearly, raises questions as well in this three-point shooting era. Can they make enough? Do they need to? Teams have had success without a three-point shooting games. Others that have done it too much, like the Rockets and 76ers, and suffered.

In Wade and Butler, the Bulls have players proficient at getting to the free throw line. Plus with Rondo, they have some of the best rebounding perimeter players in the NBA. And that championship experience and competitiveness with players like Wade and Rondo, who have led title teams, cannot be found easily.

The Bulls are among the last four teams in the NBA to begin their season. With that comes a rush of games, six in the next 10 days with two each against highly regarded East contenders Boston and Indiana, both of whom won Wednesday. The conundrum for the Bulls is how to honor the process of understanding coordination takes times while not falling into a hole and losing momentum.

“It is important to try to get off to a good start and gain some confidence early in the season at the same time knowing we have a very difficult schedule with the early teams we play,” said Hoiberg. “It’s about playing hard and playing with a purpose, executing, cutting and screening, doing the little things and hopefully continuing to get better as a team. I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t important (to start well). A big part of that reason is for confidence. If you’re a confident team and play with a swagger, look at the Cubs and what they’re doing. They’re a confident team. A lot of that was early in the season and the success they had. A big part is handling adversity and playing for each other.”

No one really knows what to expect. But everyone loves an adventure, a treasure hunt. You never know. You could strike it rich.

Bulls 2016-17 Roster and Outlook

Rajon Rondo, guard, 6-1, 186, 10 years. Back healthy again after leading the league in assists last season for Sacramento, the Bulls hope Rondo can be the guard to accelerate the offense with speed in transition.

Dwyane Wade, guard, 6-4, 220, 13 years. The diamond of the roster, Wade is a three-time champion and an all-time great. The Bulls will look to him for guidance and clutch scoring.

Jimmy Butler, forward, 6-7, 231, 5 years. He is now an Olympic gold medalist and has established himself as one of the game’s top two-way players. The Bulls will look to him as the primary scorer and with Wade the bailout for the offense. He’ll also defend the opponent’s best.

Taj Gibson, forward, 6-9, 245. 7 years. The veteran of the team is the model of hard work and sacrifice. He’ll help give the Bulls one of the league’s top defensive front lines and the toughness every team needs.

Robin Lopez, center, 7-0, 255, 8 years. He’ll be the big man in the middle to protect the rim and paint, block shots and make the occasional mid range jumper as a trailer on the break.

Nikola Mirotic, forward, 6-10, 238, 2 years. The Bulls hope he will break out as a perimeter threat with his size as a potentially classic stretch four for this era.

Doug McDermott, forward, 6-8, 219, 2 years. He’s the Bulls best shooter. If he can prove competent on defense, he could be the answer to the team’s questions regarding perimeter shooting.

Denzel Valentine, guard 6-6, 212, rookie. He was set back with a sprained ankle in training camp, but he could step into the lineup quickly with a mature game, a good shot and confidence for a young player.

Bobby Portis, forward, 6-11, 246, 1 year. He remains in competition to find the right position and place to play. He’s shown flashes with his shot and rebounding, and is a high level, energetic competitor who is developing.

Michael Carter-Williams, guard, 6-6, 190, 3 years. The late pickup in the Tony Snell trade with Milwaukee, he’s a top defensive guard with good size for point guard. With an improving shot he could be a valuable addition.

Cristiano Felicio, center, 6-11, 266, 1 year. He’s an aggressive big man who is active on defense. He’ll back up Lopez and can surprise with his defense and a mid range shot.

Isaiah Canaan, guard, 6-0, 201, 3 years. He’s more the scoring and shooting point guard type who is valuable in being able to play off the ball with another point guard and make plays with good shooting range.

Jerian Grant, guard, 6-4, 198, 1 year. He’s also more offensive oriented with a good shot and a physical driver who can get to the basket.

Paul Zipser, forward, 6-8, 210, rookie. The second round pick played overseas and has a mature game as a result with an ability to get the basket in traffic and make a shot.