Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo? It’s become one of the big surprise questions of the NBA and perhaps one of the principal curiosities of the coming season.
Can that work? Will that work? Is it a three-car pileup or just the beginning of a smooth, comfortable trip?
Jimmy Butler isn’t concerned; he knows it will succeed and he cannot wait to start the engine of the new Bulls Big Three. And beyond.
“D-Wade’s here; I’m excited,” Butler said Thursday before USA Basketball practice in the United Center.
Butler is expected to start 8 p.m. Friday when the USA team plays Venezuela in the fourth game of its exhibition tour before the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro next month. Then it’s about a month off before the Bulls open training camp and the preseason Oct. 3 in the United Center. And while Butler said his focus and energies are directed now exclusively toward representing the country and winning a gold medal, he says he’s excited and anxious to start playing with his new teammates.
Though often overlooked with the addition of veterans Rondo and Wade is a mostly young Bulls roster with 10 of the 15 players 25 years old or less. The Bulls Thursday signed a 15th player, Spencer Dinwiddie, who was acquired last month from Detroit and played for the summer league team. The Bulls for now open the 2016-17 season with eight new players, five of whom are 25 or under.
“It’s a new start for a lot of us,” agreed Butler. “There are multiple ways to score the basketball. I don’t get into analytics and the numbers. I think D-Wade has put the ball in the basket for a lot of years. He’s a great player because of the way he scores the ball. I don’t think you can call him a non shooter because he can definitely shoot the ball. Rondo, call him what you want, but he’s effective at what he does. Same thing with myself. You can say you have to be able to knock down the open shot, but I think we’ll find ways.
“As long as I put the ball in the basket, I don’t think it matters whether it’s from outside or in the paint,” said Butler. “Shooting threes or not…as long as I’m productive and efficient.”
Shooting three pointers has become the fashion of the NBA with the success of the Golden State Warriors. But it’s hardly an exclusive panacea or answer for every team. When the Spurs won their last title in 2016, they were tied for 16th in the regular season in three pointers attempted. In the playoffs, they shot 35 percent on threes, which ranked 11th of the 16 teams. Last season, Houston attempted the second most threes and finished .500. Charlotte and Dallas, first round losers, were also in the top five in three-point attempts. The Bulls last season were actually third in three-point percentage in the regular season, but missed the playoffs. Three is worth more than two, sure, but a lot of twos can add up to a lot of wins. Wade’s Miami Heat was in the bottom five in three-point percentage last season, yet a strong playoff participant.
It’s also about having players who can make plays and who have made plays, All-Stars like all three and champions, like Wade and Rondo.
“I think I have to catch up with them, the winning mentality,” Butler said about his new veteran teammates with NBA titles. “I think I can learn a lot from those guys, what it takes to win each and every day. Obviously, D-Wade with multiple championships, Rondo his intensity; that’s something I need to get better at. So those two guys can show me that way.
“As a team we have to be chasing probably who, Cleveland, Boston?” Butler offered when asked about the coming Eastern Conference race. “Whoever people say are the top teams in the East. We want to be amongst those teams; obviously, win a championship here. That’s the goal. But, obviously, with the group of guys we have we’re fine. I think the front office did a great job in bringing in guys who can help us win. So we’re all chasing that championship.”
That’s, of course, the goal for every team.
At this time of year, there are sunny opportunities and plenty of optimism. Everyone is undefeated.
For Butler, it’s now his first chance to play for an Olympic gold medal, and he’s thrilled to have the opportunity.
“I’m happy anytime I get to suit up in an NBA uniform and compete against some of the guys on this team, obviously,” said Butler. “I’m with them. I like our chances. I’m excited I get to play with those guys (in the regular season). I’m ready to get it started, but right now I’m trying to win gold with these guys.”
Butler has had a limited role with the USA team, coming off the bench and averaging about three points, mostly used as a defensive specialist for a team 3-0 with an average margin of victory of about 45 points per game. He’ll probably get to shoot more at home in Friday’s game.
“I like going out there getting in shape, playing some defense; I like doing that, just guard. I like that job,” said Butler. “We’ve got enough guys who can score the ball. I can score the ball with the best of them, too. I’m not saying I can’t. I like to work on my passing game. I feel like when I’m in an NBA season I can’t just play defense anymore; I have to play both sides. We have so many good scorers I actually like picking up full court and guarding people like that because that takes me back to my rookie year where I could just play defense. It’s an honor to be playing with these guys, representing my country. I just want to win; I don’t give a damn about scoring.”
But Butler, who said he’s now weighing in at a muscular 240 pounds, said he’s also learned from this group of stars that include Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
“See how they work on their game, their moves, how efficient they what to be,” said Butler. “You can learn a lot working with guys and watching their moves; they’ve been doing it longer than I have…watching these guys every day in practice, I see how efficient you have to be and work on this move and this move; that’s what you’ll be comfortable with. I just want to win; have fun obviously, but the fun is in the winning.”
With Team USA, Butler is playing with former coach Tom Thibodeau, who is a USA assistant and Minnesota Timberwolves coach and president. Thibodeau at practice was surrounded by so many reporters USA coach Mike Krzyzewski walked by and joked he was envious.
Thibodeau thanked Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf for the chance to start his head coaching career in Chicago and said he’s impressed with the Butler, Wade, Rondo trio.
“You’re talking about three guys who are going to add experience, intelligence and having been in big situations,” said Thibodeau. “Great players always figure out how to play with each other. When you look at Rondo, Wade and Butler, that’s very difficult to match up with.”
“I like Thibs,” added Butler. “I think everyone knows that. He kind of put me on the map, so to speak. I still remember like yesterday he put me in a game in New York to guard Carmelo, who hit me with the jab, tried to bruise my sternum. But I remember I hit a mid range jump shot because Derrick (Rose) was screaming at me to shoot the damn ball and stop passing. I remember that. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if I’d be the player I am today. So I have a lot of love and respect for him.”
Butler also said he spoke with Rose at the USA game in Los Angeles last weekend and has been in contact with Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy. Butler said he’s not concerned about health issues in Brazil because he’s from Tomball, Texas and not afraid of anything. And though he acknowledged the business aspect of the profession—clearly given Wade’s surprising departure with his first Chicago press conference 2 p.m. Friday—he said it’s time to move forward.
“You have to respect when guys come together like that,” Butler noted of his new Bulls teammates. “But more than anything (guys from the USA team) say how it’s hard to play in this (United Center) building, how we’re a gritty team, how I hack a lot on defense. I think everybody knows we have a good team, a good trio of guards. I don’t know: Am I a small forward now? Whatever it is. We’ve got guys who can play, so you have to guard a lot of guys on our roster.”
Both in the next month and Butler believes for months to come in Chicago.