The 2016-17 Bulls convene Monday and there will be some big questions.
Like, what’s your name again? And, so who did you play for?
It’s the start of a new era for the Bulls. Eight of the 15 players expected on this season’s roster were not with the team last season. Gone from last season’s flawed 42-40 team are Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Aaron Brooks, E’Twaun Moore, Cameron Bairstow, Mike Dunleavy and Justin Holiday. They join previous former Bulls like Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Richard Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich, thus effectively ending the run of the group for much of the last decade that was considered a potential title contender.
So who are these new Bulls? They could be compelling. They hope to be successful. Here are perhaps the top 10 questions for the coming season:
1. Who’s going to score?
There were the injuries and the disputes, but Rose and Gasol were two of the team’s top three scorers the last two seasons. Wade should make up for at least one guy. He is 34, but he had a highly productive season in 2015-16 and was Miami’s best player in the playoffs. His departure from Miami to return to his home town team still remains one of the most shocking developments of free agency. Lopez should give the Bulls more offense than Noah. Much also will be expected from the Bulls two most prolific three-point shooters, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. There are many ways to score, not just shooting the three. Finalists Golden State and Cleveland were one/two in made threes last season. But Houston, Charlotte and Portland rounded out the top five. NBA teams averaged 115-120 points per game often in the 1960s and 1970s before the three-point shot. With Rajon Rondo’s speed, ballhandling and ability to find players, the Bulls can increase their scoring in transition and with cutting and movement.
2. What about pace and space?
Enough with that. It’s not who these Bulls are or were. It reminds me of the 1980s when everyone tried to get a big point guard to run the floor, but only the Lakers had him. This discussion that Fred Hoiberg has to play pace and space is like the New York media obsession with the triangle offense. They don’t have the personnel, so they won’t rely on it. Tet media will continue to ask about it since they don’t know what’s going on otherwise. Offenses are just systems to fall back on. Hoiberg always has emphasized playing to his talent, and with Rondo the Bulls have a premier attacking and passing point guard who is adept at finding open players. Though Rose was a better scorer, the Bulls probably haven’t had a point guard more attuned to looking for teammates since Guy Rodgers.
3. Will Rondo be a problem with flareups with coaches?
Can a four-time All-Star who led the league in assists last season be Most Improved? Rondo appears in a perfect situation to resurrect his reputation with a player friendly coach and mature veterans to join. He seems to know it as he’s been, the coaches say, by far the most engaged player this summer and leading up to training camp, working with young players, active in the community and a sponge for coaching and learning. With all the silly talk of who’s team it is, which is essentially specious, Rondo could emerge as a big time leader given his importance to the team with his ability to push the ball and create offense.
4. Can the Bulls make enough three pointers?
They were in the bottom third last season in makes and attempts, but third in percentage. They should get even better looks with Rondo since Rose tended to look for his shot more; similarly with Butler. Mirotic should have more catch and shoot opportunities, and though McDermott didn’t shoot those particularly well he certainly should. Plus, Bobby Portis has good three-point range and should see more playing time this season. Rookie Denzel Valentine was a good three-point shooter in college who should improve with pro level practice. And Jimmy Butler always comes back better than he was the season before. He planned to work on the three. The Bulls could surprise some with the three, but it would be a mistake to forget their cutting and penetrating abilities with Wade and Butler both proficient at getting to the free throw line. Those points with the clock off are very valuable and can make up for a lot of threes ignored. Wade always has said he was limited in the Miami offense in shooting the three, but should have more freedom with the Bulls. And he showed in last season’s playoffs shooting 52 percent on threes that he has that ability.
5. Who’s the backup point guard?
There are plenty of candidates. And why there are plenty of candidates. It’s why the Bulls added Isaiah Canaan. So while it doesn’t look like training camp will be about roster spots, there will be plenty of competition for positions. Spencer Dinwiddie could have a slight advantage coming in with a solid summer session at point guard, but the depth chart point guards don’t necessarily mean they’ll be the backup. Valentine sees the court and runs a team like a point guard. Rondo is fully healthy again. He plays a lot and averaged 35 minutes per game last season. It also doesn’t mean he needs to be backed up by a classic point guard. Wade did a lot of ball handling for the Heat and has an exceptionally high usage rate (hey, look at me with advanced stats), meaning the percentage of a team’s plays. Plus, Butler has said he likes playing point guard and did some at the end of last season. Though neither has the passing instincts of someone like Rondo, they can make plays and run pick and roll in a half court game and get to the line. Jerian Grant also will get a look, though he’s more of a scorer.
6. Can the Three Alphas work together?
Rondo, Wade and Butler all have been players known for, as it’s called, having the ball in their hands. This will be something they’ll have to work out among themselves. But the Celtics did a pretty good job of that with Rondo while having players like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who liked to make plays having the ball. Rondo has a history of holding onto the ball to make a play, like Steve Nash did, often dribbling through with the ball. You see it with Stephen Curry at times even as Steve Kerr wants him to give it up more quickly. The Bulls will want Rondo to outlet more and throw ahead. Wade taking a gamble as a free agent at 34 is invested in working together, and he proved he could fit with the way he eventually ceded to LeBron James. It should help Butler having a super pro and leader like Wade around.
7. Should the Bulls make a trade to clear the front court jam?
Anyone say Taj Gibson? He’s last man standing from the Rose/Noah team, but not too soon. It would be asking a lot to have Cristiano Felicio jump right in as Robin Lopez’ prime backup with just a few weeks of regular NBA play. Gibson has basically been a power forward his career, but in this NBA with activity as important as size for a center Gibson could play a lot of center. He always has been among the team’s best shot blockers and rim protectors. He was a starter last season, but with Lopez replacing Gasol at center and Lopez not as good a shooter, the Bulls will need more spacing up front. Gibson will be a free agent after the season. Wade has a player option after one season and Rondo has a partial guarantee for a second season.
8. Who will start?
Four of the five starting positions surely are set. It’s Rondo at point guard, Wade at shooting guard, Butler at small forward, Lopez at center. So who’ll start at power forward? Mirotic seems the likely candidate since he started in more than half his games last season and has the shooting range to pair with Lopez, the latter mostly an inside player. But the starting position will have to be earned. The Bulls still could use Gibson as he expanded his shooting range some last season, though not to three-point range. Bobby Portis doesn’t seem ready to start. Doug McDermott could play power forward in this NBA and could be an effective mismatch with his great shooting touch and good size at 6-8. But the power forward position is so crowded that it seems unlikely McDermott could get time there, especially because players like Mirotic and Portis don’t fit at small forward. Portis did play center in the summer league and could get some time there with certain matchups.
9. Is there a role for Tony Snell?
The athletic swingman goes into the last year of his rookie deal with plenty of uncertainty after being dropped from the rotation late last season. He’s got defensive abilities with his long arms and movement. We’ve heard again about a good summer. Can he be more aggressive? Or even a little? The talent is there. There should be desperation now. Maybe that makes a difference.
10. Where will the Bulls finish?
The preseason guessing and Las Vegas odds has them on the edge of making the playoffs. At least for the first time in six or seven years there are few expectations. But they have certified All-Stars and young shooters and could prove a surprise. One concern is that the East is stronger with previous non playoff teams like the Knicks, Magic and 76ers looking stronger. Plus, the Pacers, Celtics and Pistons seem to have improved. The Bulls have a chance to be in the mix for top four after Cleveland at the top, but realistically figure to be in with the group of playoff and potential top four hopefuls like the Hawks, Hornets, Heat, Knicks and Pistons. Burdened in recent years by injury issues, the Bulls seem to have a healthier group coming in with no one among the core players coming off a surgery or any serious injury. Wade seems to keep himself in excellent shape while Butler and Mirotic came off the Olympics looking strong. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but it should be entertaining and interesting and from a place to start looking forward once again.
Bulls preliminary Roster/Depth Chart 2016-17
The four-time All-Star and 10-year veteran is starting with his fourth team in the last three seasons. But Rondo is coming off averaging close to a triple double at 12.2 points, a league best 11.9 assists and 6.2 rebounds. He also shot a career high 36.5 percent on three pointers.
The 6-6 guard played two seasons with the Detroit Pistons as a second round pick after an ACL injury in college. He averaged 4.4 points in about 13 minutes when he did play, but has been healthy and played with the Bulls summer league team.
The Notre Dame 6-4 combo guard was the 19th pick in the 2015 draft and ended up with the Knicks. He was part of the Derrick Rose trade. He averaged 5.6 points for the Knicks in about 16 minutes per game as a rookie. He is the nephew of former Bull Horace Grant.
The six footer who was a second rounder of the Rockets in 2013 averaged in double figures the last two seasons for the 76ers as primarily a three-point shooter. He’s a career 36 percent on threes and has averaged about seven attempts per game the last two seasons.
The future Hall of Famer and Chicago native enters his 14th season with three championships, a 12-time All-Star who is probably the most famous and regarded player with the Bulls since Michael Jordan. A 2009 league scoring champion, Wade comes off a strong season when he played 74 games and averaged 19 points and 21.4 in the playoffs on a career best 52.2 percent three-point shooting.
The rookie first round draft pick led the Bulls to the summer league title on clutch shots in the final game. He has a remarkable knack for understanding and seeing the game and running a team even as primarily a shooting guard. He was a four-year player at Michigan State and college player of the year.
The 6-7 sixth year man switches to small forward, which probably is a more natural position. He’s coming off a gold medal with the USA Olympic team after being an All-Star the last two seasons and all-defensive team the last three.
The Bulls’ best shooter enters his third season after being 11th pick in the 2014 draft. He averaged 9.4 points last season and shot 42.5 percent on three pointers in 23 minutes per game after playing little as a rookie.
The 2013 20th pick played his fewest games last season among his three, playing little the last quarter of the season. He averaged 5.3 points in about 20 minutes per game with defense his strength. He slumped to a three-year low 37 percent shooting.
The 6-8 swingman played in the German league last season and was a second round pick. He won an award for top young player and can play some shooting guard.
The third-year shooting big man averaged in double figures both seasons and came on the end of last season after appendix surgery. He shot 39 percent on threes and helped Spain win a bronze medal in this summer’s Olympics.
The second year player who was selected 22nd in the 2015 draft comes off a good summer league performance. He averaged seven points in limited play last season, playing in 62 games.
The ninth-year big man, the twin of the Nets’ Brook, arrived in the Rose trade and will move into the spot occupied by Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. He averaged 10.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in starting all 82 games for the Knicks last season, his fourth team. He has started all 82 games three of the last four seasons.
The eighth-year 6-9 forward is the last holdover from the group that went to the conference finals in 2011. He’s been a power forward, but could find more minutes at center with the forward spot crowded and the team needing a rim protector. He has averaged at least a block per game every season. He shot a career best 53 percent last season.
The second year 6-10 center from Brazil came on late last season and played effectively with the summer league team. He averaged 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in about 10 minutes per game and played for Brazil in the Olympics.