There aren’t many talking about the Bulls this season, but there figure to be a lot around the NBA wondering about them. Especially in Chicago. With more than half the roster new and including two players who have started for championship teams and three long-time All Stars, the Bulls on paper appear to have the makings of excellence. Of course, most people use computers these days.
“I’m excited to see the young players,” Dwyane Wade said to open his first training camp as a Bulls player. “We’ve got a lot of young players on this team. We’ve got some good young talent, guys who seem very eager to learn. For a guy like me and (Rajon) Rondo coming here, I think we’re excited about that. Expectations are higher than when you sign in July. I’m excited about our young players.”
Yes, in addition to Wade, Rondo and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls have a core of promising young players in the likes of Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine and Jerian Grant. But those players—and everyone else—will be looking toward the core of the team, which is Wade, Rondo and Butler.
Rondo previously alluded to them as the Three Alphas, a designation that seems like it will stick.
The Bulls will rise or fall—and they have plenty of room to go either way—depending on the obvious, which is how the three play together. All are All-Star caliber players with a combined 18 All-Star game appearances, 12 for Wade. They all have the potential to be All-Stars again as Rondo led the NBA in assists last season, Butler is coming off a gold medal summer with the USA Olympic team and Wade was a star even in last season’s playoffs and remains one of the most popular players in the NBA.
“It’s really not the jersey,” Wade said as he wore his Bulls No. 3. “It’s the same material, so it feels the same. It’s a different environment. I was somewhere for so long, I knew where to go. I can walk backwards and get anywhere. It’s just different, but different is not a bad thing. It’s been cool. I’m like the new kid in class. I’ve gotta find my one friend to talk to before I can get more friends, but I’m figuring it all out. Like I said, I’m happy to be here. At this time in my career, this is where I want to be.”
Wade is a transcendent figure in society with his social activism, celebrity family and basketball eminence. He’ll be a dominant figure on the Chicago sports scene, which lacks a star of his sublime worldwide stature. Three championship rings are a small part of his trophy case. He’s got a Humanitarian of the Year award, his memoir was a New York Times best seller, he was named Father of the Year, he’s been appointed to task forces by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. He was honored by the Wall Street Journal for fashion. Whatever he says and does and when he says it will be news.
But can and will that translate into success for the Bulls?
Wade’s free agency departure from Miami was stunning, though he insists it remained a dream and goal to play for his hometown team. He spoke about it again Monday at the annual pre-camp media session.
“When the Bulls won their first championship, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that, I can be out there with those guys,’” recalled Wade, who attended Rich East High School. “I could go out in my backyard, I see the snow; it didn’t matter. I’d try to emulate the things that my favorite players were doing. At nine years old, that’s where my vision started. Not only to play in the NBA, but to play for the Bulls.”
The obvious question is how Wade, Rondo and Butler, three players known for handling the ball and sometimes dropping it when it comes to distance shooting, fit and play together. And can they create an identity for the team: Running? Fast break? Defense? Tough? Resilient?
Coach Fred Hoiberg said he sees their strengths as a positive in the ability to have multiple ballhandlers on the floor.
“We’ve got an idea of how we’re going to play,” said Hoiberg. “[Tuesday first practice] will be the first time we get them together as a collective unit, and we’ll put them in a lot of different areas on the floor where we feel they fit. I’m really excited about the multiple playmakers that we’ll have. This league right now is all about breaking down the defense, getting into the paint and making the right plays. Obviously we’ve talked a lot about the rotations and who fits best with a particular player. Try and get those rotations on point and see not only who starts the game, who is playing in the middle. But most importantly who is playing down the stretch. I’m excited about the group; I’m excited about the playmakers. And we’ll see how it all turns out.’’
First, they have to become a team, which isn’t as simple as it sounds, and then they have to develop that identity of what team they will be. At this point, obviously since they’ve never played together, there’s no way of knowing. But it was time to try something different after last season’s rocky 42-40 finish out of the playoffs.
“I mentioned last April (at the post season session) that I didn’t feel like that group had a collective fight to it,” said executive vice-president John Paxson. “Change was necessary. We battled a lot of different issues over the last couple years in terms of injuries. Those aren’t excuses. It was just our reality, and we had to try to fight through it. We’d ridden that group a long way. With a little more luck, we might have had a little more success. That didn’t turn out to be the case. We just felt it was necessary to try to take some steps forward. I think the understated thing we’ve done – signing Dwyane and Rajon are the big noted things and their ages have been brought up a lot – but the reality is we are looking to the future, too, and we have made significant changes in terms of the youth on this roster. We’re excited about those guys. We feel like we have some young players in the fold that will develop and grow into some very good NBA players.
“We’re all encouraged by the blend we have in terms of our vets and the young guys we have on our team,” said Paxson. “We brought in two guys in Dwyane and Rajon who have championship experience. We brought in a high quality starting center in Robin Lopez. And we have two holdovers in that regard in terms of Taj (Gibson) and Jimmy, Taj, who’s just the ultimate pro, and Jimmy, who’s a two-time All-Star and has been our best player. Those are going to be the heart and soul of our team.”
Particularly, Wade, Butler and Rondo. They are three successful, strong willed, independent people and basketball players.
They’ll have to work together, and even if they are committed to that, will their skills fit together? It’s another of the questions that should make this season, at the least, compelling. And perhaps more successful than others may care to admit. Few have prospered betting against their collective pride.
“I think everybody’s looking forward to (how we play together),” agreed Butler. “Myself, Gar (Forman) and Pax. I’m excited. I love to play basketball, anyway. But I get to do it with some new guys, some new faces. I think we have a really good chance. I’m excited about the group of guys we have. Our young guys are super confident with how they’ve been playing. I’m very excited about that. And then obviously Wade and Rondo and what they bring to the table, I can learn from them. The winning culture that they’ve built in this league, what they’ve done, I’m excited because there’s so much growth that I can handle in that aspect of the game. When you look at what Wade has done for his career, future Hall of Famer, I think that I can model the way I do things around him. I’m super excited that he’s here. And I’m sure Rondo will keep me on my toes as well.”
Coach Fred Hoiberg will be tested, and Hoiberg said he understands as well.
“I think the biggest thing that I have to improve on is to get our team to play more consistently,” said Hoiberg. “We had some really good stretches last year. I’ve talked about the success we had against Cleveland and against Toronto, a 7-1 record against the top two teams in the East who were playing in the Eastern Conference finals and we missed the playoffs. That shouldn’t happen. It’s going to be a hard training camp, but I’m looking forward to see who emerges as those guys that show me they belong on the floor.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” said Hoiberg. “This is a high pressure job, and I understand that. And again, nobody looked at this thing harder in the offseason than I did, and was harder on themself than I was. I know that I have a job to do, to try and put these guys into position to go out and win basketball games, and that’s my sole focus.”
Hoiberg means it right down to his soul.
Sure, there are questions like who shoots and when and how much does this latest Big Three defer.
“When you talk about I guess not being able to shoot three or whatever you want to call it, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe D Wade has scored a lot of points when it came to putting that ball in that basket,” said Butler. “I’ve done decently the last couple years. Rondo can do that. And if Rondo can’t, he damn sure can get find a way to get the ball to somebody who can. I don’t think putting the ball in the basket is going to be an issue for us. I don’t think that was an issue for us last year. I don’t think we guarded the way we’re supposed to guard last year, so it made it look like we didn’t score as well. I think we’ll be fine. I think when you put good players on the court at the same time, they always figure out a way to put the ball in the basket. Whoever has it going, the object of the game is to win. The Alpha thing, I think we’ll be just fine. Everybody is going to have something to say. As long as everybody is listening and is willing to take some criticism if you’re doing something wrong, just like if you’re doing something right, I’m going to tell you. At the end of the day, as long as we win games it won’t matter.”
There’s that defense, or lack of it, that Butler pointed to and weaknesses last season in rebounding, forcing turnovers and shooting. And that elusive chemistry. The latter looks and sounds better, but most everything does before the season begins.
“There’s only a number of teams that can walk into camp and have real expectations,” said Paxson. “With so much turnover there’s unpredictability, but that’s across the league with a number of teams. But there’s also a lot of excitement and we are excited about it. The proof will be in how we come together and that’s a challenge.”
No one is married to pessimism on so called “media day.” After all, everyone is undefeated and there is promise, happiness and good humor. It’s like a wedding day. What could go wrong?