Bulls veterans taking the lead

You’ll know where you stand with Rajon Rondo, who is emerging early in this new Bulls era as both the first true Bulls point guard in decades as well as a unique truth teller.

Rondo is direct, with his passes, which both Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade already have said are so good they catch them by surprise, and with his words. He tends to be terse with reporters, if not offensive, and with teammates as well. So Rondo, the new Bulls, took Jimmy, the veteran Bull, aside this week to deliver a message that needs to be emphasized.

“A leader can’t pick and choose when he wants to lead,” Rondo counseled. “He has to come out every day, every practice; we’re having two a days. If you are down, you need something to get your head right, you have to bring it every day, every day.”

It’s the sort of message that may resonate beyond the Xs and Os for this Bulls basketball team and provide a direction previously often missing or gone awry.

The question of leadership, and especially who is the leader or if there is one and if one is necessary, is an issue that has hovered above the team for several years like a looming storm. It’s been sort of the dark cloud ready to drown the team. It’s also been an odd obsession of media, demanding regularly to know who is in charge among the players.

It often became a divisive issue last season with Joakim Noah hurt, Derrick Rose recovering from injures, Pau Gasol facing free agency and Butler trying to grasp the new role. In reality, a leader generally emerges in proportion to success. A losing team generally is said to have a leadership void. Winners produce all sorts of leaders. Rose before his ACL injury in 2012 was the team’s best player, but a reluctant leader as a quiet person. Noah was outsized and bombastic, but slowed the last few years with injuries and losing his starting job. Tough to lead from the bench. Gasol was often seen as a mercenary merely passing through to take his shot.

So predictably the Bulls became a team without an identity last season and collapsed amidst their own disappointment and agenda, though perhaps inevitable as it truly was a last dance for that declining team.

It’s too soon to say who this Bulls team will be and how they will play.

But perhaps the most encouraging development of the first two days of practices has been the engagement of newcomers Wade and Rondo, who coach Fred Hoiberg said have even taken to stopping practices to do their own counseling of teammates.

“You just want to cut down all the chatter,” said Rondo. “Only a couple of guys should be talking in practice. As far as disrupting, when they do stop practice coach has the voice, then assistant coach has the voice and then the other players.”

It’s an encouraging development from what, at least from the outside, seemed like a contentious group last season battling roles and rules as well as opponents.

Though Rondo has a reputation, perhaps undeserved, for issues with authority, he’s been a welcoming beacon in elevating coaching as much as anyone in camp. He’s reached out for teaching and made that point to remind others that there is a chain of command, that the coaches are in charge and we’re not involved in a wide open democracy here. There are rules and discipline.

It’s a message Butler had to hear as well since last season, as he has admitted, he was enmeshed in the dysfunction while trying to grab that elusive leadership baton in the race for recognition. There were times last training camp Butler sat out as others sat out, sometimes a tit for tat about what leadership meant and how it was viewed and who it was and what that meant.

Wade and Rondo with championship rings and previous Hall of Fame teammates have come in and delivered messages that seem to have gotten everyone’s attention.

“To have a guy like Wade and a guy like Rondo and to hear their voice constantly and to stop practice and to pull the group together and talk it out amongst themselves, that’s been huge in these first two days,” Hoiberg said Wednesday after the second day of drills. “I thought today we were better than we were yesterday. And that’s what you want. You want to make corrections. You want to see that on the floor, not only when we’re going through and teaching but also when we start going live. Today was a much better day. It wasn’t as sloppy as yesterday morning. Obviously, we have a long way to go. But as long as we continue to make progress, we should be in good shape.”

In many respects, Hoiberg may be the ideal coach for this group, a former NBA player and executive who isn’t overly controlling. Hoiberg was criticized for that at times last season, even by Butler. But with strong, independent and successful veterans like Rondo and Wade ,who have played at the highest levels and in the biggest games in the NBA, Hoiberg’s teaching-without-being-overbearing style seems to not only fit well with the veterans but has enabled them to exert needed leadership.

“They’ve stopped, brought the group together and do what leaders do,” Hoiberg said about Rondo and Wade. “They’ve also (kept) the flow of practice going, pull a guy off to the side. Jimmy has done that. Jimmy did a great job last night (at evening practice). It’s about having that respect, being able to have constructive criticism for a teammate and not take it personal.

“Just his attack right now,” Hoiberg added about Butler’s presence, which has been strong on the court.

It almost seems a pressure relief for Butler to have two such successful veterans so he doesn’t have to strain and stretch to determine if and when and how he should lead. Or what it looks like.

“He’s doing a good job of attacking closeouts and angles,” Hoiberg added regarding Butler. “His strength is just off the charts right now. He’s just going through guys. We charted last night that he would’ve shot 10 free throws and that’s in a six-minute scrimmage. So I think it’s his overall confidence in driving the basketball and making plays. His leadership has been really good. I think he took to heart how much of an influence he would have to have on this team. And he’s done a really good job of that so far.”

That it’s been natural with Wade has been no surprise to Hoiberg.

“I expected him to come in and have great leadership qualities,” Hoiberg noted about Wade. “He’s gone above and beyond what any of us have expected. He’s just another smart basketball player. He does a great job figuring out his body and getting himself the type of shape he needs to be in. Now it’s up to us to gradually get him ready for opening night. He’s been out there. He hasn’t taken any plays off. We’ve gotten him in and out when we go up and down. But he hasn’t sat out any of the drills we’ve done.”

Hoiberg mentioned Wade took a charge during the Tuesday night session, and Wade later joked it was his fifth of his career.

“I like blocking shots better,” Wade said with a smile. “Just trying to do the little things. Little things like that matter. I like being around this team right now. The excitement, the energy is there every day we walk in. I’ve learned so much about this game that I enjoy passing on knowledge. Some of the times you have to do it on the court. Some of the times you’re going to have to do it in the locker room. Sometimes you’ve got to use your voice, as well. Coach has allowed myself, Rondo and Jimmy to be those leaders on the team, so I’m just trying to fit in where I fit in.’’

Obviously, Dwyane Wade is not just an interlocking part.

“When you have guys who talk, especially at the defensive end, that organizes your defense,” said Hoiberg. “He and Rondo are great at that. Jimmy is great at that. Taj (Gibson) is a talker. Robin (Lopez) is a talker. Wade makes players better. That’s the sign of great players, when you can make the guys around you better.”

So if smiles and camaraderie were wins, the Bulls would be planning a title rally after two days. Though that’s generally the story of 30 teams the first week of training camp. These veterans know it’s a lot more than happy talk, and Rondo, the great truth teller, added the reality. It’s not about being in love—or even a lot of like—with your locker room neighbor. It’s primarily about respect and professionalism.

“You have to like each other on the court,” Rondo said, breaking out a rare smile for his group media sessions. Rondo, of course, was famously supposed to be at odds with his Boston Big Three, though Rondo’s nature never has been to explain what the media mistakes.

“I just go off my experience,” Rondo said. “In Boston the year we won the championship, guys were so much different in age. You don’t have the same lives off the court. The Big Three hung together and then it was myself , Perk, Tony Allen, the young guys, Big Baby, hung together. It wasn’t we didn’t like each other, but that they had families; we didn’t. It was kind of similar, but I think we are all going to get along. It’s not a matter of who likes and who don’t like each other, as long as (when) we are on the court we have one common goal and we’re playing for one another.”

Thus far it’s been working nicely.