After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
This is Banana Boat Week. We’ll be looking at how that group of friends has shaped the modern NBA and what we might expect from them in these final seasons before they ride the waves into the sunset. Grab your life preserver. This should be fun.
Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo are stopgaps for a retooling Chicago Bulls team. That would sound crazy to someone who fell asleep in 2012 and woke up today, but it’s a reality. Wade and Rondo are two nonshooting, ball-pounding, past-their-prime guards that don’t make a lick of sense for Fred Hoiberg’s system, which is based on spacing and ball movement. But they do afford Chicago the time to find the answers the team is seeking as it attempts to reconstruct itself as a contender that might not involve either of them.
“We were able to change the roster and get younger, and in doing so we really didn’t sacrifice as we’re looking at into the future. We kept a great deal of flexibility from a cap standpoint and kept our assets moving forward,” Bulls GM Gar Forman said at media day this summer. “We’re excited about where we’re at today, but we’re also excited about where we can be down the road, which was a big part of our plan.”
But by signing both Wade and Rondo to short-term deals instead of spending lavishly on inflated contracts over the summer, Chicago has also left the door open to a number of different plans for the future — including one so wildly improbable it would turn the league on its head … again.
Wade has a player option for 2017 and Rondo’s second year is only partially guaranteed. The 2017 salary cap is projected at $102 million, so the Bulls could easily create enough space for one max contract. Maybe Wade could dump Rondo and upgrade to his Banana Boat buddy Chris Paul, who has a player option next summer.
Still with me? OK, let’s go way off the deep end here: Don’t forget LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have options to hit free agency in 2018, and the Banana Boat quartet has expressed a desire to play together. “I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together,” LeBron told Bleacher Report earlier this year. “At least one, maybe one or two seasons — me, Melo, D-Wade, CP — we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that.” Maybe this is what Gar Forman is talking about when he says that the team is retaining flexibility. Maybe it’s not about the youth, maybe it’s about the future Hall of Famers. After all, the Bulls were in the conversation to sign LeBron and Wade when LeBron made the original Decision in 2010, so maybe they could be the final port of call for the Banana Boat Superteam in 2018.
OK, back to reality: The Bulls need to actually be good to appeal to stars, and there are no guarantees of that with this clunky roster.
The team’s offseason plan was to get “younger [and] more athletic,” and it’s exactly what they did. Over the past three seasons Chicago had the fifth-oldest team in the NBA; now it’s entering 2016 with one of the 10 youngest rosters in the league. Mission: Curious Case of Benny the Bull Button was accomplished. The Bulls’ projected starters — Rondo (30), Wade (34), Jimmy Butler (27), Taj Gibson (31), and Robin Lopez (28) — are fairly old, but they have a youthful bench with Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, Jerian Grant, Cristiano Felicio, and others.
Butler was reportedly unhappy last season, and even publicly criticized Hoiberg. “Several teams” tried to “pry away Butler” at the deadline, according to The Vertical, and those talks resumed on draft night. It’d be understandable if Butler were still disgruntled heading into the summer. Chicago was able to acquire a couple of marquee names to help with the bottom line, but Wade and Rondo create more questions on the floor than they answer.
Hoiberg was hired to modernize the team’s stone-age offense by emphasizing constant player and ball movement, pace, and spacing. Unfortunately, Butler, Wade, and Rondo all have iso-heavy tendencies: 57 percent of Wade’s field goal attempts came in the paint last season, compared with 55 percent for Rondo, and 44 percent for Butler, per NBA Savant. They all need proper spacing for their penetrating drives, and without a natural perimeter threat among the three, they’ll be suffocating when they share the floor.
Hoiberg recently said the Bulls playmakers will need to “create scoring opportunities through ball movement and cutting,” but that’s easier said than done when teams will defend them like the Bucks did on Monday.
All eyes are on Rondo as he penetrates the paint, while Butler and Wade are left totally open. Butler ends up with what should be an open look but he opts to drive inside, where the defense has collapsed. Rondo somehow manages to bail the team out with a fadeaway jumper, but the entire play itself is troubling. Teams will defend Rondo-Wade-Butler lineups just like that all season. Butler has shot 33.3 percent on spot-up 3s over the past three years, per SportVU. Rondo has improved to 36.7 percent on spot-up 3s since being traded by Boston in 2014, per SportVU, but that number comes on a small sample of 147 shots. It’s not any better for Wade, who has made 386 3-pointers since he came into the NBA in 2003; for perspective, Steph Curry made 402 last season alone.
On the bright side, the Bulls bench is flooded with shooters. McDermott, who shot 42.5 percent from behind the arc last season, is lights out. Nikola Mirotic is streaky, but shot 44.5 percent from 3 after returning from an appendectomy last season. Tony Snell shot over 36 percent from 3 over the past two years. Rookie Valentine shot 44.4 percent on a high volume of 3s in his senior year at Michigan State. Even young bigs Portis and Felicio have flashed floor-spacing upside. Hoiberg can stagger the minutes of Butler, Rondo, and Wade and sprinkle in shooting throughout the rest of their lineups.
Beyond spacing issues, the roster is devoid of two-way players. Most of the aforementioned bench shooters are not plus defenders. The more shooting the Bulls have on the floor, the less likely they are to get stops or grab rebounds. The Bulls allowed 14.3 second-chance points per game last season, tied for third-worst in the NBA, so they’ll need help from their guards crashing the boards. That only hurts the offense since it limits leak outs.
The Bulls ranked 29th in forced turnovers and 30th in transition scoring efficiency last season. They simply weren’t creating many easy fast-break buckets. Hoiberg has stressed defensive aggression for the upcoming season. “Like all staffs we watched a ton of film and tried to figure out with this group how we can create more turnovers, how to impact the ball better,” Hoiberg said. “Every day it’s been a big emphasis in our defense and we get out and force turnovers, and make sure that help is there behind the trap, and being aggressive on the ball.”
Rondo is lauded for his transition scoring and playmaking, but he ranked in the third percentile of transition scoring efficiency last season (0.67 points per possession, per Synergy, or worse than an Old Kobe Bryant isolation). Per Synergy, Rondo was also worst in the league in transition turnover frequency because of Hail Mary passes like this:
Rondo’s low production last season is partly a byproduct of donning a Kings jersey, but as a passer, he’s always been as frustrating as he is dazzling. Chicago’s overall transition scoring production doesn’t fall entirely on Rondo’s broad shoulders, either. His teammates must commit to running the floor. Rondo’s job is a whole lot easier when he’s racing with a fleet by his side.
Balance will be an issue for the Bulls on defense, but you can see a faint outline of how it might work. Lopez isn’t quite prime-level Joakim Noah, but he plays with a similar tenacious element. He’s not a shot-blocker, but he’s a reliable linebacker on defense, communicating assignments, calling out screens, and flying around the paint. He’ll typically be in good position to alter a shot, like he was here against Jabari Parker:
The Bulls allowed the most drives in the league last season, according to Nylon Calculus. That happened because of their inability to contain the ball. Defense starts on the perimeter and Chicago’s guards, especially Derrick Rose, left their bigs out to dry. Even Butler’s defense declined with increased offensive responsibility. Wade and Rondo could theoretically help a lot here. Once upon a time, both players were elite defenders, named to All-Defensive teams a combined seven times over their careers. But they’ve declined sharply in recent years. Wade’s effort and focus has diminished as he’s aged; Miami was 5.5 points per 100 possessions better on defense without him last season, and he averaged a career-low 1.1 steals per game.
Rondo’s defense is like the show Dexter: entertaining through its first four or five seasons, and frustrating thereafter. Rondo is lauded for his intelligence, but he gambles for steals far too often. He was once a playoff hero, but he now rests his hands on his knees before the buzzer sounds.
Here’s a common scene: Rondo looks disinterested, lazily fights through a screen, and then stands and watches. Above, Curry has time to pour a cup of coffee and read the newspaper before unloading his 3-pointer. Rondo still has his brilliant moments, but he hasn’t played hard on defense consistently for at least four years, or with fundamentals for even longer. It’s a shame, really, because prime Rondo was enthralling on defense.
Maybe the veterans will rally around each other in Chicago. Maybe the diminished production of Rondo is a reflection of the teams he played on. Maybe “The Three Alphas,” as Butler labeled the trio, can feed off one another. But it’s hard to be optimistic about this unit: Rondo is the same guy who admitted in 2015 he hadn’t played defense “in a couple of years,” and Wade’s default setting for defense nowadays is off, not on.
The success of the Bulls starts on the defensive end of the floor. If Rondo, Wade, and Butler do morph into the league’s most ferocious trio, with Lopez manning the paint, then this team could be a tough play no matter the opponent. But that would be asking for a lot — namely, a time machine.
You know how when you’re watching a scary movie and you get that bracing feeling like some wild shit is about to go down onscreen? That’s what it feels like reviewing this Bulls roster.
This could be a disaster waiting to happen, but the franchise absolutely made the right choice to maintain a team with a winning complexion. Unless the Bulls could have gotten an overwhelming return for Butler in a trade, they were correct to hold off on pressing the reset button. Wade and Rondo can be the Band-Aids to control the bleeding until real solutions are found; Butler is a top-20 player signed through 2019 on a bargain contract. There just needs to be a lot of effort in making this all work, from all sides. Wade and Rondo might implode, and by February we might be talking about where the Bulls should trade Butler, but it’s worth a try when the long-term payoff could be significant.