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Dwyane Wade and Chicago’s Bizarre Big Three

Is the Bulls’ backcourt trio just crazy enough to work?

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

It says everything about the kind of institution Dwyane Wade had become in Miami that, even as the reports of his push to leave the Heat became more and more detailed, all of it felt like a pantomime. Yet here we are: Wade has agreed to a two-year, $47.5 million contract with the Bulls, according to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Nothing is sacred, and Wade, a Chicago native, is going home — to what, exactly, I’m not sure anyone is particularly clear on.

Wade knows what a superteam looks like. What he’s about to join is not one. He’ll share the spotlight with Jimmy Butler, an emerging star whose best attributes are reminiscent of a young Wade, and a 30-year-old version of Rajon Rondo, whose career is at a crossroads. At first glance, it’s hard to find the logic in this move. By going to Golden State, Kevin Durant enters a system uniquely catered to his skill set, with a group of players who have already established real chemistry. Wade, by contrast, joins a team with a coach who couldn’t fully implement the schemes he had in mind, and with a point guard notorious for challenging the basic tenets of any system in which he’s played. The Bulls definitely have three preeminent names on their roster now, but to what end?

Maybe the best way to understand the Wade, Rondo, and Butler triangulation isn’t in a vacuum, but as a vacuum — as a space completely void. The trio made a combined 133 3-pointers last season, a figure met or exceeded by 30 individual players. Of the three, Rondo was by far the most accurate (36.5 percent), a notion that is legitimately horrifying.

To maximize whatever space they can muster on the court, the Bulls will have to be creative in attacking before defenses are set, which conveniently is a core principle in Fred Hoiberg’s offense. But it was made clear last season that the Bulls didn’t have the personnel capable of executing their coach’s vision. Getting younger and more athletic was a point of emphasis entering the offseason; a week into free agency, Chicago’s haul mainly consists of two stars on the wrong side of 30 and 28-year-old Robin Lopez, acquired in the Derrick Rose trade. The red flag is being waved one way, and the Bulls are running in the opposite direction.

Chicago is now constructed in a way that’s almost perversely antithetical to how conventional wisdom says a modern NBA team should be. And yet, this architectural oversight might prove exactly the kind of challenge Rondo needs to snap himself out of his wayward spiral. That’s where we’re at: The Bulls have created a situation so backward on so many levels that only someone as enigmatic as Rondo may be able to flip things back into coherence.

Getty Images
Getty Images

And if the Bulls do indeed take the shape of Rondo’s design, you can almost feel the consolatory pats on the back from Mavs and Kings fans who have seen their teams dismantled by his increasingly erratic play. There have been times during the past two seasons when Rondo appeared to have been operating on a different plane; he was a ghost and a grifter whose blatant stat accumulation seemed to run parallel to the game itself. But Rondo will soon take the court alongside one of the greatest shooting guards the game has ever known. There’s reason to believe he’ll treat this opportunity differently: He won’t solely play to rehabilitate his market value anymore; he’ll play to spark another postseason run like the ones in Boston that originally forced the basketball public to acknowledge his unorthodox starpower. Remember the Rondo-Wade tie-up that led to Rondo’s dislocated elbow in 2011? Remember how he kept playing with the injury? What if that competitive fire isn’t gone?

This Bulls backcourt trio is crazy, but what if it’s just the right amount of crazy? Rondo has always seen angles that others can’t, and Wade has spent so much of his career wringing out defenses through his precise off-ball movement. If Lopez possesses anything remotely close to a transcendent NBA skill, it’s setting screens. So there will be weaves and staggered dribble handoffs and a lot of motion — not necessarily from Hoiberg’s mandate, but from the logic of basketball itself. For reliable floor spacing, Chicago will largely count on Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, and the prayer that Denzel Valentine’s 3-point percentages at Michigan State will translate to the NBA. None of those players has proven trustworthy enough to play more than 25 minutes a night yet. You can’t field a team with only one reliable shooter on the floor without getting creative.

And this is why the Bulls might be interesting next season, even if there is little chance that they’ll be as good as they hope to be. The realities of Chicago’s personnel will force it to look into Hoiberg’s playbook and find ways to maximize Butler. That shouldn’t be hard. He’s already the best cutter in the game: Among players last year who were involved in at least 100 possessions that called for them cutting to the basket, there was no one more devastating than Butler, who scored an unbelievable 1.53 points per possession on that play type. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that the next 14 players on that list are power forwards or centers. Only 9.2 percent of Butler’s possessions were cuts, but that figure should dramatically increase.

It gets a lot murkier for the Bulls on the other side of the court (or clear as day, depending on your vantage point): Chicago should be bad at defense. In the two seasons since LeBron James left Miami, Wade’s numbers reflect a player who makes his team’s defense worse when he’s on the floor. And outside of fleeting moments of brilliance, Rondo hasn’t cared about defense since his string of injuries late in his Celtics career, a period in his life fading farther and farther into the rearview mirror. Butler remains one of the most talented wing defenders in the league, but he alone won’t be able to make up for what Rondo and Wade lack as a result of age and erosion. Lopez, through smarts and sheer size, is a fine rim protector and glass cleaner, but the Bulls don’t have an ideal pairing for him. (Fans in Chicago are high on Cristiano Felicio, who moves well laterally for a guy packing 275 pounds, but he largely occupies a similar space as Lopez; second-year forward Bobby Portis, who checks off a few boxes as a hypermobile 4, is often as clueless as he is eager.)

You’ll notice very little of this seems directly contingent on Wade. It’s unfair to expect him to replicate last season’s production over the next two years, given that he played in only 71 percent of the Heat’s regular-season games from 2011–12 to 2014–15. Wade will turn 35 next January, and even if he is able to remain as healthy as he was last year, he’ll still have to work hard for points — unless you believe in the 52 percent 3-point shooting mirage he posted in the playoffs a few months ago. More likely, we’ll have to expect the same old Wade, or possibly less than that. It’s impossible to tell when the sharp decline will hit.

Both Wade and Rondo have agreed to two-year deals, which leaves the Bulls and Hoiberg with an awkward timetable. Chicago won’t have to worry about being tied to its new and aging stars long term, but its game plan seems capricious nonetheless. The Bulls’ recent signings feel like window dressing; eventually, the team will have to reckon with the fact that it might lack a real core.