Things are going great in Bulls-ville, take this from Jimmy Butler after a big win over Brooklyn kept them undefeated on the young season:
“Guys are continuing to work on their games; they are knocking down shots and getting guys open in rhythm. That’s team basketball. If we continue to play like that, I think we are going to be hard to beat.”
Hold up, that quote is from 2015.
Back to this year. The Bulls are looking awesome and, less importantly, feeling good doing it. Jimmy Butler is crediting the off-court camaraderie:
I think everyone is enjoying everybody's company, man. Even when we're not playing basketball, even if we're throwing a football, if we're playing cards, if we're just sitting and talking, everybody is locked in, everybody is having fun, everybody is listening, and everybody wants to get to know each other a little bit better. That's a major difference. We actually spend a lot of time off the floor with each other, which I didn't know could help so much, but it really does.
Maybe he’s on to something. For all the cynicism that we’ve heaped on the Bulls offseason moves, there’s no doubt that something had to be done, as last year’s locker room was apparently a total mess.
So getting out much of the old guard was a good move, though leaving Jimmy Alpha and adding two more strong personalities seemed like it’d backfire on the players and Fred Hoiberg.
But 3 victories in, it’s the opposite of that. Jimmy’s praising Fred’s “change” in coaching, Wade is teaching guys how to win, Rondo is
picking fights standing up for teammates. So they’re gelling, and it makes you wonder how.
Rondo: "Until you’re inside this locker room, you don’t understand our chemistry and how we fight for another."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) November 1, 2016
Oh, I guess we’ll never know then.
Based on the early eye test, the crux of this argument begins with Rajon Rondo, who appears to care about basketball for the first time in basically half a decade. It’s nice that Rondo's teammates are saying nice things about him, too
I’ve made fun of the front office’s vacillating directions, but if adding Wade produces a happy Rondo, that’s a great thing.
Hoiberg might be the potential fall guy, but the overall leadership component is going to fall on Wade, and maybe it’s time he got to emotionally carry a team again. Hall of Famers tend to do Hall of Fame things, and he made sacrifices in Miami that were far more difficult than scaling back some aspects his game at age 34. As long as Jimmy Butler keeps believing he’s the man, his co-stars are good enough to keep him afloat when the games really matter.
Self-interest governs all three parties in this scenario: Butler gets to own the spotlight, Rondo can do his best to stay out of it, and Wade can do the spiritual steering and pad his accomplishments. It also helps that Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson have been a strong defensive buffer, allowing the other three to take risks and leak out in transition. Perhaps the big personalities we thought would clash are actually perfect for each other, in that macro sense. Can you feel it?
I think it’ll work itself out as long as this stays a winning team. Rondo being an amiable extension of Hoiberg on offense drives the whole thing, with Lopez and Felicio being far better rim-runners than Gasol/Noah and Taj being the man (as always). Wade and Butler can get plenty of shots in transition, and staggering them in lineups lets them be the highest-usage player for big chunks of games. It’s also huge that the team simply seems more vocal on the court than last year. That’s not difficult to grasp, given Rose and Gasol’s (Noah was out, obviously) personalities compared to the new guys.
"I think we've all got a lot of love for each other," Butler said Wednesday. "Everybody wants to see everybody be successful. That's why we're winning games.
"But we're buying into any given night it could be anybody that's scoring; it could be anybody that's got it going. You get the ball to them and they'll take us where we need to go."
But what’s after that quote is very interesting, given the context of this season’s start.
Ben Wallace used to tell stories of how his Detroit Pistons teams in the 2000s would hang out together all the time, to play cards or watch a fight at someone's house. These Bulls don't do much of that, mostly because of the diverse personalities.
"When you're on that basketball court you've got to be a team, you've got to be a family," Butler said. "Guys are married, guys got kids. So I don't think the off-the-court stuff matters."
So maybe the added off-court hangs help too, and fuels the unselfish play. It also helps that this team is healthy. Both can lead to winning, and that cures everything in a locker room.
What’s yet to be seen is how this team handles adversity, of course. Rondo and Wade are effectively mercenaries, and perhaps their response to some bad times (and Hoiberg’s as well) will play out as many feared it would in the offseason. But maybe this locker room just isn’t as combustible, and thus the fallout of in-season strife won’t be as severe.