NBA training camps are set to open next Monday, with preseason basketball right behind it. With both on the horizon, I thought it would be a good time to bring together some the best Bulls minds to answer a few key questions about this upcoming season.
The members of the discussion consisted of myself, our own Ricky O’Donnell (@SBN_Ricky), Mark Karantzoulis (@MKarantzoulis) of Bulls Confidential, Sean Highkin (@Highkin) of Bleacher Report and NBC Sports and finally, Stephen Noh (@hungarianjordan) of The Athletic Chicago.
Question 1: Obviously the trio of Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler needs to be a topic of discussion. Spacing, shooting and defense are three of the biggest areas of concern with this trio, but which of those aspects are you most concerned about, or maybe even a little more optimistic about than others? Or is there another area outside of those three?
Tyler: For me the biggest concern is going to be the lack of spacing due to the poor shooting of those three. It’s just hard to fathom the Bulls having any type of efficient offense with those three sharing a majority of the minutes on the floor. The Bulls offense over the past several years has been difficult to watch and it surely doesn’t seem like it’s going to be any better this season.
Mark: I don’t see a scenario in which you can build a credible offense with these three guys, so spacing and shooting is definitely a concern. However, I also don’t see how it’s possible to build an effective defense when your backcourt is made up of two aging former stars who could fall victim to an injury at any moment, which would load even more responsibility onto an already defensively weak bench unit.
The defense is what worries me most. The Indiana Pacers were bad offensively under Frank Vogel for years, but maintained a healthy winning percentage by playing outstanding defense. Hell, we’ve seen that routinely when [Tom] Thibodeau was at the helm. You can win ball games, even a tightly contested playoff series, with a terrible offense and a quality defense. But without a good defense behind an unstable offense, that’s when things start to really get ugly.
Stephen: The biggest concern for me is what type of system Hoiberg creates on offense to use all three effectively. Hoiberg must think outside the box to get the most out of this trio, because nobody is going to guard them if he has them sit on the 3-point line.
There are a lot of creative principles Hoiberg could incorporate. One idea that I will have more depth on in an upcoming article this week (note: this has already been published, you can read it here) on the The Athletic is to go all-in on offensive rebounding.
Thibodeau explained to Bill Simmons on a summer edition of his podcast that the Celtics used to position Rondo on the baseline and have Kevin Garnett responsible for transition defense so that they could take advantage of Rondo’s strength as an offensive rebounder.
The Bulls could take this idea even further. Rondo, Wade and Butler are all tremendous offensive rebounders, and they might be more useful playing inside and crashing the glass. Many NBA coaches have largely abandoned offensive rebounding to focus on transition defense, but the Bulls might be able to benefit by going against the grain.
A similar idea proposed by my podcast co-host Will Gottlieb (@wontgottlieb) is that the Bulls might try considering an inverted offense, where they generate perimeter shooting from Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio while allowing the Three Alphas to work inside.
Whatever Hoiberg decides to do, a conventional offense will likely doom the Bulls. The Bulls got weird with their roster, so let’s get weird with the system.
Sean: The lack of shooting is a concern, and I’m still skeptical Rondo’s solid three-point performance last season is anything more than an outlier. But I’m much more worried about Butler’s workload on defense. Wade is 34 years old and will probably be sitting out some back-to-backs, and Rondo hasn’t been an elite (or consistently engaged) defensive player since before his ACL injury in 2013. Either those two have to be able to at least stay in front of their man consistently, or they have to do enough offensively to ease that burden on Butler to allow him to focus more on defense.
Ricky: I’m really interested in what the defense is going to be like. One way to mitigate the obviously disastrous shooting/spacing concerns would be to get out in transition as often as possible. The Kings had the fastest pace in the league with Rondo at point guard last year. Butler and Rondo each get a lot of steals (Rondo was sixth in steals per game last season) and Wade can make big plays defensively when he’s locked in. Do you remember all those blocks he had in the playoffs last year? Rondo and Wade both have a huge incentive to play hard given their contracts. I don’t expect them to be fully engaged on defense, but it would be a major boost to the Bulls if they are.
Question 2: Besides the Three Alphas, the Bulls have quite a few players at interesting points in their careers. Who are one or two players that you’re particularly looking forward to seeing this season?
Tyler: The first two that pop into my head with this question are Doug McDermott and Mirotic for varying reasons. McDermott’s shooting is going to be critical, but can he improve in other areas of his game to stay on the court long enough to have a lasting impact? And for Niko, can the consistency we saw from the second half of last season carry over to this season? For the whole year?
But the one guy I’m really interested to watch is Cristiano Felicio. Obviously, we have such a small sample size on him, but what he’s shown in limited time has left me curious as to what he could become with a more consistent role. In the remaining weeks of this past season, his play out of the pick-and-role, and prospect of stretching the floor along with hints of an ability to defend the rim were encouraging, and lead to some optimism that he could develop into a pretty versatile five-man moving forward. Although as of now, that’s all guess work until we see what Felicio is able to do with more consistent minutes on a nightly basis.
Mark: Am I stupid for still being intrigued by Tony Snell? That’s a rhetorical question, don’t answer it.
McDermott, Mirotic and Felicio all project to be better and more important players than Snell. That’s undeniable. In a way, those three guys will dictate the Bulls’ season, but hear me out on Snell.
A part of me is being facetious, sure, but realistically, the Bulls are a team void of three-point shooting and wing defense. Wade has regressed as a defender and can’t shoot. McDermott and [Denzel] Valentine may be credible threats from deep, but neither can guard a chair. The Bulls have built a roster that will again be relying on Butler to be its sole wing defender. That’s not good. They need several 3&D players, but have none. Again, not good.
Snell could be that guy, or at least projected to be one at some point. He is flawed and barely an NBA level rotational guy, but he’s also in the last year of his rookie deal. Now is the time to burn down perceptions. It’s make or break for Snell, and thankfully for him, the Bulls could use his skill-set - assuming it actually exists.
It’s his last chance here in Chicago, and I’m interested to see if he can salvage a career whilst proving the majority wrong.
Stephen: I’m most excited to see Mirotic for the same reasons that Sean and Tyler listed, but the guy I’m most looking forward to watching is Robin Lopez.
Let’s be honest - Bulls games were not much fun to watch last year. Lopez won’t be the best player on the team, but he’s been a fan favorite in every city he’s played in and I like watching those kinds of guys. He’ll infuse some energy and goofiness that the Bulls were missing last year with Joakim Noah out for most of the year. That’s another thing that Lopez brings - durability. He’s played in all 82 games in three of the past four seasons.
Sean: This is a bit of a make-or-break year for Mirotic. He’s been very good offensively at times and is a better defender than he’s given credit for (not great by any means, but not a liability when guarding other fours), but he’s never been able to produce on a consistent basis and he’s had issues with a lack of confidence carrying over for games at a time if he gets into a shooting slump. This will be the biggest opportunity he’s ever had - with the #ThreeAlphas and Robin Lopez locked into the other starting spot, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Mirotic will be the starting power forward, just because the Bulls need one credible outside threat on the floor, and none of those other players qualifies. Mirotic is also going into a contract year and will be a restricted free agent next summer. A big year will mean a big deal in 2017, be it in Chicago or elsewhere.
Ricky: I have to go with Mirotic, as well. I get the sense most Bulls fans are down on him, but that could be because everyone was checked out before he caught fire at the end of the year. He took 6.2 three’s per game and made them at 44.5 percent when he came back from the appendectomy on March 5th. He also hit 44.7 percent of his three’s for Spain in the Olympics. As Michael Wonsover noted at Today’s Fastbreak earlier this summer, he was particularly good in catch-and-shoot situations.
Question 3: Fred Hoiberg had a rough first season to say the least, and going into this season it’s not going to get any easier. What is one area that you want to see Hoiberg improve upon as a coach this season?
Tyler: Stephen alluded to this several times last year, but Hoiberg’s ability to stagger minutes specifically with the former Derrick Rose and Butler left much to be desired. Towards the end of last season he did a “little” better in terms of staggering the two, but it was too late to make any sort of significant impact. But as I talked about earlier this summer, lineup management is one area where Hoiberg will need to improve.
And with the roster makeup of this Bulls team, it will, or should at least have even more emphasis on it than last year. As most of us talked about in question one, the offense with the Three Alphas wont’ be ideal, so Hoiberg will need to work on staggering those three as a means of getting more shooting on the floor. In addition, last year the Bulls ran into a lot of time on the floor with all bench units, Hoibergo, which was so painful to watch. This year, he can’t afford to do that, especially with little experience and talent, so making sure that one of Rondo, Wade and Butler are on the floor at all times will be huge.
It won’t happen right away, Hoiberg figuring out which lineups work and which don’t, but sooner rather than later he’s going to have to for this team to have any sort of success.
Mark: Improving rotations and staggering the backcourt was the first thing to come to mind, but before that can happen, Hoiberg needs to get his best players on board with such an idea by forming trust in his relationships. At times last season, such a bond didn’t exist. Butler infamously implored for Hoiberg to “coach harder.” Joakim Noah and the coach had misaligned stories as to why the former Bulls center was demoted to the bench, causing tension and unnecessary focus. These awkward situations can’t happen again.
As much as training camp and preseason is important in developing schemes and on-court chemistry, it’s equally critical that Hoiberg is establishing partnerships with his key players, particularly Wade and Rondo. Integrating these two head-strong players with Butler, the team’s best player, is vital.
If the Bulls are to stagger their perimeter players, one of Wade, Rondo or Butler will need to come out of the first quarter early in order to spend more time with the second unit. If Wade is the one cast into the role, does he accept that gracefully if he and Hoiberg have yet to align themselves?
Stephen: Gar Forman lauded Hoiberg’s communication and player development skills when was introduced last year. Those skills haven’t shined through yet, but they could end up salvaging Hoiberg’s legacy in Chicago.
Wade is going to be retired by the time the Bulls build another championship window. If this team ever returns to greatness, it will be by finding something special within the 10 players with four or less years of experience on the roster. The bench (sans Taj Gibson) is a college-style unit, and I want to see if Hoiberg can work the same kind of magic with them that he did at Iowa State.
Sean: Count me in on the “stagger the Wade/Butler minutes” bandwagon. That would seem to make the most sense with their redundant skill-sets and need to use up a lot of possessions. But beyond that, I want to see the young bigs - Portis, Mirotic and Felicio - be put in a position to succeed. Mirotic in particular can see his confidence shot if he has a few bad games. This is where Hoiberg the communicator and “players-coach” has to shine through to help him through those stretches.
Ricky: Creativity. For the second year in a row, Hoiberg has a roster that does not fit the style of play that once made him a commodity at Iowa State. Part of the coach’s job is to figure things out anyway. We realize the Bulls’ offense dropped from #11 in Thibodeau’s final season to #25 in Hoiberg’s debut, yes? That should not happen. He must find a way to adjust to his personnel. I think he has some interesting toys to play with, from Valentine’s all-around offensive game to McDermott’s pure shooting ability to Mirotic’s unique skill-set. The Three Alphas don’t fit and everyone knows it. It’s on Hoiberg to get creative and find a system that can work for this roster.
Question 4: Continuing with Hoiberg, Rondo has a reputation for butting heads with coaches, but so far both have said all of the right things. What separates Hoiberg from Rondo’s previous coaches, is he’s known to be more of a “players-coach.” Is it possible that these two can work together or is Rondo’s past too much to suggest otherwise?
Tyler: I honestly don’t know with this, but if you had to force me to answer, I’d probably say no. As we saw in Hoiberg’s first year, and as Mark pointed out in question three, his relationships with Butler and Noah weren’t ideal. Mostly because he wasn’t able to communicate effectively with them and get them to “buy-in” from the start.
You’d liked to believe that things can change, but based on Rondo’s previous stops it doesn’t appear to be the case. One could assume that having two strong personalities (alphas, heh) in Butler and Wade might help in keeping him in line, but even when Rondo was in Boston with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, those three had their own problems with the point guard.
I think right now, there should be a wager on how long into the season we start to hear of a rift between Rondo and Hoiberg, Butler, Wade etc. Needless to say, I’m pessimistic.
Mark: I certainly think it’s possible for the two to co-exist and combine, but the queries over their existence become cloudy when you begin to factor in Wade and Butler. If Hoiberg wants the ball in the hands of Butler or Wade in the closing scenarios, how does Rondo react to that directive if he’s not the one creating the shot?
That’s where this thing gets tricky. Hoiberg and Rondo may be aligned now in September, but in crucial moments of a game in late February, if the play-calls are for isolating offensive sets for Wade and Butler, that’s where the strength of a “player-coach” relationship will really be tested.
Stephen: Rondo has clashed with all of his coaches - from high school to college to the NBA. Doc Rivers is a players-coach, and Rondo once threw a water bottle through a TV when Rivers tried to correct one of Rondo’s mistakes during a film session.
The Rondo-Hoiberg relationship *might* be workable, but I imagine there will still be some bumps along the way.
Sean: At Rondo’s first press availability after signing with the Bulls, he said that he’s going to get along with Hoiberg because Hoiberg “isn’t a dominant personality.” A few days later in Las Vegas, Hoiberg said that Rondo will act as another coach on the floor. At least from the outset, it seems like both parties are OK with Rondo calling a lot of the plays when he’s running the offense. That’s a big part of why Rondo’s half season in Dallas was such a disaster - Rick Carlisle is a micromanager who wants to have a hand in all of their play-calling. Rondo is the smartest basketball mind on the court for the Bulls and everyone knows it, and Hoiberg seems prepared to give him significant freedom. We’ll see if that holds if they’re slumping in December, but for now, the outlook is surprisingly optimistic.
Ricky: Hoiberg’s inability to get the team to respect him last season reminded me way too much of Marc Trestman’s doomed tenure with the Bears. They were both nice guys who were supposed to ignite dormant offense and that all sounded good enough. At a core level, the first thing a coach has to do is get players to buy what he’s selling. That didn’t happen last season and it leads me to believe someone with Rondo’s history is going to run all over him. Perhaps Rondo’s contract status (essentially a one-year deal) will prevent a total disaster, but it’s hard to give either party the benefit of the doubt to make things work going into the season.
Question 5: Many are pegging the Bulls to finish either right outside of the playoffs or to squeak into one of the final spots. It’s hard to say without seeing this team on the court yet, but if you had to make a prediction, do the Bulls make the playoffs?
Tyler: I’m pretty torn on this, but I don’t think the Bulls end up making the playoffs. There’s quite a few teams in the East who have gotten better this past summer, and I think it’s fairly safe to say that the Bulls weren’t one of those teams. With this team’s personnel, and coaching even, there’s just too many question marks and not enough answers.
I do believe it will be a fascinating season to watch, but only due to various story lines surrounding this team, not because of their play on the court. If I had to guess, the Bulls just miss the playoffs finishing 9th or 10th in the East.
Mark: With no confidence at all, I’ll say yes.
As bad as the roster fit may be for the Bulls, the East still remains poor relative to the Western Conference. By virtue of playing against lesser competition, the Bulls be in the hunt for a similar win-loss record to last season, even with a disjointed roster.
There are just too many teams in the East right now that are dancing in the knife’s edge. Who are the Knicks and where is their depth? Will Indiana successfully transfer to the tempo system Larry Bird craves? Will Chris Bosh be back for the Heat? I’m not prepared to say the Bulls will fall while others prosper, or vice-versa.
This isn’t a 50-win team. They may not even win 45 games. But they don’t need to. Despite last season’s shift, the seventh and eighth seeds in the East have often been filled by team’s with a sub .500 record. That’s the baseline for the Bulls.
If the Bulls can meander their way to 40 wins, they have a decent chance of making the playoffs and being a first round exit. I’m down on the Bulls and think they’re average at best, but in the East, average is revered.
Stephen: The stats nerds generally outperform any other prediction sources (and oftentimes even beat the Vegas lines), so I’m going to default to the ones we have out so far because I know they’re much smarter and less biased than I am.
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton pins the Bulls as the 11th-best team in the East based on RAPM, at 38.5 wins. That’s not even taking into account the vast problems with fit. Nylon Calculus contributor Andrew Johnson, who’s projections have won contests in ABPR’s analytics community for two years running, has the Bulls at 35 wins. And Vegas has set the line at 38.5 wins as well. I’ll trust the models (and absolve myself of any responsibility of being wrong!). Bulls miss the playoffs.
Sean: Yes, but I don’t feel great about it. Getting past the teams that seem locked into the playoffs (Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, Detroit, Charlotte and Atlanta), the Bulls are squarely in the middle of the group fighting for the final two spots. It’s hard to see the Bucks making it after the Khris Middleton news, and the Heat’s fortunes still depend so much on what happens with Bosh’s health situation. So that leaves the Bulls, Knicks, Pacers and Wizards. The advantage the Bulls have is that, as awkward a fit as their guards are, they’re all known commodities who have been there before. I’ll tentatively say they squeak in with the eighth seed.
Ricky: The teams in the East that are guaranteed to be better than the Bulls: Cavs, Raptors, Celtics. I’d say the Hawks should be better given their recent history and the Hornets seem like a safe bet to be better, too. That means there’s three spots left for the following teams: the Bucks, Knicks, Heat, Pacers, Pistons, Wizards and Bulls. The Bulls making the playoffs just doesn’t seem like a good bet to take because I believe the margin between all seven of those teams is pretty slim. I’ve gone back and fourth on this all summer, but I do think they can get the seven or eight seed. That would be a non-accomplishment that the front office will treat like a big deal.
Special thanks to Ricky, Mark, Sean and Stephen for taking the time to contribute to the discussion. Be sure to check out their work throughout this upcoming season at their respective sites!