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September 29, 2016
By Michael Doulas, Hersey
The Chicago Bulls had an eventful summer, to say the least. They shook up the makeup of the team, most notably sending hometown hero Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks in what was a long-anticipated trade. They also added several new players, among them former champions Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade.
The Bulls management decided to freshen up the the team’s atmosphere with the aforementioned Rose trade, which was just the first of several big moves they made. Soon after Rose’s exit came the departure of fan favorite and lifelong-Bull Joakim Noah, who left in free agency to join Rose in New York. The subsequent exits of the two players angered many fans, but for once, the Bulls made the right call. They were fed up with continuing to roll the dice with Rose’s health year after year, and Noah probably wanted more money than he was worth. The Bulls also let go of Pau Gasol, who was a talented scorer but lacking in other departments, which was hurting the team both chemistry-wise and on the defensive end.
While the breakup with Rose was understandable (though perhaps grudgingly), the decision on who to replace him was not. The Bulls decided to go with journeyman Rajon Rondo, his glory days long behind him (he last played in an All-Star game in 2012) whose reputation as a coach-killer and poor chemistry guy makes the signing extremely perplexing. On the court, his presence with this team makes even less sense. On-the-ball defense, an area that Rose struggled in mightily and that the Bulls hoped to improve this summer, is anything but a strong suit for Rondo. Last year with Sacramento Rondo averaged 2 steals a game, a statistic seemingly impressive on paper, but Rondo mainly plays defense in the passing lanes, leaving his man to pick off passes, a tactic widely known among stat-hungry players looking to improve their steal numbers without playing much defense. It remains to be seen how Rondo will adjust his game to a more structured Bulls team.
The Bulls followed up their Rondo deal with the signing of native Chicagoan Dwyane Wade. This move made more sense than the Rondo signing, although Wade and the Bulls’ franchise player Jimmy Butler have very similar game styles. Both score in the mid-range and near the basket, and neither are good outside shooters (and neither is Rondo, for that matter). However, Butler is a much better defender than the 34-year-old Wade, who has definitely lost a step defensively. (The backcourt duo of Rondo and Wade will certainly have some problems on the defensive end, to say the least.) Wade will certainly help the Bulls in the scoring and playmaking departments, but his price tag (over $23 million next year) and declining health are areas of concern for a team hoping for some consistency.
The departures of Gasol and Noah would have put the Bulls in need of size, but they managed to acquire big man Robin Lopez from New York in the Rose deal. Lopez is on a friendly contract (just $13 million next year) and has been relatively underrated throughout his career. He won’t put up flashy numbers like Gasol or be as versatile as Noah, but he is a great all-around talent who does all of the dirty work.
The Bulls added some younger players to the roster as well. They acquired second-year point guard Jerian Grant in the Rose trade to back up Rondo, drafted shooter Denzel Valentine to bolster their bench, and guard Isaiah Canaan as injury insurance.
Strengths and Weaknesses
- Outside Shooting
The signings of Wade and Rondo were designed to make them more competitive in the short term. But how effective will the new starting lineup be?
If presumed starters Rondo, Wade, Butler and Lopez are joined by veteran big man Taj Gibson (who is a likely candidate to start), then this team will have some trouble shooting the ball from the outside. Butler shot just 31% from three-point range last year, which is well below the league average of 35%. Rondo made over 36% of his threes last year, a relative outlier for him (his career percentage is under 29%). Wade clocked in at a disastrous 16% clip. Neither Gibson or Lopez have ever made a three-point shot in their careers. This is a huge weakness for the Bulls considering that many of the teams in the league feature big men who can shoot from the outside.
So the trio of Butler, Rondo and Wade would, given they shoot the same percentage as they did last year, average out to shoot roughly 28% from beyond the arc. Last year’s starting perimeter trio (Rose, Butler and E’Twaun Moore) combined to shoot just over 35%- and the Bulls finished in the bottom half of the league when it came to three-point shooting. A starting lineup that would shoot poorly from outside would struggle mightily in today’s day and age where perimeter shooting is more valuable than ever.
One solution would be to start Nikola Mirotic instead of Gibson. While still young and a bit faulty at times, Mirotic can play the power forward position well and is also a talented outside shooter. Mirotic shot 39% from three-point range last year and would be the best perimeter shooter in the starting lineup. Although there are concerns about his defensive ability, Lopez, a highly skilled defender, could likely offset those issues. Either way, the Bulls will likely have some struggles in the three-point shooting department.
The Bulls’ bench is in high contrast from the presumed starting group- it is mainly comprised of raw youngsters who have a lot of room to develop. The most notable of these players is second-year player Bobby Portis. Portis played exceptionally well last year, and if the opportunity presents itself, he may find himself in a starting role at some point during the season. The Bulls also have some skilled shooters on their bench, including Valentine and Doug McDermott, who will be a big help to the team’s aforementioned outside shooting woes.
If the bench group develops as expected, they may be the extra push the Bulls need to make a big splash in the Eastern Conference.
Projections for Next Year
Last year’s Bulls finished 42-40 in a disappointing season, and they missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season. How will this year’s group perform?
Best-case scenario: 47-35, 4th seed in East
In order for the Bulls to get this high, a number of things would have to go right: Rondo, Wade, and Butler all mesh and play well together; The Bulls are able to shoot well from the outside; and their young players all develop exceptionally well at a rapid rate. It’s very unlikely that this scenario happens, but it’s definitely possible considering all of the current unknowns.
Worst-case scenario: 40-42, 10th seed in East
It definitely seems improbable for the Bulls to be worse than last year, but this situation could very easily take place. All it would take is if Wade struggles with injuries, Rondo struggles with chemistry issues, the young players don’t mature and the team’s defense and outside shooting don’t improve. Though unlikely, the Bulls have had years like this happen before.
Most-likely scenario: 45-37, 7th seed in East
The middle ground is probably where the Bulls will end up next year, as they will likely have some issues early on in the season before gradually turning it around towards the end. I know that personally, I would be happy just to see the Bulls in the playoffs again, even if they don’t return to the level that they were at in years prior.
The preseason begins on October 3rd… Hopefully that will be the start of a new Bulls dynasty.
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