The Chicago Bulls have the most unanswered questions of any team going into the start of the NBA season. With a new starting roster of non-shooting stars and a bench full of unproven young players, the variance for the Bulls this season is huge. Over the next two days, we want to present two hypothetical futures for the Bulls, while keeping things in the realm of reality. We don’t have access to time machines full of ’96 Bulls players, and the whole team won’t all break their legs in in a World Series riot. We need to know:
Wade stays Wade
The whole season hinges on Dwyane Wade. At 35 years old, no one expects Wade to suddenly have a throwback 30-7-5 year, but he has not fallen off the cliff yet. Wade put together a pretty solid performance during an odd Heat season last year where he at times, carried the team into, and through the playoffs. A repeat performance from Wade is exactly what Chicago needs to reach full potential.
Someone on the Bulls will need to spread the floor, though. Plenty of players have added a three-point game late in their career and Wade has been shooting more from deep this preseason. There is no reason he can’t be competent behind the arc. Wade shot 30 percent on three-pointers the year before and after “The Decision” on over 200 attempts each season. Reaching those levels is feasible and should be enough to make the Bulls’ offense a tad better forcing defenses to leave the paint.
The maturity and leadership of Wade on and off the court can help transform a team that was in desperate need of that presence last year. That influence is the catalyst for the rest of the team to take the next step.
Jimmy gets better under Wade
Jimmy Butler is already a top 20 player in the NBA and firmly entering his prime. There is still room to grow, and every season Jimmy comes back with a little extra piece of skill that you didn’t see the year before. This season, though, Jimmy has a mentor who knows how to make a career out of mid-range jumpers and getting to the line. Wade should be able to take his Marquette brethren under his wing and teach him the tricks of the trade needed to, not just be an All-Star, but a superstar.
As long as the “three alphas” are getting along, this is Jimmy’s team which is what Butler has been wanting. Without the distractions in the locker room, Butler can fully focus on his elite two-way game. Butler can get back to being a lock-down defender, while Wade handles more of the offense role needed to close down games. Butler taking his game up a step will make everyone better around him and add wins to the Bulls season.
Rondo has something to prove
Rondo has to be the biggest enigma on the team and maybe in the league. After firebombing bridges in Dallas and Sacramento, Rondo has ended up in another contract-year situation in Chicago. The difference is that Fred Hoiberg is not a well-established coach that will ride Rondo for every bad turnover and missed free throw opportunity. Whether that is good or bad overall for the team, this tame style of coaching could allow Rondo to find his place again as a high-end point guard.
This is also the most talent Rondo had around him since his days in Boston. Two elite cutters in Wade and Butler, plus a multitude of good three-point shooters coming off the bench that Rondo can find in transition could allow Rondo to thrive again. That's if Rondo feels up to it. His defense is never going to be the same after his ACL tear, but motivated enough, Rondo might start at least trying to stay in front of guys. He’s not going to develop a shot, but if he can score at the rim, that forces teams to collapse, which means Rondo will find the open man. Rondo and Hoiberg both want to run the transition, and if the rest of the team can keep up, the Bulls can pull itself out of the bottom of the league in transition points.
Niko and Doug figure it out
There are players on this team that can shoot a three. Doug McDermott and Niko Mirotic are the prime suspects when it comes to players that can fit this role. Not just one, but both of this stretch three-fourths need to improve their consistency and defense so they can stay on the court for longer amounts of time. Neither of them match-up well against everybody, but together they can combine to match-up against a larger number of teams and create problems for opposing defenses.
Both Doug and Niko have seen enough minutes and now understand what it takes to play in the NBA. Their role as floor-spacers plays the most critical part in this offense. It will open up lanes for the rest of the players to do what they do best, and provide scoring spurts when the team needs them. Niko and Doug had rough starts last season but were able to finish strong by the end of the year. If they use that momentum to transition into taking a step up this season, the Bulls can rely on them to play critical minutes in big games, providing less workload for the “alpha three” throughout the season.
Hoiberg takes back the locker room
Fred Hoiberg lost the locker room early last year. He dropped Noah, the heart of the Chicago Bulls, out of the starting lineup and immediately tried to force his motion offense on a team that been running a conservative yet effective offense under a top-tier coach for years. His more laid-back coaching style was so different from the harsh whip-cracking from years past that nothing he seemed to do would stick. The players weren’t ready to buy in and didn’t respect him.
Hoiberg has a lot of growing to do, and he certainly doesn’t project to take a huge leap, but this year there is way less pressure on him. With some NBA experience under his belt, Hoiberg seems ready to assert more of his style of play. If veterans like Wade and Rondo buy in, this will help swing the locker room his way. Focusing on quick transitions and heavy cutting, Hoiberg could shape an offense to fit the talents of this team. If he can learn to manage personalities and gain favor with the real leaders in the locker room, his ability to get more out of this team will improve drastically. He is not going to win Coach of the Year, but there isn’t anywhere else to go but up.
In the East, there is only one great team, and it would take a critical injury for the Bulls to hope they could make the Finals. Nothing can happen to make Chicago a top 10 defense in the league. There are questions regarding Wade's health and Rondo's ability to be a definite factor in any lineup. Someone needs to be a good enough shooter to spread the floor out to stop opponents from just standing around in the paint. If a few bad cards are dealt, then the Bulls could quickly fall off. But the Bulls are playing with a strong hand. There are enough talented and smart basketball players here to win games. If Wade can stay healthy and help shape this team into a confident bunch of players with something to prove, a good playoff run is not out the question.
Best Case Scenario: 51-31; Eastern Conference Finals.
And if you're not an optimist, here's A Pessimists Outlook of the Bulls season.