If Chicago Bulls players Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade walk into a gym, who gets the ball more? Second-year coach Fred Hoiberg’s answer for now: Give it to the guy with the hot hand. It’s a safe decision, but for the Bulls to succeed this season, Hoiberg will need to take a more assertive stance when approaching the team’s structure.
Jimmy Butler, the howling alpha dog
Butler has improved incredibly over his career, exploding from 8.6 PPG in 2012-2013 to 20.9 PPG in 2015-2016, which was the fourth best of all shooting guards. By 2015, it was clear that Jimmy Butler was the Bull’s best player as Derrick Rose descended from his MVP form.
Although the fans were happy to hand Butler the reins, the team was reluctant. With his five-year, $90 million max-deal, Butler expected to be the head honcho in the locker room. But there was a divide between younger players like Doug McDermott and Bobby Portis and veterans Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, who were more reluctant to fully give Butler the respect he wanted. Nonetheless, there was a change in Butler’s demeanor as he assumed more leadership and responsibility.
When the Bulls traded Derrick Rose earlier this off-season, the organization made it clear who their guy was going forward. Their big free agent signings, however, may indicate a different direction.
The WOW (Way of Wade) factor
After signing Dwyane Wade, the Bull’s leadership structure is more unclear than ever before.
Wade is a first-ballot hall-of-fame player coming off of an impressive year for someone his age, averaging 19 PPG this past season. Although Wade is 34-years-old and he’s prolonged the fight against his career’s decline, he’s the man and he knows it. This off-season, when Heat President Pat Riley didn’t offer Wade the contract he thought he deserved, he booked it to Chicago where he’ll likely be regarded as the hometown hero. And only LeBron James, who Wade called the “best player” in the world, could make him a secondary scoring option.
Jimmy Butler is definitely not LeBron. In fact, he’s much more like Wade. They both play shooting guard. They both shot 45 percent from the field in 2016, mostly through creating shots off the dribble and in the post. They both have rising field goal attempts, with Butler jumping by 113 (912 to 1035 FGA) and Wade by 99 (1084 to 1183). And last season, both Butler and Wade were the go-to guys in 4th-quarter situations for their respective teams.
So these similarities along with Wade’s established success present possible challenges in the locker room and on the court.
The curious case of Rajon Rondo
Then there’s Rondo, who isn’t necessarily going to be the leader of the team, but is another ego Hoiberg has to accommodate.
2015 was a disaster for Rondo. While he was in Dallas, he fit poorly into Rick Carlisle’s offense and often disagreed with the play-calling. The Mavs were 19-8 to start the season, scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions. After Rondo’s addition, they dropped to 101.6 points per possession. The offense was centered around Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons and Monta Ellis, but Rondo wanted the ball more. The tension between Rondo and Carlisle was seen on the court and even in pettier form when Rondo parked in Carlisle’s spot one day.
Carlisle would go on to say he wished the trade never happened.
Even though Rondo’s numbers improved as a King, contributing 11.9 PPG and a league-leading 11.7 APG throughout the 2016 season, the jury is still out on his ball-dominating playing style.
What is a Fred Hoiberg to do?
Despite four successful years with the Iowa State Cyclones, it’s still questionable whether Hoiberg is NBA-ready or not. In 2015, the Bulls finished third in the Eastern Conference under Tom Thibodeau, but with Hoiberg they sank to ninth place the next season, it’s darkest year since High School Musical 3 hit theaters. It should be noted, though, that Noah suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, Pau Gasol missed 10 games, Butler missed 15 due to lingering knee troubles, and Rose missed 16, which made fully working with that roster difficult.
With Rondo, Butler, Wade and how their point distribution will work, Hoiberg said, “great players figure it out.” But great coaches step in when necessary, the most recent example being the Cavs, who turned their season around after Tyron Lue started holding James accountable on a team he’d taken control of during David Blatt’s tenure.
Hoiberg needs to stop tip-toeing. For his pace-and-space philosophy to work, Hoiberg’s going to have to keep the ball out of Rondo’s hands as much as possible, or make Rondo change his slower style of play, which means he’ll have to dribble with a purpose without assist hunting.
For Wade, it’s as simple as making it clear that he’s a veteran player on Butler’s team. He’ll need to resurrect his unselfish style that he had during the Heat’s glory days because there’s no reason anyone else besides Butler should be leading this offense when efficiency and speed are essential. D-Wade and Butler can be dangerous together, they just have to be on the same page.
But Hoiberg’s decision needs to be clear in the locker room, also making accountability his biggest priority. It’s evident that if Butler doesn’t like something, he vocalizes it. After a loss to the Pistons last season, Butler stated he and the Bulls needed to be coached harder, and that Hoiberg wasn’t holding players accountable when it was necessary.
“We weren’t doing what were supposed to be doing, what we wrote on that board before the game. Nobody spoke up,” Butler said. “I did, but probably not enough times. I think he has to hold everybody accountable, from the No. 1 player, all the way down. Everyone has to do their job.”
Publicly exposing a head coach is the last thing a team with no clear identity needs as it tries to push forward.
If Hoiberg wants to keep his job in Chicago, he’s going to have to take initiative with his hodgepodge group of talent. The Bulls can be good, but how hard they could fall remains unknown for an organization searching for stability.