It’s time to cautiously inhale the hype together, at least for the next five, 10 minutes. I’m writing from Chicago and maybe I'm just feeling a little love-drunk on the World Series, but I’m willing to entertain the notion that the Bulls, the can’t–shoot, can’t–share, three–alpha male Bulls might actually work out. And by that I mean, to borrow from the Cubs, not suck.
An opening-night win over the dinged up Celtics was nice, and was reaffirmed by a 17-point win over the Pacers (who were on the second night of a road back-to-back, to be fair). Then the Bulls dropped a 30-piece on the Nets in Brooklyn on Monday, which is to say, they won 118–88, made half their shots and held the opposition to just a 34% clip.
Yes, that was against the Nets, but something is working for the Bulls right now.
Let’s ditch the tiny statistical sample size and just get into the spin. The Big Preseason Bulls Storyline made it it feel like the only thing that could preemptively save the brand-new chemistry was Chandler Parsons (couldn’t fit under the salary cap anyway) and a weekend on the Sunset Strip (they go hand in hand). This team is almost certainly bound for bumps in the road, and it’s only been three games, but all signs suggest that everyone is getting along right now. Jimmy Butler says he likes Fred Hoiberg now. That's a great start!
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. Lots of assists in a few games will do that, but criticisms and all, it’s not a secret how much Rondo—despite having never been a consistent shooter—can do to keep a team well-oiled when he wants to. Watching him crisply distribute the ball and gamble on defense has been illuminating. The bottom line is the Chicago Bulls look good at basketball, and nobody expected that, and it’s largely in part because of their enigmatic, Connect Four wizard point guard disrupting and also controlling the flow of the last three games.
Rajon Rondo? Really?
Rondo’s an oddball and he can often be abrasive, sure, but we know that he thrived as a secondary (fourth, really) banana in Boston. He could take credit for a chunk of the Celtics’ success and allow Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to serve as spokesmen. He’s going to be moody regardless (more on that later), but what if this is the combination that finally re-unlocks Rondo’s competitive id?
It’s fair to assert that Dwyane Wade can and will make sacrifices to blend this team’s egos and fit in where he needs to. What I mean is, Doug McDermott was invited to Gabrielle Union’s birthday party this week. Wade and Rondo sparred on the court in the past, but it’s often the most intense competition that breeds the strongest mutual respect. 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?
Can this team keep making threes?
Ding ding ding. Look, 43% as a team is not going to be sustainable, neither based on past performance nor projection. But McDermott looks good, and Nikola Mirotic is getting there, and those two guys improving always had to be part of this puzzle. Butler, Wade and Rondo just need to keep doing enough, and if the quality ball movement keeps up (Chicago is averaging a Warriors-like 28.3 assists per game), it’s going to open everything up. Nobody is ready to slap on a contender label, and the shooting is something that will ebb and flow, but it also may be nowhere as drastic a problem as it looked.
If there’s one deathly simple takeaway from three games, it’s that this thing can work, and work well. More Often Than Not could be this team’s mantra, and though this is boiling everything down a little too neatly, let’s go there. If the problems portended by history and rationale (basically: hitting threes, health and headbutting) surface less than half the time, Chicago should be good enough to make the playoffs, then figure it out. It’s more than most people asked for. They only need to hit enough jumpers, build enough good faith, deal with the bumps adequately and win basketball games. At a glance, it’s a lot to ask at once...but what happens if it’s not?
Sorry man, we just ran out of Kool-Aid.
I can’t believe I'm so close to actually believing this after three (three!) games. But, basically, that was the most encouraging week this franchise has enjoyed in five years. The over/under in Vegas was 38.5 wins. It’s eminently doable, for an optimist.
This is admittedly a full pivot from where I stood two weeks ago. Lots of people are going to have to own their past skepticism. And look, nobody really needs to buck any logical, concerned and warranted off-season Bulls criticism yet. But it’s way more fun to invest a little belief in what we’ve seen, then trust. This should be fun, and that’s a beautiful thing to say in November.