BDL 25: Can Jimmy Butler and 'the three alphas' coexist on the Bulls?

Ben Rohrbach
Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4149/" data-ylk="slk:Rajon Rondo">Rajon Rondo</a> (left) and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3708/" data-ylk="slk:Dwyane Wade">Dwyane Wade</a> won 33.3 percent of their games as All-Star teammates. #advancedstats (Getty Images)
Rajon Rondo (left) and Dwyane Wade won 33.3 percent of their games as All-Star teammates. #advancedstats (Getty Images)

The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.

In the middle of their roster, the Chicago Bulls feature a wealth of intriguing young talent, mostly recent first-round picks who’ll be fascinating to watch develop under coach Fred Hoiberg’s guidance, but the success of this year’s squad falls squarely on the shoulders of its ball-dominant triumvirate.

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“This is Jimmy Butler’s team,” or so Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo said during their introductory press conferences earlier this summer. Likewise, Butler has dubbed them “the three alphas,” welcoming their arrival publicly. But saying and doing the right things once the balls are rolled out this season are entirely different, and few players know that cliche better than Wade and Rondo.

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It took a year and a half for Wade to hand the reins of the Miami Heat over earlier this decade, and that was to LeBron frickin’ James. Likewise, Rondo struggled for years finding his role on the Boston Celtics, clashing at times with future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen during a tumultuous tenure. Of course, both made it work, each winning titles in the shadows of brighter stars.

Meanwhile, Butler feuded with Derrick Rose in Chicago, conceding to reporters over the summer that the team’s lack of success only fueled that feud. The latter’s trade to New York seemed to signal a definitive organizational direction: The Bulls now run through Butler. Then, within in a month, GM Gar Forman opened a portal to the upside down, misdirecting his franchise’s compass with the signings of Rondo and Wade — two of few players more ball-dominant than Rose. Stranger Things, indeed.

Among guards, only Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kemba Walker, John Wall and Reggie Jackson had the ball in their hands more than Rondo did on the Sacramento Kings last season. Similarly, only James Harden, Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant owned a higher usage rate than Wade.

So, if Butler had trouble sharing with Rose, just wait ’til he gets a load of these two. There’s an easy answer to the question: Can the Bulls coexist? “Hell nah. Hell to the nah. Hell to the nah, nah, nah.”

There’s a more complicated answer, too — one that may also end in a similar refrain.

Wade is 34 years old, and Rondo’s 30. They’ve been through the fire. So, they should have known full well what they were getting into when signing to a team led by a 27-year-old member of the USA Basketball roster who’s coming off two consecutive All-Star campaigns and three straight All-Defensive bids. Jimmy Butler is a star, maybe even a superstar, and to deny that would be lunacy.

Then again, egos can mask what might seem obvious to the rest of us, and there’s a chance Wade and Rondo were blinded by eight-figure paydays to play in one of the country’s great basketball cities. But let’s not forget the Bulls front office willingly entered into these partnerships as well. Why? WHY?!?!

There’s always the possibility Chicago signed Wade and Rondo to make big-name splashes in free agency, but that would seem silly, considering the United Center consistently ranks among the league’s most well-attended arenas, and the Bulls just held a fire sale for their biggest name player.

No, Forman and Hoiberg must’ve thought this would work, and perhaps there’s a passable explanation why Butler, Rondo and Wade can coexist on the court, should they come together off it. Hoiberg successfully navigated a similar scenario at Iowa State, orchestrating a top-10 offense with a series of weaving high ball screens and handoffs among his guards and wings around the perimeter.

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During his only run to the Sweet 16, Hoiberg’s offense featured pass-first point guard Monte Morris, whose 4.79 assist-to-turnover ratio broke an NCAA record. Ideally, that’d be his Rondo this season. Morris’s usage rate paled in comparison to combo guard DeAndre Kane and wing Melvin Ejim, as Rondo’s will to Wade and Butler. In fact, those Cyclones also included high-usage, floor-stretching forward Georges Niang (28.5), so don’t be surprised when Hoiberg plays Nikola Mirotic with this group.

Iowa State’s abundant early action was designed to force opponents into a decision: Either attack the handoffs and pick-and-rolls, opening up space behind the defense for cutters, or sag to clog the middle, limiting slashes to the basket, but clearing the way for open perimeter looks. And that 2013-14 Cyclones core shot well enough from 3-point range (37.8 percent) to make that decision difficult.

However, with Butler, Rondo and Wade converting a combined 133 of 419 attempts from 3-point range last season (31.7 percent) — or two fewer than Mirotic on 73 more tries — it’s obvious which option opponents will choose, granting that triumvirate unlimited dial-up opportunities from long distance. We can imagine Butler improving in this regard, since he shot 38.1 and 37.8 percent from 3 in 2012-13 and 2014-15, respectively. By that logic, though, we might also assume Rondo will regress to his 3-point percentage from his first nine seasons (26.3), rather than the career he notched in 2015-16 (36.5).

Now, this offensive strategy might survive with two of the three. Maybe Rondo’s exceptional passing ability through tight spaces and Butler’s high-scoring output both as a roll man (1.17 points per possession) and cutter (1.53 PPP) could blend together. Or Butler and Wade’s above-average efficiency as pick-and-roll ball-handlers may possibly work in tandem attacking from both sides of the court.

Even still, in order to warrant enough respect from the defense to make this work, the Bulls would need at least two shooters on the floor with any two-man combination of Butler, Rondo and Wade. In theory, Hoiberg could rotate a pair of them with Mirotic and Doug McDermott — who shot a combined 40.6 percent on 604 3-pointers last season — and hope Robin Lopez can protect the rim well enough to make up for any downgrade in their own defense that might result. But that’s a reach that would require Wade — and his $23.2 million salary — to accept a sixth-man role behind Butler and Rondo.

For anyone holding out hope the star trio could simply run opponents off the floor, all three rated well below average in transition, with Rondo’s 0.67 points per possession on 225 chances arguably the NBA’s worst mark in 2015-16. In other words, Hoiberg’s run-and-gun offense can neither run nor gun.

All this says nothing of the facts that Wade has battled a laundry list of leg injuries as his career minutes have crept over 30,000, Butler publicly called out Hoiberg’s coaching style and Rondo has butted heads with every coach he’s ever had. Oh, and did we mention Wade once bent Rondo’s elbow in the wrong direction, leading to a yearlong war of words between the two rivals over dirty play?

So, back to that question about whether these Bulls can coexist. Altogether now: “Hell nah. Hell to the nah. Hell to the nah, nah, nah.” On the bright side, Wade has a player option and Rondo’s deal is non-guaranteed in 2017-18, so either one could be gone a year from now. And maybe one of the middling young Bulls will make a big name for himself, so Chicago won’t go chasing them in free agency again.

Previously, on BDL 25:

Chris Bosh’s increasingly hazy career prospects

Kevin Durant sets about winning back our love

Stephen Curry’s search for an encore, and for invincibility lost

The NBA, social activism and a change we need to see in 2016-17

The Trail Blazers, and the promise and peril of ‘pretty good’

Will the Pistons ever get into gear?

Introducing the (maybe) thoroughly modern Grizzlies

Is the new-look Indiana Pacers core worth fearing?

It’s time for Anthony Davis to resume blowing our minds

How will the Warriors recover from a historic Finals collapse?

Is the new-look Indiana Pacers’ core worth fearing?

Counting on the Clippers to contend is insane, so call them crazy

The 76ers and the fascinating challenge of figuring it out

On the final ‘couple of years’ of Dirk Nowitzki in the NBA

– – – – – – –

Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

Stay connected with Ball Don’t Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL, “Like” BDL on Facebook and follow Dunks Don’t Lie on Tumblr for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.

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