Rajon Rondo

Dwyane Wade's strong words last season were necessary for young Bulls, who hold no hard feelings

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Dwyane Wade's strong words last season were necessary for young Bulls, who hold no hard feelings

A frustrated Dwyane Wade had seen enough after a regular season loss to Atlanta in January and questioned his team’s commitment to winning, jumpstarting a few uncomfortable days on Madison Street.

Feelings were hurt after Wade and Jimmy Butler went scorched earth, followed by Rajon Rondo’s Instagram post questioning their leadership in return.

It seems like so long ago considering the direction the Bulls have gone since, but the players insist there’s no hard feelings toward Wade, as the Bulls will see Wade in a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey tomorrow night in Cleveland for the first time since his buyout two weeks ago.

“We never had any conflict with Dwyane. Just after that game, they had some tough declaration, Jimmy and D-Wade,” said Nikola Mirotic, a player who one could argue was a target of Wade’s ire that night. “But that was all. It’s a part of the game. They were hot. There was disappointment about the game.”

The players were fined by the Bulls for making their feelings public, but it pulled behind a necessary curtain and revealed some warts the franchise tried to conceal—even though it was clear for all the observers to see Wade and Butler’s urgency didn’t mesh as well with an underdeveloped and inexperienced group, along with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg trying to corral differing factions.

“It forced everyone to get in a room and be honest with each other,” Hoiberg said. “Really, it got us in my opinion playing better. It happened, it got us in that room for a long session, we hashed a lot of things out, and we were better because of it.”

Hoiberg’s leadership was questioned for the second time in two seasons as head coach, especially having to coach a player in Wade who still desperately wanted to be in a contending situation.

It took a while, especially after the Bulls traded veteran Taj Gibson to Oklahoma City in what amounted to a salary dump, but they rebounded and could have advanced to the second round if not for Rondo’s wrist injury in Boston.

But then again, the Bulls made their decision to change direction after the season so perhaps the fireworks were more for entertainment than true long-term effect.

“Sometimes those things have to happen,” Hoiberg said. “I talked to a couple of coaches about it that said, at least your guys are in there talking about it. Our guys won't say anything to each other. Maybe it needed to happen, and again, I thought we were better because of it and finished the season playing our best basketball of the year.”

Wade, up until 24 hours before media day, was still a member of the Bulls and whatever feelings from that evening in January had long dissipated. After he and the Bulls reached an agreement on a buyout, he sent young players like Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis text messages of encouragement.

Portis chalked the incident up to things that happen during the course of a basketball season.

“I don’t feel like we had a problem with him,” Portis said. “We just had a little mishap during the season last year. I feel like all the teams have a little trouble during the season, but ours was boosted a little more. But we don’t have any problems with him.

“He was a great leader for us. He came in every day, came into work. When I came in at nighttime, I’d see him here at nighttime, he and Jimmy, so I feel like he was a great leader. He showed us hard work and things like that, especially in the playoffs. He even revved it up even more, and when our team gets back to playoff mode that’s something I will take from him and it will help some of the other guys.”

Why you should pay attention to Bulls preseason

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Why you should pay attention to Bulls preseason

1. Who’s on point? The battle for the starting point guard position is a two-man race between Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant. And, let’s be honest, the odds are heavily stacked in Dunn’s favor. After all, the Bulls tried to acquire a high lottery pick to draft him in 2016, then made the draft night deal with Minnesota to acquire him in June. Dunn is working hard to fix his shot after a lost season under Tom Thibodeau in Minneapolis, and the Bulls are intrigued by his length, athleticism and defensive skills. If Dunn can do a good job of directing the offense and making impact plays on the defensive end, he’ll be the starter on opening night. Grant showed flashes of being a reliable 3-point shooter last season, and probably brings the most value as a scoring guard with the second unit.

2. Three candidates for the 4 spot. With rookie Lauri Markkanen sidelined for the first two preseason games because of back spasms, it will be interesting to watch Bobby Portis and Niko Mirotic try to get a leg up in the competition for the starting power forward spot. Coaches have raved about Portis’ tremendous work ethic this summer, and the third-year pro out of Arkansas is starting to emerge as a leader on this young team. Portis improved his shooting range a year ago, and has become even more consistent from the 3-point line this summer. Meanwhile, Mirotic will get yet another chance to prove he can be the player everyone expected when he came over from Europe three years ago. The Bulls are paying him starter’s money (two years, $27 million), now it’s up to Niko to prove he’s worth it. Both returning players will have to give up minutes to Markkanen when he’s ready to role because the Bulls are committed to making the 7-foot rookie one of the foundation pieces of the rebuild, along with the other two players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade: Dunn and Zach LaVine. 

3. Who’s going to score? Speaking of LaVine, he’s expected to be out until December as the team takes a cautious approach to his rehab from ACL surgery. And, with Dwyane Wade now in Cleveland, someone is going to have to score. Early candidates include Justin Holiday, who figures to start at shooting guard or small forward, Portis, Mirotic, Markkanen and second-year swingman Denzel Valentine, who figures to get a chance to show off his offensive game after an uneven rookie season. Don’t be surprised to see Robin Lopez launch a few preseason 3-pointers as he adjusts to Fred Hoiberg’s free-flowing offense.

4. Pelicans' bold experiment. While most teams in the NBA are trying to copy Golden State’s small-ball, 3-point heavy attack, New Orleans is trying to get back to the playoffs behind a pair of All-Star big men in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. And, they have a lot invested in making it work, since Cousins will be a free agent next summer. The Pelicans are also experimenting with starting two point guards in Jrue Holiday (Justin’s brother) and former Bull Rajon Rondo. Rondo led the league in assists during the one season he played with Cousins in Sacramento, and Holiday is a good enough shooter to play off the ball. Still, if either experiment fails, Alvin Gentry could be out of a job, and New Orleans could be in for another rebuild.

5. Who’s the better rookie? When the Bulls visit Dallas on Wednesday, they’ll get their first look at Mavericks’ rookie point guard Dennis Smith, the ninth pick in June's draft. Smith was the talk of the Las Vegas Summer League with his dynamic scoring ability and athleticism, with a number of scouts and coaches predicting he could wind up being Rookie of the Year. Rebuilding teams try to find future All-Stars with Top 10 picks, and the Bulls are hoping they made the right decision to pass on Smith for an elite shooting big man like Markkanen. Only time will tell if they made the right choice, and Bulls fans should be patient since it normally takes a little longer for big men to develop.

Don’t forget you can watch all of the Bulls preseason games on NBC Sports Chicago!

Five Things to Watch: Bulls open preseason play against Pelicans

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Five Things to Watch: Bulls open preseason play against Pelicans

1. All the new faces: The Bulls have 12 players in training camp who were not on the team a year ago. The headliners are there in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Nikola Mirotic, but with what should be one of the youngest rosters in the league there are plenty of roster spots up for grabs. Former five-star recruit Diamond Stone, Summer League standout Antonio Blakeney and athletic combo guard David Nwaba are a few names to watch as preseason begins and decisions are made.

2. The return on Jimmy: The Bulls’ rebuild will be clearer after next year’s draft, but fans will always go back to the one trade that sent them into this phase. Trading a top-15 talent in Jimmy Butler must yield a return, and though Zach LaVine won’t play until the leaves change colors the progress of Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen will loom large. Dunn has a pretty clear path to the starting point guard position, while Markkanen could fight for minutes in a sixth man role behind newly paid Nikola Mirotic.

3. Big payday for Big Cris: The Bulls’ first move in free agency this summer was handing Cris Felicio a four-year, $32 million deal.  He’s just 25 years old and has shown steady improvement in each of his first two seasons. At the very least he’s a formidable backup moving forward in the rebuild. But if the Bulls move on from Robin Lopez (potentially sooner than later) it would thrust Felicio into a starting role. If he continues to progress he could be the center of the future. How he fits into Fred Hoiberg’s style is another question, but the Bulls continue to like what they see from him.

4. Feel-good story in Quincy Pondexter: The Bulls traded for Pondexter earlier this month, and it’s going to be difficult not to root for this guy. Multiple knee surgeries cost Pondexter each of the last two seasons. He now appears to be healthy and should see game action in the preseason. When healthy he was a formidable wing, averaging 5.3 points on 42 percent shooting and 2.0 rebounds in 279 career games for New Orleans and Memphis. He’s not going to make fans forget about Jimmy Butler, but it would be a great story if he can make the team and, more importantly, stay healthy.

5. Welcome back, Rajon! The Bulls are going to see more than a few old faces from last year’s team, and they’ll get one on Opening (preseason) Night. After the Bulls bought him out over the summer, Rajon Rondo signed a one-year, $3.3 million deal with the Pelicans. Rondo was a superb teammate and excellent mentor to some of the young Bulls he’ll face on Tuesday, so it’ll be fun to watch him interact with some of those players, including Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and Cris Felicio.