Chicago Bulls: Early Season Takeaways

The Chicago Bulls are off to an 8-4 start in 2016-17. Here are some of the factors that have contributed to their early success.

Oct 6, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; (From R-L) Chicago Bulls Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo, and Dwayne Wade watch from the bench during their game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers won 115-108. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bulls came into the 2016-17 season featuring nine new faces on the roster. With that kind of turnover, there were questions aplenty.

Could Jimmy Butler take the next step in his ascension to being the team’s best player? Would Rajon Rondo be an upgrade over Derrick Rose? How much would Dwyane Wade be able to contribute at 34 years of age and heading into his 14th NBA season?

How would the team fare with a perceived lack of shooting in the starting lineup? And most important, could the Bulls find a way to thrive in spite of the number of new faces on the roster compared to a year ago?

If their level of play through the first 12 games is an early indicator of how good they can be, the Bulls are definitely heading toward good things. Having won five of their last six outings following a 3-3 start, the Bulls look like a team that is positioning itself for success.

Here is a look at some early season takeaways for a Bulls team that has raised a few eyebrows during the early weeks of the 2016-17 season.

Nov 17, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jerian Grant (2) dribbles the ball as Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood (5) defends during the first quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Jerian Grant Proving He’s Not The “Last Guy” On The Team

The Bulls acquired Jerian Grant in the Rose deal during the offseason, but his season did not start the way he would have liked.

In fact, Grant was “inactive” during the first three games — something that did not sit well with the second-year guard.

From the Chicago Tribune:

“When you’re inactive, you feel like you’re the last guy on the team,” Grant said. “Everybody else is out there suited up, so I wanted to prove to myself, to everybody out there, that I’m not the last guy. I’m a guy that can contribute to this team.”

With Rondo out of the lineup due to a sprained left ankle, Grant was given the opportunity at the lead-guard spot, and he has not disappointed. In Chicago’s recent wins over the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz, Grant is averaging 12.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 steals per contest.

Yes, Grant’s 35 percent shooting overall and 28.6 percent conversion rate from distance isn’t overly efficient. However, what he has shown over the past couple of games is that the Bulls offense won’t miss a beat when the primary point guard isn’t able to play.

Nov 17, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez (8) reacts during the first half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Robin Lopez Playing Key Role In Bulls Defensive Resurgence

In 2015-16, the Bulls entered the new year as the fourth-best defensive team in the league. Unfortunately, they were unable to sustain their early success and they finished 16th in points allowed (103.1) and 15th in defensive rating (106.5 points per 100 possessions), per Basketball-Reference.com.

Through the first 12 games of this season, however, the Bulls are defending with a greater sense of urgency and the numbers certainly reflect that.

Their 97.8 points allowed per game is the sixth-best mark in the league. Along with that, the Bulls are currently ranked eighth in defensive efficiency, giving up 103 points per 100 possessions.

Furthermore, the Bulls have the fourth-best point differential in the league at +7.2. Only the Atlanta Hawks (+8.5), Golden State Warriors (+8.7) and Los Angeles Clippers (+14.2) are better in this category.

Wade has credited Chicago’s big men for their effort on the glass and protecting the paint. Fred Hoiberg took it a step further, offering praise to Robin Lopez specifically.

“Robin is as valuable as any player on our team,” Hoiberg said, via the Chicago Tribune. “He does so many little things that don’t show up in the box score. He’s not going to play outside of who he is.”

The praise is well deserved as Lopez has posted three consecutive double-doubles while giving the Bulls a solid presence at both ends of the floor.

Defense became a staple of this team under the previous coaching regime. And although Hoiberg is regarded as more of an offensive-minded coach, Chicago’s success will ultimately depend upon how well they play at that end of the floor.

Nov 17, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade (3) dribbles the ball during the first quarter against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

D-Wade A Positive Presence On And Off The Court

With 13 years under his belt and his best seasons more than likely behind him, it was reasonable to wonder how much Wade would be able to contribute the new-look Bulls. So far, Wade’s numbers are somewhat similar to the bounce-back season he had with the Miami Heat in 2015-16.

His averages include 17.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game on 43 percent shooting. Furthermore, Wade is shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc, which is a significant improvement from his 16 percent conversion rate from distance last season.

While Wade is certainly giving the Bulls what they had hoped for on the court — which includes being a voice the coaching staff can rely upon at times, his greatest asset may be what he does off the court.

“That’s just who I am,’’ Wade told the Chicago Sun-Times. “That’s how I’ve been successful in my career. I’ve been a part of five Finals in Miami. It doesn’t happen by mistake that players want to play with you. I know as a teammate what I bring to my guys off the court. And I know how important that is.

“For me, it’s just coming in and putting my leadership and my stamp on this organization knowing that I can help. I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think I could help this organization and help Jimmy. This organization to me is important. It’s my childhood’s favorite organization. I knew I could help from what I’ve learned in this league. I have a lot of knowledge on the court I can help with them. And then I’m into a lot of [stuff] off the court that I can get them involved in and we can do together too. It’s just sharing it all with them.’’

Whether it is taking teammates to task when defensive breakdowns occur or hosting team events, Wade has helped forge a much-needed camaraderie among this group — something that was missing last season.

Nov 17, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) shoots the ball against Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) during the first half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler Taking Different Approach To Leadership

Jimmy Butler has been Chicago’s best player in each of the last two seasons. And for the third consecutive year, he is leading the Bulls in points (24.2), steals (1.8) and minutes per game (34.6).

Additionally, Butler is second on the team in assists (4.8) and third in rebounding (6.6). In other words, he continues to show why he is the Bulls’ best all-around player.

While Butler’s numbers are certainly impressive, it is his approach to being one of the vocal leaders on the team that has been noticeably different, according to Taj Gibson.

“I’m surprised at how mature he is,” Gibson said, via the Chicago Tribune. “He’s a lot more mature as far as how he’s been with the guys, how he’s communicating. He’s always critiquing the game, but he’s always positive.

“Last year, he had his times where he was a little frustrated and he didn’t know how to let out. This year, having (Dwyane) Wade helps him a lot. He can learn from him. He can understand. And USA (Basketball) helped him out big time.”

After attempting to assume the leadership role within the team by force a year ago — a strategy that didn’t always go over too well — Butler has learned from those missteps. This assertion is supported by the fact that he asked Hoiberg to coach him harder and hold him accountable even before the season began.

Simply put, when the team’s best player shows a willingness to be used as an example to his teammates, the results are usually positive and that has certainly been the case for the Bulls so far.

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