Imagine taking a flight, landing in an airport and immediately turning right back around with news that will change your life. This scenario became a reality for Robin Lopez when he was traded from the New York Knicks to the Chicago Bulls in June.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Lopez told Basketball Insiders with a laugh. “I’m sure you heard that I found out when I landed in LAX [Los Angeles International Airport]. But you know, that’s how the league works and I’m grateful for my experience in New York, for the season I was there, and I’m excited to be in Chicago as well. Very excited.”
Lopez’s only season in New York was eventful.
On the court, the Knicks began the campaign with cautious optimism and a 22-22 record. However, the team proceeded to lose nine of the next 10 games and coach Derek Fisher was fired. Kurt Rambis took over on an interim basis, but didn’t fare much better with a 9-19 record as the Knicks missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Off the court, both coaches garnered back page headlines from local newspapers. Fisher’s relationship with former teammate Matt Barnes’ estranged wife, Gloria Govan, became a distraction. Rambis had his Twitter account hacked and “liked” a pornographic tweet.
“I think it was a really interesting season for me,” Lopez said. “It really, I think, was pretty eye opening. I played and worked with a lot of really intelligent basketball minds. Players like Carmelo [Anthony], obviously Phil [Jackson], Kurt [Rambis] and Derek [Fisher]. They all know so much about the game of basketball, and I think I was fortunate to play in a situation like that just because it was really a new experience for me. The way the Triangle operates, throwing the ball into the post so frequently, I was grateful I had a chance to kind of flex that basketball muscle. It atrophied a little bit, but it was something I was able to sharpen.”
I asked Lopez if he would’ve signed with a different team in free agency knowing he would be traded only one season after inking a four-year, $54 million contract with the Knicks.
“Oh, not at all, not at all,” Lopez replied. “Like I said, I think there are a lot of positives [that come] to mind from that experience.”
The Bulls acquired Lopez, Jerian Grant and Jose Calderon in a trade with the Knicks for Derrick Rose and Justin Holiday on June 22. At the time, Lopez appeared to be joining a rebuilding situation. However, the Bulls signed four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo and 12-time All-Star Dwyane Wade in July. The signings of Rondo and Wade indicated Chicago was prepared to reload instead of rebuild.
Despite the additions of Rondo and Wade, it remained to be seen if there was enough spacing on the floor for All-Star Jimmy Butler and the new additions to succeed together on offense. Both Rondo and Wade entered this season as 29 percent career three-point shooters. Butler is a 33 percent career three-point shooter, which is just below the 34 percent league average from downtown last season.
Butler, Wade and Rondo all previously enjoyed individual success as All-Stars with the ball in their hands as primary playmakers. But would the trio be able to coexist?
Through the first five games, Wade has been a three-point marksman, shooting 53 percent (10-19) from downtown. Butler has also found his range early on, shooting 45 percent (9-20) from beyond the arc. Rondo remains a three-point liability at 11 percent (1-9), but he’s done a little bit of everything otherwise by averaging 7.2 points, 7.2 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game.
Butler (22.2 points) and Wade (19.6 points) have been able to coexist as the primary scoring options for the Bulls.
According to Lopez, Chicago’s success will stem from the diversity of the team.
“We’ve got a wonderful mix of players and we’ve got a lot of savvy veterans, a lot of young guys with potential, skill and talent,” Lopez said. “I think the most important ingredient is we’ve got a lot of guys who are willing to work hard and work together and, hopefully, that’s something we stay consistent with all season long.”
Role players Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Isaiah Canaan and R.J. Hunter complement Chicago’s star trio with their ability to shoot. Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis – both of whom were first-round picks – represent key pieces of Chicago’s future.
If Wade and Butler continue to shoot the ball well from downtown, along with the usual production from Mirotic, McDermott and Canaan beyond the arc, Chicago’s expected weakness coming into the season may become a strength after all.
With the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors the presumptive top three teams in the East, the final playoff spot for homecourt advantage may come down to the Bulls, Indiana Pacers or Atlanta Hawks.
Pacers center Myles Turner recently told Basketball Insiders he believes Indiana can be a top-four seed. Atlanta lost Al Horford and Jeff Teague over the summer, but Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder have adequately replaced their production.
Is Chicago being underestimated in the Eastern Conference?
“I certainly think so,” Lopez replied. “I think we’ve got a lot of great players, like I said.”
While the star trio gets many of the headlines, it’ll be equally up to Lopez and the shooting ability of Chicago’s role players to determine the team’s success this season. Will the roster diversity lead to prosperity?
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