After being sidelined for 11 games with a fractured right elbow, Dwyane Wade is expected to return the lineup on Saturday against the Brooklyn Nets, according to CSN Chicago’s Vincent Goodwill.
Without Wade, the Bulls have stabilized quickly, winning 7 of the 11 games the three-time NBA champion missed with injury. Stumbling into a functional starting unit that best supports star guard Jimmy Butler, Chicago may have found a balanced five-man unit at the most appropriate time of the season.
As its stands, the current starting group has performed admirably, even if the names accompanying the unit appear lackluster. A Rondo, Butler, Zipser, Mirotic, Lopez five-man unit has now shared the floor together for 133 minutes, and is significantly outscoring opponents while playing extremely good defense, culminating in a +22.1 net rating. As a function of its success, Jimmy Butler has had his best stretch of the season. Nikola Mirotic looks reinvigorated in an expanded role. Rajon Rondo has proven that he can still can a valuable role in the correct setting.
As good as its been, with Wade set to return three games before the season draws to a close, will his reintegration into the rotation disturb the current flow the Bulls seemingly have?
One has to assume that Wade, a prideful veteran who likely isn’t ready to submit to a lesser role, will not kindly accept coming off the bench. Likely to be on a minutes restriction until fully healthy, Wade settling back into his role as the starting shooting guard is all but guaranteed. But it shouldn’t be.
Assuming Wade replaces Paul Zipser with the starters, the Rondo-Wade-Butler trio will be reunited. On the season, this three-man unit has not been a success, posting a -2.4 net rating in 579 minutes — a significant sample size.
Perhaps the -2.4 net rating is somewhat misleading given the majority of their minutes played together would’ve come at the start of the season when Taj Gibson remained in the lineup. If so, those figures may no longer be representative, particularly as Mirotic now offers floor spacing at the power forward position.
Though that may be true, and their is potential for the Three Alphas to coexist under a new frontline formation, a five-man unit of Rondo, Wade, Butler, Mirotic and Lopez has only played 23 minutes together all season, producing a -13.2 net rating.
Clearly the sample size is too small to truly gauge actual production value. We can assume past shooting woes and a weak perimeter defense would remain should Wade rejoin the starters. Though is only theory, the limited amount of game time the new staring five has played together is fact. This won’t materially change as Wade assimilates back into the rotation this late into the season.
Changing a starting lineup in the final week of season is never ideal, particularly when the unit has barely shared the floor together. With Wade to be on a minutes restriction and only three games remaining against some of the worst teams in the league, the Bulls won’t have enough time to truly test the viability of this unit. How that will shape a playoff series — should the Bulls make it — is unclear, but it’s less than optimal to be tinkering with rotations this late.
Political and contractual reasons aside, the method the Bulls should employ is to have Wade come have off the bench. This would ensure no disturbance of the current starting unit. It would also allow Wade to gain form against second unit whilst bolstering an extremely weak Bulls bench.
The Bulls desperately need a creator and capable volume scorer in the second unit. Michael Carter-Williams is still ahead of Jerian Grant in the depth chart, and is incapable of running an offense. Anthony Morrow and Denzel Valentine can’t consistently create shooting opportunities for others. Bobby Portis and Joffrey Lauvergne are incapable of manufacturing a shot themselves. Wade acting as the hub of the reserve offense will solves several problems, assuming he allows it to happen.
Coach Fred Hoiberg successfully negotiating with Wade to accept a sixth man role seems unlikely, even if it’s the right decision. Benching Wade doesn’t mean he won’t close games, and that should be the carrot used to convince the 14-year veteran to agree to a lesser role. Should Zipser be playing poorly and matchups allow for Wade to end games with the rest of the starters, that can still happen.
In the interim, Wade needs time to rediscover his touch. The clock is ticking on the Bulls’ playoff chances, and adding complexity by manipulating starting unit rotations this late in the season should be avoided. Inserting Wade into the starting five risks hurting the flow of the offense and compromising the defense early in a game, which may create a scoring deficit to large for even Jimmy Butler to erase.