Bulls fans could be forgiven for slipping into extreme nihilism this past year. They faced a particularly cruel spiral of despair, watching a Tom Thibodeau–less team search for its identity, flounder out of the playoffs, and then initiate the departure of two Chicago pillars, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, to New York City.
Luckily, the Bulls have filled this existential void by acquiring two players—Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo—and offering the most intriguing team in years, one devoid of the stresses that have plagued fans of late. (Will Noah get healthy? Will I ever not wince if I see Rose hit the floor? And can I separate Rose’s hometown heroism from the sexual assault allegations levied against him?)
Rondo’s and Wade’s arrivals in Chicago prompted laughter among NBA know-betters who consider the two guards to be damaged goods careening toward the ends of their careers. Yet those who laugh underestimate the prideful vengeance motivating both players and neglect to consider the imminent joy of watching two of the league’s strangest personalities playing off each other in the backcourt.
Sure, these former rivals seem diametrically opposed: After achieving immortality in Boston for his role in the Celtics’ 2008 championship, Rondo flamed out on the most recent contender he played for (the Dallas Mavericks), received a suspension for calling a referee a homophobic slur, and was dubbed “the most probably hated” player in the league by Kevin Garnett when they were teammates on the Celtics.
Wade, conversely, enjoys a relatively pristine public persona, carefully grooming his celebrity with a marriage to actress Gabrielle Union, gracing People magazine’s list of the 50 most beautiful people, and even sharing the Lollapalooza stage this summer with fellow surprise guest Chance the Rapper.
Yet for all of Rondo’s outward absurdity, a similar strangeness lurks just below Wade’s surface, manifesting in an occasional thrown elbow and, this summer, in his erratic exit from the Miami Heat. Wade had no reason to leave Miami, where he led the team in 2006 to its first championship and holds franchise records for points, games played, assists, and steals. Yet the looming presences of Shaquille O’Neal and Pat Riley on the 2006 team, followed by LeBron James’s arrival in Miami (and subsequent departure!) overshadowed Wade’s steadfast tenure as the most successful athlete in South Florida history. Then came this summer’s contract quibbles.
But Wade’s departure had little to do with money. It was about the Heat, and the league more broadly, slowly wallpapering over his relevance as a top five all-time shooting guard.
This slow burn of Wade’s ego is the flame to Rondo’s fuse. Rondo also unwillingly tumbled into obscurity, with each setback—a 2013 ACL injury, his acrimonious 48-game Dallas stay, and a purgatorial last season in Sacramento (where a national audience ignored his career bests in rebounding and 3-point shooting)—fueling his resolve. For both Wade and Rondo, arriving in Chicago signaled a pressure release—they have already vocally deferred team leadership duties to Jimmy Butler—yet their pride still smolders.
Bulls fans now get to sit back and watch the Wade-Rondo redemption tour, a revenge fantasy that Tarantino could not have stunt-cast better. If all goes as planned, Rondo’s eccentric aggression will allow Wade to access the strange spite he secretly harbors, and Wade’s polish will set an example for Rondo, guiding him to restore luster to his recently tarnished reputation. If nothing else, watching their rejuvenation will be way more fun than pondering the sadness behind Rose’s eyes or wondering whether Noah and Taj Gibson can play together.
Beyond the uniqueness of Wade’s and Rondo’s personalities is the quirkiness of their games. Rondo plays jauntily, spiking passes through traffic and working sleight of hand with his signature behind-the-back ball fake. Despite lacking a consistent jump shot (or free throw), he can score at the hoop at will and does so with a comfortable reluctance, always looking to pass first. Wade, on the other hand, toggles between a gliding Euro step into the lane and a choreography of pump fakes that end with maddening fadeaway jump shots or opponents lured into fouls.
Both players face major questions about their defense. Their endurance might be limited given their ages (Rondo is a weathered 30; Wade, 34) and injury histories. Yet all of this can be balanced by the sheer aesthetic unconventionality that Wade and Rondo bring to the game. Both will do at least one surprising thing each night that—complemented by bedrock players like Butler, Gibson, and the newly acquired Robin Lopez—might even translate into a playoff appearance.
With Rose’s and Noah’s departures, the Bulls are no longer looking to contend, a conceit that they implicitly abandoned upon firing Thibodeau in 2015. Rather, they are looking to restore their dignity and atone for last year’s embarrassing commencement of Fred Hoiberg’s coaching career. Salvation will not come easily, but you can be sure it will be Wade and Rondo’s sole focus. And that will give renewed purpose to each game.
|Rajon Rondo||Dwyane Wade|
|Beverage endorsement||Purple açai juice||Gatorade|
|Fingers on each hand at birth||Six (rumored)||Five|
|Game-day ritual||Five showers||Three pull-ups on the rim|
|Off-court hobby||Connect Four||Napping|
|Questionable taste||Childhood idol: Brett Favre||Seriously enjoys Home Run Inn pizza|