The Needle in the Haystack: Finding Leaders on a Young Roster

Jimmy Butler is an American Hero. He is the self-made, self-sufficient man that American culture adores. Born into difficult family circumstances, he beat poverty and homelessness, pulling himself out of a hard life by hard work and perseverance. Jimmy Butler is a cowboy. Every season in the NBA Butler improved some aspect of his game. His off season training has become legendary, disappearing into the wilderness with a small posse, returning at the end of summer with a new skill set. Jimmy Butler is the Clint Eastwood of basketball. On a team rife with incompetence and insecurity, Jimmy Butler found a way to improve and prevail….


…. and Jimmy Butler is no longer a Chicago Bull because he is the American Dream. While our culture idolizes the rags-to-riches, self-made, self-reliant individual, the Bulls front office must have seen Butler as a loner, a player out to grow his brand, someone who could only build himself up and not an entire team. Perhaps they even saw him as selfish. Gar Forman and John Paxson never wanted to build a team around Jimmy Butler. They never saw him as a capable leader. He was a lone wolf, and then a T-Wolf.

Jimmy Butler is gone. Dwayne Wade is gone. Rajon Rondo – gone. The Bulls have no leaders. While they may have picked a direction, they are a ship without a captain. They are heading straight into the doldrums of the Sea of Rebuild without someone to see them through. The toughest part of any rebuild is identifying the core players of your new team from within the young, inexperienced crew you’ve assembled. The Bulls have a very young roster that, by virtue of their inexperience, will be prone to mistakes and failure. It will be hard to evaluate which players are the core, and which must be passed over. However, they do have a plethora of players who could develop into strong leaders; Captains who could steer the team out of the doldrums and to great success.

As evidenced by the Butler trade, GarPax and Coach Fred Hoiberg are looking for a specific type of player to build the Bulls around. Paxson has repeatedly harped on the “Culture” they are trying to build. It is a culture that “you’ll know it when you see it,” Paxson said on Media Day. I’m guessing he means a culture of team first players, working hard together, and playing for each other. The good news is the Bulls roster is chock full of these types of players, and just like the starting rotation, the position of leader is an open competition.

The Veterans:

Robin Lopez is one of the oldest players on the roster at age 29. Known for “fighting” other teams mascots, he has a quirky, upbeat personality that draws others to him. On the court, he is a strong defender and rebounder, he works hard and tries to improve himself on a yearly basis. He could be a very good “leader by example.”


Quincy Pondexter has had a harrowing NBA career, fraught with injury and a staph infection that nearly killed him. He has persevered through these challenges and is ready to take control of his once promising career. He could be the inspirational veteran voice that pushes the Baby Bulls 2.0 to improve and gel quickly as a team.

Justin Holiday wanted to return to the Bulls this summer. He was very happy to come back to Chicago after a season with the New York Knicks. Much like Lopez, he is a strong defender and hard worker. His enthusiasm for the Bulls, his no nonsense attitude and work ethic make him a good candidate for leadership. Holiday seems to mesh well with Coach Hoiberg and might be the perfect conduit between the players and coaching staff.

The Thirsty Pups:

Denzel Valentine is a talker, a natural born vocal leader. He is not afraid of challenges, he is not afraid of big moments. This season, it will be very important for Valentine show improvement on the court. He should have plenty of opportunities to do this. If he improves as a basketball player it will go a long way to giving his voice weight and relevance in the Bulls young locker room. He needs to step up on the court, and back up his talk with his game. When he develops NBA gravitas, he will be a leader.


Lauri Markkanen is too young to be a leader this season. He might be too young to be a leader next season, but the rookie from Finland has shown an encouraging amount of quiet confidence throughout the summer. His demonstrative play in Europe, and scoring outbursts during Summer League, are hopeful signs of a potential NBA star. Best case scenario-In a few years, Markkanen could be the star other teams fear playing, and the person other stars are lining up to play with.

The Anointed:

Zach Lavine is the most talented, most athletic, and most dynamic player the Bulls have on the roster. When he finishes rehabbing from injury, he will instantly become the teams number one scoring option. He is an NBA veteran with a strong, positive personality. Another hard worker who has been described as “easy to coach.” Lavine seems to draw people to him with his friendliness, a natural at leadership. He will be the face of the franchise, the star player recognized wherever he goes. It is assumed by many that he will be the captain of the Bulls for the foreseeable future.

Kris Dunn comes to the Bulls with heavy expectations placed on him by the front office. GarPax want Dunn to be the point guard, and point man, of this team. They expect him to run Coach Hoiberg’s offense and be an anchor for the team on defense. Kris Dunn is intelligent enough to handle these responsibilities. He has shown humility and accountability this summer, admitting that he was bad during last seasons rookie campaign with the Timberwolves. He acknowledges his weaknesses and seeks improvement. This is an indispensable trait for a leader: humility. Without acknowledging a need for change it can never happen. If Kris Dunn can hold his teammates accountable, as he holds himself accountable, with an honest, positive, and aggressive attitude, he could be the perfect leader for this Bulls team. (In a time honored Chicago tradition, I now claim Kris Dunn as “My Guy.” I want him to succeed. I hope he becomes the team leader.)

The Needle?:

Bobby Portis

Early reports have teammates excited about the improvement they have seen from Portis this summer. Justin Holiday described Portis as “scoring the ball from pretty much anywhere, being very assertive at that end of the floor.” Portis has always been an aggressive, supercharged player with a decent, all around game on offense. He excels at beating his man down the court for easy hoops during the fast break; a great fit for Hoibergs “Pace and Space” offense. He is a vocal player, constantly communicating with, and encouraging teammates. He has been mentored by Joakim Noah and Rajon Rondo, two exceptional basketball minds and strong role models for a young player to follow. Portis is poised to breakout this season. As this is the last year of his rookie contract, the pressure is completely on him to succeed. In an interview with Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, Portis embraced the challenge of becoming “the next one up” for leader of the Bulls. It would be great if Portis could do it. If he becomes a consistent player and starter for this team, he could be the leader, and heart, of the Bulls for years to come.


If the Bulls are ever going to get back to competing for a championship, they will need to find a leader from within the haystack of NBA talent. They’ve got a fist full of straw right now, and as the season unfolds and the straw is sorted, maybe they’ll find a needle concealed there too.