Last season, the Chicago Bulls were a tight-knit group, from All-Star and league MVP Derrick Rose to the players at the end of the bench. Bulls guard John Lucas III was usually in street clothes, though that didn't stop him from standing at the edge of the court to cheer on and help his teammates. In fact, the entire team -- one through 15 -- was selfless and did whatever it took to help the team reach its common goal, winning.
This genuine bond and camaraderie not only kept the locker room lively, but helped out on the court, too.
“Absolutely. You could tell looking at our team one through 15, everybody got along. You could tell the way we played," Lucas said in a phone interview. "People weren’t complaining about playing time, people weren’t complaining about shots. Everybody was on the same page of wanting to win.
"And it didn’t matter if you were in a suit and tie, like myself on the inactive list, we were all in it together. In the playoffs, if you watched the bench, you could see not just myself, but Brian Scalabrine and (Jannero) Pargo, yelling out the plays coming out on the court because we’re there in practice, watching film, paying attention and making sure we’re getting our teammates best prepared. And that’s what everybody did on our team -- we studied, helped each other out and we knew what plays were coming, because in the playoffs, every possession counts.
“Everybody on our team was just so supportive ... constantly making sure everybody was on their toes and knows what they were going to do. We took it to a whole other level.”
Aside from team chemistry, defense was another staple on the 2010-11 Bulls, and a major reason why they won a league-high 62 games. Lucas credited head coach Tom Thibodeau, a veteran of two decades along the NBA sidelines, for the emphasis on defense.
“He's a great coach," Lucas said. "I had a chance to play for Thibs when he was an assistant coach with the (Houston) Rockets, so I kind of knew his mentality, (Jeff) Van Gundy’s kind of coaching style. Thibs is a terrific defensive coach. In halfcourt sets, it was hard for (teams) to score on us. And (after defense), offense would come easy -- that’s all he preached. All he cares about is defense. (Offense) will come, because none of the guys on our team would be there if they didn’t know how to score the ball. It’s all about stopping the other team. That’s the hard part."
Coming from the rugged Rockets and Boston Celtics, Thibodeau has been known as a defensive guru. That held true in his first year as head coach, when he preached defense first, offense second.
Said Lucas: “It all started from the first day of training camp -- defense, defense, defense, defense, defense. We really didn’t (build) much offense in for the first week and a half. Everything was defense. (We worked on) getting our defensive principles down.
"Thibs is a motivator, a pusher and he’s going to try to bring the best out of you. He’s never going to put you down. He’s always going to encourage you to get better -- as a player and as a person. So you couldn’t ask for anything better than that, and I hope the coaching staff we have is the same way (next season).
“This is one of the best coaching staff I have been a part of in my professional career and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Though the coaching staff probably isn't changing any time soon, the roster is another story. The Bulls reached the Eastern Conference finals last season, a feat they hadn't accomplished since 1998, but fell to the Miami Heat in a tightly contested five-game series. It seemed the Bulls had the upper hand after defeating the Heat 103-82 in Game 1, but the Heat came back to win the next four games of the series, sending the Bulls home to questions.
The first of which, what happened against the Heat?
“When you play a team so many times, you start to learn different sets and schemes on defense," Lucas said. "If you looked at (Games 2-5), we were in the game until the last two minutes. And it all came down to who can make shots. That’s what Thibs preaches: knowing how to finish a game. And we do know how to finish a game, except in that series, we didn’t hit the shots we usually hit and did (hit) in the other two series. It’s all about how the ball falls in the goal.”
“I tip my hat off to Miami, they had a hell of a season. They had their shot to go for the ring, and hopefully next year we have a shot to go for that ring.”
Most have identified shooting guard as a position of need for the Bulls, though guard C.J. Watson told ChicagoNow that there's no need for changes. Lucas agreed with his teammate, but added that he's up for anything that would help the Bulls' title chances. Still, he cautioned that changes could potentially hurt team chemistry.
Said Lucas: “We have a good supporting cast, a great group of guys in the locker room. It’s hard that you get 15 guys that can get along on a team. And when you have that, why would you want to mess that up? Why would you want to break the chemistry now? If we add somebody that can help us, then hey, I’m all for that, too. I think everybody is just all about winning. It’s not about what we need (as individuals). We’re going to figure it out and we’re going to make sure we win and make sure we’re prepared for no matter what.
“I loved our group of guys. Everybody does something to contribute to the team right now. It’s just all about us staying together and keep listening to what coach says. (Thibodeau) got Coach of the Year last year and it was his first head coaching job. And Derrick got the MVP, (becoming) the youngest to ever do that. So, obviously, we have something good going on right now.”
Although Lucas loved playing in Chicago last season, it was a roller-coaster ride for him. He had a strong preseason, but was cut by the Bulls nearly a week before the season-opener against Oklahoma City.
The Bulls re-signed Lucas on November 26. The same day, the 5-foot-11 guard was asked to show up in Denver and be ready to play because the Bulls were without an injured Rose (neck).
Lucas' Bulls debut didn't go as well as he wanted. He missed a pair of crucial free throws with 12.7 seconds left, though, still, the Bulls led by one point. But then-Nugget Carmelo Anthony knocked down a game-winning jumper at the buzzer to give Denver a 98-97 victory.
In two seasons in the D-League, Lucas shot 83 percent from the free throw line. And he had hit 15-of-19 free throws at the NBA level before missing a pair against Denver. Just like fans watching the game, Lucas was shocked that he missed both.
“No excuses -- I missed the free throws," he said. "I usually never miss. I was surprised at myself for missing the free throws. I was very confident; I walked to the line, wasn’t nervous at all. I knew for sure they were going in, and I walked up there like that. Sometimes it happens like that. Something I still (remember). It doesn’t bother me now, because you watch that game and move on to the next. No excuses -- that’s stuff I got to make. That’s why they call them free throws, because they’re free points.”
Lucas is over that game, but learned a lot about the business side of the NBA last season. He said that not making the team after preseason was "kind of difficult," but upon returning to the Bulls in November, he was told by Bulls GM Gar Forman and VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson that his non-guaranteed contract could be used as trade bait.
The Bulls waived Lucas on January 4, but re-signed him for good on March 20 for backcourt and practice depth. Despite the uncertainty, Lucas said the experience was positive.
“Everything happens for a reason," he said. "I wouldn’t change it for nothing in the world because it made me who I am today and it always keeps you mentally strong. The time I was there was great.”
On Tuesday, Lucas scored 60 points in a New York summer league game against a team led by Thunder star Kevin Durant. Lucas' huge scoring performance came one night after Durant dropped 66 points at Rucker Park in Harlem. We're all used to seeing Durant put up big numbers, but where did Lucas' performance come from? Is he turning into a shoot-first point guard?
“Nah, in my whole career I’ve been known as a scorer, but since I got into the NBA, that’s not my role," Lucas said. "For every team I have played for, it’s always my role to orchestrate the team, get everybody involved and make sure I knock down the open shots when that chance comes.
“In (Durant's) role in the NBA, he’s a scorer, he’s the go-to guy. It’s kind of like on (the Bulls), D-Rose is our go-to guy, Carlos Boozer is our go-to guy, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver. It won’t be John Lucas (as) the go-to guy. In the summertime, you can just go out there, have fun and play. You work on what you have to work on in your individual work when it comes to getting ready for the (NBA) season.”
Of course, this isn't your ordinary offseason. The NBA owners and players union are far apart in collective bargaining negotiations, causing many players to consider taking their talents overseas this fall. New Jersey's Deron Williams was the first domino to drop, as he signed in Turkey.
Lucas, meanwhile, is open to playing anywhere.
Said Lucas: “I just love to play basketball. So wherever that basketball is happening -- if it’s a (summer league) game, a pickup game, or if it’s in the park -- I have to be there. I just love the game of basketball. I love the whole competition of it. I love the mental toughness of it, when you go into other cities playing against other top players in the city. But you have to hold your own, because they don’t care who you are. That’s why I chose to go to New York (for summer league games), because it’s known as the Mecca of Basketball. And I wanted to go there and be like, ‘I’m from Houston, (and) we’ve got hoopers, too.’ I’m basically going to have my city on my back the whole time I was playing in New York, because everybody knows about New York basketball. Same thing like in Chicago: everybody knows about Chicago basketball.”
Lucas, who went undrafted in 2005, has plenty of overseas connections. He has played in Italy, Spain and China, but said it can be difficult to adjust to the playing style overseas.
“Yeah, the rules are different, the mentality is different and the way of living is different, obviously," he explained. "It is going to be a big adjustment for some of the players (that are) deciding to go overseas who have never been over there before. It’s different going over there visiting on a vacation for one or two weeks, but as you stay over there, practicing two times a day -- every day -- until you play on Sunday. And you only play one game a week when you’re overseas, unless you’re on a European League team.
“I don’t think a lot of players realize that (you only play one game a week) yet, but they will see once they get over there.”
However, virtually no one expects the NBA season to begin on time due to the lockout, and because of that, Lucas said he expects players to head overseas in order to compete and stay in shape.
“As basketball players, we all get that itch around October, November, when training camp begins," Lucas said. "You’re ready to start playing; you’re ready to start competing. I do see a lot of players, if the lockout goes on, going overseas, or getting a group of guys to play (on) overseas teams just to stay in shape. It’s a hard decision because everybody’s kind of different during the lockout. Sometimes the lockout doesn’t affect a lot of players, and sometimes it (does) affect a lot of other players, too. It depends on what your situation is.”
NBA commissioner David Stern has told reporters that he's "not optimistic" about the negotiating outlook, while players association executive director Billy Hunter said Wednesday that if he "had to bet on it," he would wager that the lockout would wipe out the entire 2011-12 season.
Countered Lucas: “I wouldn’t bet on it because I think both sides would lose a lot of money. The NBA did so well last year -- the marketing, the fans and charity. We made so much money that I think it hurts for both sides. Hopefully, they come to a decision where it works out for the best for both of us. I wouldn’t want the season to be canceled because I love the game.”
Lucas said he's unsure of the details regarding the labor situation, but got a chance to speak with Hunter in New York and told Hunter that he wants to get more involved in the meetings to get a "better understanding of where we stand as players and where the owners stand in the lockout."
If the NBA does experience an extended lockout, you can probably bet where Lucas would be -- in a gym or a park working on his game, trying to get better.
Lucas' agent, Bernie Lee, said that Lucas is under contract with the Bulls for next season. Lee added that Lucas can always return to China with the Shanghai Sharks, but for now, he's just enjoying his summer.
“I would love to (stay in) Chicago. I don’t know what my situation is -- right now, I’m on the roster," Lucas said. "They haven’t talked to me about letting me go after the lockout. It’s just a part of the game, though, you never know. I’m just going to prepare myself to get ready to go into training camp for whenever the season starts, and hopefully contribute next year any way I can.”