NEW ORLEANS—In yet another reunion featuring a former Bulls player who never wanted to leave Chicago, Marco Belinelli was next in line Wednesday night.
The Italian sharpshooter, currently second in the league in three-point percentage—thusly, he was reportedly selected to participate in the NBA’s three-point contest during next month’s All-Star weekend in New Orleans, where he was a member of the Hornets—was on the losing end of the Bulls’ 96-86 win in San Antonio, but prior to the game, he broke down how he ended up in a Spurs uniform during last summer’s free-agency period.
“Yeah, [the Bulls] contacted me, but nothing sure, 100 percent. Maybe they were thinking about other players like Dunleavy, I don’t really know. Like I said before, this is business, so you’re never sure 100 percent. So I was happy to stay with Chicago this summer, but at the end of the day, I’m on a better team, great team, and I feel really good right now. I’m so happy,” explained Belinelli, who scored 11 points, approximately his season average with the Spurs, Wednesday. “I was like almost sure, 100 percent, that Chicago would offer me good money, good years. But the NBA is like a business, so I got a little bit of offers from other teams and when San Antonio called me, I didn’t think too much, honestly. Having a team that really wants to win a championship, I can really improve my game, so I think I made a really good decision to come here and try to play with great players that know how to win championships, and a great coach like Pop.”
The affable Belinelli isn’t holding any grudges, but he acknowledged that his lone season in Chicago last year was a special time for him.
“Chicago was a great team for me. It really helped me a lot. The fans were amazing with me, the team was good with me and Jo, Lu Deng, Taj Gibson, a lot of players were really great teammates, but great friends,” he said. “So I really miss a little bit of that, but at the same time, the NBA, you never know. So you can spend one year, five, four, whatever years with some teammates.”
Belinelli’s former teammates, who aren’t surprised at his success with the Spurs, traditionally a team with several international players, have a soft spot for him, too.
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“He’s playing for a veteran team that knows how to pick the right spots for him. He’s shining. I thought he did a great job last year for us. I just always thought really highly of Marco, especially coming off the bench, a guy that could start,” Taj Gibson said. “I think he’s a phenomenal player and it’s scary because when guys have that kind of feeling after leaving a team they wanted to stay with, they can give you nightmares.”
Kirk Hinrich chimed in: “Yeah, Marco can play. He’s one of those guys, he’s a great teammate and it seems like this is a very good fit for him.”
Joakim Noah added: “I’m not surprised at all. Marco’s a great player, very competitive guy. He fits in perfect to this organization, great team player. Shooting the ball really well. He’s No. 1 in three-point field-goal [percentage], I think. But good teammate, real good teammate. I wish him nothing but the best.”
Part of the ease of Belinelli’s adjustment to playing for future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich has to do with being prepared by playing for Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. While the two have different coaching styles, their direct personalities have some similarities.
“I think they are great coaches. Thibs was great with me. Pop is great. I’ve got a really good relationship with him. We can speak about everything. I was kind of [anxious] in the beginning, this summer, because I didn’t know much about Pop. But I know right now that he’s a great coach and he’s a great person, generally,” Belinelli explained. “Like I’ve said a lot of times, for sure, last year helped me a lot. One year with Thibs helped me a lot with my confidence in my defense. I have to say thank you to him, for sure.”
For Thibodeau’s part, he appreciated what Belinelli brought to the floor in Chicago.
“We hated to lose him. I think anyone that’s serious about basketball and serious about winning, they’re going to thrive with Pop, they are. The game is so important to Marco. He plays for the team, he plays to win, and when I heard he signed here I knew he would be a great fit,” the coach said. “He plays very well off other people and also, obviously you can give him the ball and he can make plays. But he’s always been a very unselfish player. They move the ball extremely well and it’s a great fit for him. And he’s smart, he’s tough. So I’m not surprised.
“He’s had an incredible season. He’s played at a very high level all season for them.”
Thibodeau claimed that it wasn’t an easy decision to allow Belinelli to walk, though in veteran sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy Jr., the Bulls found a more than capable, if different, replacement.
“Marco had a great year for us and we weren’t sure we would be able to re-sign him, so we wanted to make sure we didn’t end up empty handed. It just didn’t work out, but we loved what Marco did for us. The type of guy Marco is, he can function well on any team. I thought he was terrific for us,” Thibodeau explained. “When we got Marco everyone told us he was catch-and-shoot, and that’s primarily what he had done. We liked how he was with the ball, and a lot of that was based on need with the injury and Derrick not coming back. Then with Kirk going down, we used the pick-and-roll with Marco to help us function. What we found out was because of the way he worked, he got a lot better defensively, and he’s so team-oriented. He scores a lot of different ways. He’s great without the ball, you can put the ball in his hands, you can run catch-and-shoot, whatever you ask him to do he’ll do. He loves the game, and he’s young, he’s only going to get better.”
Conversely, watching Belinelli play for the Bulls helped convince Popovich that Belinelli would be a good fit in San Antonio.
“In the beginning [of Belinelli’s career], I thought he was a little wild. But as time has gone on, he has chosen his shots a little better,” Popovich said. “I watched him play in Chicago and thought he got involved in a lot of different ways—pick-and-roll, a good shooter. He’s a fine passer, a great teammate, he plays to win, he has no fear at all. He has been a really good addition for us.”
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Although he’s not even playing in the same conference as the Bulls, Belinelli has kept an eye on things in Chicago from afar, including Derrick Rose’s season-ending knee injury and Deng getting traded to Cleveland.
“[Rose’s injury] was bad. I didn’t play with him, but I know that he’s an unbelievable player, player that wants to win a championship and injuries are the worst thing about the NBA,” he said. “But that’s part of the game. So I felt really bad about him when he got injured again in his knee.
“I was really surprised about [Deng being traded],” Belinelli continued. “Lu, first of all, I think is a great guy. He spent, I think, all his career in Chicago, so he gave a lot for Chicago fans, for the organization. But you know, that’s the NBA. So you never really know.”
While Belinelli was once pegged as a spot-up shooter, he thrived as more of a pick-and-roll playmaker for the Bulls, but has seen a major spike in his outside marksmanship with the Spurs. He credits San Antonio’s system and veteran players, such as currently sidelined sixth man Manu Ginobili—not to mention All-Star point guard Tony Parker and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan—a teammate when he was a teenager in Italy for helping him find his niche.
“It’s funny because I was playing with [Ginobili] when I was 15, 16, when I was in Bologna and you know right now we play together on a good team, and he’s an unbelievable player. Everybody knows that he’s one of the best players, but when you play with him every game, every practice, you can understand how good he is. He’s professional, he can do really a lot of things. I enjoy playing with him. Not just him: ‘T.P.,’ ‘Dunc,’ everybody on this team. They are really great guys, good teammates and they really want to win,” Belinelli explained. “Every day, like in practice, I try to be a better player, so I just try to be a complete player, not just a shooter. But you know, try to create something for my teammates or do something like that. So here in San Antonio, I fit really good with the system. I can really move without the ball. Every guy on this team, they really love to pass the ball, so I just try to be in the best situation to score or the ball or just help the team win.”
It didn’t happen Wednesday, but Belinelli has played a major role in keeping the defending Western Conference champions among the league’s elite teams.