Derrick Rose has made the Chicago Bulls tick since being drafted. As I wrote here it is becoming apparent that he should be traded, and recent media reports indicate that the trade wheels may well already be in motion.
Regardless, this Bulls team should no longer run through Rose – it should be Jimmy Butler’s team.
Butler is one of the few true young two-way stars in today’s league, almost a poor man’s Kawhi Leonard (hold that thought). Not only did Butler make the all-defensive second team last season, he is already regarded as one of the best wing defenders in the NBA and it is no surprise that the Bulls signed him to a five-year, $95 million contract extension this past off-season.
As Rose has battled injury over the past few seasons, Butler has featured among the league leaders in minutes played and has improved every season. Perhaps more importantly, he has raised his game even more in the playoffs despite the Bulls having not made it past the second round in his career.
Last season Butler averaged 20.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals a game and shot at a respectable 46.7 per cent from the field. In the playoffs, Butler was outstanding as he produced 22.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game. His scored a career-high in points in Games 1, 2 and 3 of the first round series of the Milwaukee Bucks, leading the Bulls when Rose struggled and the Bulls found themselves in a far tougher series than most predicted.
In the second round the Bulls led the eventual Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers 2-1 but fell in a tough six-game series despite Butler again having a fantastic series and not being total outplayed by LeBron James. Butler played more than 42 minutes a game and averaged 20 points a game while shooting more than 41 per cent from the field and averaging just 1.0 turnover per game, prolific statistics for a player often guarding James at the defensive end.
Early in the season, Butler has picked up where he left off averaging what would be a career-high 20.8 points at 48.6 per cent shooting and throwing in 2.6 steals per game. Amazingly, he has just two total turnovers in 178 minutes on court despite handling the ball a significant amount. He has shown signs of leadership by calling out his team for poor effort on defence and taken ownership for that being the case. Truth be told he has been excellent defensively, holding all starting opposition shooting guards below 18 points and clamping down on Joe Johnson, J.R.Smith and Victor Oladipo in the first five games.
His player efficiency rating was 26th in the league last season and that has increased to 15th in the first two weeks of this season. In addition, Butler ranks among the league leaders in both offensive and defensive ratings after ranking in the top 30 for both categories last season. Efficiency is one thing, but when added to skill at both ends of the floor then you have an elite, franchise player.
Coach Tom Thibadeau was sacked in the off-season and was replaced by rookie Fred Hoiberg. It is unclear how long Hoiberg will have to establish himself as a head coach, but he has already made a significant move by replacing star centre Joakim Noah with Nikola Mirotic in an attempt to improve the offense. This move has produced mixed results, with teams scoring more regularly against the Bulls, who themselves have improved offensively.
Hoiberg would be best served turn towards the NBA’s greatest ever coach, Gregg Popovich, in the way he moulds his team. Popovich has one of the best 10 players of all-time still playing at an All-Star level in Tim Duncan, but the Spurs are no longer Duncan’s team. The Spurs now go as Leonard goes, and LaMarcus Aldridge looks likely to be the Robin to Leonard’s Batman in the future.
Leonard is already an NBA Finals MVP who outplayed James on the biggest stage, and injury seems to be the only thing stopping him from taking a leap to superstardom in the next 12-18 months. Butler is a level behind Leonard for now but that level is not a leap but a small step if he continues to develop at the rate he has done.
For a superstar to take a step back is not something that is common in the ego-driven world of the NBA. While Duncan has had the class and foresight to accept a complementary role, you would question whether Rose would be as willing to be asked to step back.
His willingness may end up being a moot point – given the way Butler has developed and his maturity into one of the elite two-way players in the league, Chicago have no choice but to give him the keys to the franchise and buckle up for the ride