The NBA is a game of dwindling resources. When draft picks and cap space morph into fully formed athletes, the name of the game becomes maximizing the level of flexibility they can yield. In the end, to watch a team take shape is also to watch the cookie jar shrink, inevitably leaving a weakness or two unsolved.
It’s why many good-to-great teams are held back by the same grating problems: Once the groundwork is laid, there are no quick fixes. Take the Chicago Bulls, who since their heady arrival in the 2010-2011 season, have been plagued by two issues – an inability to create dynamic shots without Derrick Rose and a shooting guard-shaped hole in the starting lineup.
So either you melt the concrete and create a new foundation, or you attempt to work within its hardened confines. Changing this formula would take something akin to an act of God. Lucky for Chicago, Jimmy Butler’s ascendance this season has been nothing short of religious.
It was the grandmother of all necessity-as-the-mother-of-invention moments: Rose got hurt not once but twice, forcing Chicago to learn how to create offense without him for two years, an event that would eventually give birth to Jimmy Butler 2.0, a once single-minded defender leveraging his athletic gifts to the tune of 20.9 points per game at a true shooting percentage of 58.
Or so the legend goes. The idea of a disguised blessing arriving in the form of an injury has always been something of a coping mechanism, a way to make sense of a devastating situation. How else, if not for the hope that he’ll return to a better team, could Rose – Chicago’s favorite son and the youngest MVP of all time – losing a chunk of his prime register as fact?
There’s no denying Butler’s greatness this season. He’s added 7.8 points, 1.2 assists and 1.3 rebounds to last season’s averages, with a major uptick in efficiency and just one extra minute of action per game. He’s one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, a definite All Star and a fringe MVP candidate. None of that was expected; last season, when his minutes per game increased by 12, he responded by shooting 39.7 percent from the field and 28.3 from beyond the arc. The things Butler is doing right now – Wade-esque post fadeaways, drive-and-kicks, elegant finishes at the rim – aren’t the product of hidden potential waiting to be mastered, they’re the result of an offseason spent whipping himself into shape (and eschewing McGriddles).
In that regard, we can’t fully appreciate his breakout season if we don’t treat it as what it is: a tangential jag on his career trajectory, an event separate from Rose’s injury. Compare Butler’s development to teammates Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson’s play in Rose’s absence. Noah went from being a defensive stalwart with flashes of passing talent to an offense-filtering cog operating from the high post, while Gibson expanded on a post game that was already beginning to take shape. These were spoils reaped from stretching latent ability to its upper limits, surprising, yes, but sane. Butler’s growth is something else entirely – it’s practically mythical.
And now, as Rose continues to work his way back, Bulls fans need to believe in the myth. After a December that featured a seven-game win streak with 18.3 points and 5.1 assists from D-Rose, it looked like we were getting closer to seeing glimmers of the former MVP. But in the New Year, he’s limped his way to 15.3 points per game on 33.9 shooting and the Bulls have lost three of their first seven.
Given Rose’s health and rustiness, Chicago’s attack hasn’t exactly mimicked the resolve we see in Butler’s. The moments when Rose and Butler combine their talents – in transition, on defense-busting pick-and-rolls, during multiple drive and kicks – are pure kinetic joy, but they’re also rare. But thanks to Butler’s playmaking, the Bulls finally wield the offensive dynamism they so lacked in the past when Rose was off or out. Given Kirk Hinrich’s shortcomings (insert your favorite Vivek 4-on-5 joke here), the starters sans Rose are often an offensively disjointed bunch. However, plug Aaron Brooks in for Hinrich/Rose and the starters, albeit in limited minutes, are scoring 134.7 points per 100 possessions – otherwise known as “a lot.”
In the same vein, Nikola Mirotic is climbing up the rookie ladder and becoming a catch-all for all the Bulls’ needs. Floor spacing at the power forward position? Done. Want to ease Noah back into the rotation after his knee surgery? Niko can spell him for a few minutes. Gibson sprained his ankle and you’re scared about playing Nazr Mohammed big minutes? No worries, Niko has you covered. Now Mike Dunleavy is hurt and you’re worried the Bulls’ deceivingly thin backcourt will finally be exposed? Come on. We’ve been over this.
Thanks in large part to the performances of Butler and Niko, as well as Pau Gasol being all like, “Don’t mind me, just gonna have a career year at age 34, guys,” the optimist’s view has been that this is the best team to play alongside Rose. But it’s also increasingly clear that this is the worst Rose to play alongside his team.
Try as I might, I keep coming back to the same questions: What respite does finding a secondary playmaker provide when the primary guy is still hobbled? Who cares about bench depth when your starting center – an All-NBA first teamer last year and recipient of the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year award – can’t clean up at the rim?
They’ve fixed a lot of holes, yes, only for new ones to emerge. Noah is still playing like a shell of himself, missing the rim protection and quick lateral moves that made the Bulls so destructive on defense. And thanks to Butler’s emergence as the secondary playmaker and all the space Pau is eating up, Noah’s biggest strength on offense – his preternatural passing ability – isn’t being utilized.
Sure: If healthy, this is the best iteration we’ve seen of the Rose-era Bulls. But “if healthy” is becoming a more tenuous question by the day. If multiple knee surgeries are ever a blessing, they truly must be disguised. The silver linings are hard earned. And even then, you have to omit some equally hard truths to accept them.
None of this is to say the Bulls aren’t in a good position. They’re not favorites, but they’re competing for a championship among a slew of other teams. They’re a top-10 offense and top-10 defense in terms of efficiency, a tried-and-true marker of championship contention. That’s enviable. But it’s also the same position they’ve been in since Rose’s MVP year, making for a relatively circular journey and yet another piece of evidence that after the cement hardens on a team, it’s usually irreversible.