Standing Between the Bulls and the Lottery Is Jimmy Butler

The Chicago Bulls didn’t make the playoffs last year and it is entirely possible they won’t make the playoffs this year. It depends on  Jimmy Butler. He has to be heroic and even then the Bulls may only pull off an 8th seed. The Bulls don’t offer Butler much help. It is  not just that they are an under.500 ball club. When the Bulls lose they get trounced. 60% of their losses are by double digits, the most humiliating being a 26 point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks who have become a division rival and a team the Bulls are looking up at in the standings.

Jimmy Butler is having a great season. He just dropped 52 points against Charlotte in an electric performance. Across the board are career highs in field goals, field goals attempted and field goal percentage. Was it just three years ago that Butler shot 39%? He is a 46% shooter even as his three ball is weak, 33%. He is rebounding like he never has in his career to go with his 25 points per game. He has a sick offensive rating of 124 which beats his career high rating of 122 two seasons ago. His defensive rating has tumbled from his career high of 100 in 2013-14. Now it is 106. He has a PER of 26.5. Jimmy Butler has never been this good.

The Bulls though? Good is not what comes to mind. The Charlotte game pushed aside what had been happening up to that point. They had lost 8 out of 11 games. In the losing streak, they averaged 93 points and had given up 107 points. 6 out of the 8 losses had been in the division and three losses to the Bucks whose young players have developed into quality NBA players while the Bulls young players- Nikola Mirtoic, Doug McDermott, Isaiah Canaan, Michael Carter-Williams- are less is not more. None average more than 10 points, 6 rebounds or 5 assists.

The worst thing you can be is a team not bad enough to get a top-5 lottery pick and not good enough to compete for a conference final. It is the NBA wasteland.

So what is exactly the problem?

Well let’s start with Rajon Rondo. As predicted, with Rondo it could go either way. Under George Karl, Rondo had a throwback season. Karl was tough enough and surly enough to deal with the emotional and stubborn Rondo. They both thrived off of one another. Fred Hoiberg isn’t tough enough to rein Rondo in and keep him on the court. He had to bench him. Not to mention Rondo’s game has gone south. 36.9% shooting. 32.7% from three. 7.1 assists is a nice number but Rondo is old and plays slow and he can’t shoot and he can’t really organize the offense and he has zero chemistry with Wade or Jimmy Butler. And he is moody. He has veered into headache territory. In a point guard league, Rondo’s game is very 1980’s-ish.

Next problem. The Bulls offense is a bore. They can’t make threes so they can’t play uptempo. It is walk it up make your eyes bleed watching such slowness. The problem is the Bulls can’t play any faster. They don’t have the personnel. And they are not equipped to score with their limitations because they don’t have depth in mid-range shooting. Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler are solid 10-16 foot jump shot makers.  Robin Lopez who only gets 9 shots a game and Taj Gibson who gets 10 shots a game are equally efficient. But Lopez and Gibson combined don’t get equal the shots of Wade and Butler who take 33 shots a game.

Nikola Mirotic shoots 33.3% from mid-range. Isaiah Canaan shoots 37.5% from mid-range. Jerian Grant shoots 35.% from mid-range. Rajon Rondo shoots 18.2% from mid-range. So if you cannot make threes, you better make quality twos. The Bulls do neither. No one on the Bulls who plays 18 minutes a game or more has an offensive rating over 110 except Jimmy Butler and Doug McDermott.

Facts: The Bulls score 101.0 points a game. Fewer points than Sacramento and the Lakers and only two points more than the Sixers who are routine lottery dwellers. The Bulls are the only team in the NBA that doesn’t take 20 three point shots per game. They are the only NBA team that doesn’t make a minimum of 7 three point shots per game. They are an inefficient shooting team, the third worst. Only Dallas and Memphis can’t put the ball in the hole which means they are bottom of the pack in assists.

Facts: The Bulls lead the NBA in offensive rebounding. Of course they do. All those bricks they are throwing up fall into their hands. But their defensive rebounding, having to outwork their opponent, is middle of the pack. The are a top-10 shot blocking team. They are top-10 in defense just as they were last year but you have to score points, you have to be able to put the ball in the hole. Because of Wade and Jimmy Butler who take nearly 15 free throws per game, more than the rest of the team combined, they get easy baskets. But when Wade and Butler are not driving and attacking, what then?

This time last year when the Bulls had Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose, and Dwyane Wade was in South Beach, after 35 games, the Bulls had just finished a 6 game win streak. In game number 33 they beat Milwaukee by 11 points. In game number 32 they beat the Raptors in Toronto. They were 22-13. So their regression is complete, even as last year they collapsed once the Jimmy Butler injury took hold. The Bulls have to pray Jimmy Butler stays healthy.

How to fix this. Trades, maybe?

Yes you can trade Rondo but for who? Three point shooting point guards are coveted. The only point guard who is always on the market, Ricky Rubio, can’t shoot. Perhaps you can bring in Josh Smith from China as a big who is athletic and can hit the mid-range. There is Rudy Gay lurking out there, an unhappy scorer buried in Sacramento.  Gay, a 34.5% three point shooter, plans to opt out his deal. There is Lou Williams of the Lakers. He is a 37.1% three point shooter. But are the Bulls willing to give up a first rounder?

It’s been tough on the Bulls since they made the organizational decision to get rid of Thibs for their guy Fred Hoiberg. Their guy is responsible for the ship hitting an iceberg and drowning what used to be playoff basketball. It all reeks of hopelessness unless Jimmy Butler drops 50 and then there is a dim light at the end of the tunnel.

Right now Jimmy Butler is the Bulls lone cure to avoid a wretched season. He has to be a one man wrecking crew for the Bulls to hold their head above water and avoid the prize for losing teams: the draft lottery.


photo via llananba