Jimmy Butler, unconstrained by high-usage veterans or ball-dominant curmudgeons, led the Chicago Bulls to a 118-111 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Monday, and throughout the transcendent performance, it was impossible to avoid a troubling thought.
This is how it should have been all along.
Butler pumped in a season-high 52 points to go with 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and a block. He did it all, setting the high-energy tone with hustle plays on defense and bailing out an otherwise overwhelmed offense when it needed him.
One late-game sequence typified his impact.
Following a futile Chicago offensive possession terminated by a hopeless Nikola Mirotic heave as the shot clock sounded, Butler attacked, scored and drew the foul shot that tied the game. This from a guy who should have been (and was) utterly exhausted by then.
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Asking Butler to do this—take as many shots as any other two Bulls combined, absorb the contact that led to 22 free throws, defend three positions, lead the team in rebounding, etc.—is ridiculous. But it was never unreasonable to trust him in this kind of role.
Fred: “It’s an understatement to say Jimmy was phenomenal tonight.” pic.twitter.com/d4ytbzjfWg
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) January 3, 2017
Had Chicago not signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo over the summer, Butler’s full-on alpha takeover could have followed its natural course. Removing Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah cleared the way, but adding another pair of vets instead of complementary floor-spacers and role-fillers actually created a worse obstruction.
Wade and Rondo have veteran clout, and they need the ball. With the former out and the latter punted from the rotation (mercifully, finally) Monday, Butler got a rare chance to show what could have been. What should have been.
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune saw, like everyone else, that Butler looked liberated:
This is most pace Butler has played with offensively in some time.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 3, 2017
And it’s vital to remember that this is merely a shadow of what Chicago could have constructed.
Had it devoted the money and roster spots spent on Wade and Rondo elsewhere, the Bulls could have built around their best player.
Even in the wake of that miscalculation, it’s clear Chicago can fashion a roster with Butler at its center and shooters around him. Despite slow individual starts, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic combined with Butler to produce a 110.6 offensive rating in the 175 minutes they’d played together before the Hornets game.
The number for Butler, Rondo and Wade is 104.8 (with a worse defensive rating, incredibly) in 483 minutes.
Butler is such a handful with the ball, so capable of working his way into the lane and drawing help, surrounding him with more marksmen (and not more dribble-dependent guards) was always the way to go. The numbers, though far from definitive, certainly suggest that’s still true.
The East remains there for the taking. Monday’s win moved the Bulls back into a three-way tie for eighth in the conference. But Chicago still has to extract itself from this roster mess and hope the resulting chemistry strains don’t poison the locker room.
Trading Rondo seems impossible. No team needs a point guard who must have the ball, has worn out welcomes in four NBA cities, no longer defends and possesses a locker-room reputation best described as mercurial.
The homecoming angle and reasonable production from Wade mean he’s not going anywhere, but we’ve seen him accept a secondary role behind a superstar before. He’s not one to worry about behind closed doors. That doesn’t mean things will go smoothly on the floor. Defenses ignore him on the perimeter, his defensive focus has waned for a half-decade and it’s difficult to think of him as anything more than a second-unit leader.
Chicago must figure out what to do with those two, and when minimizing the negative impacts of your two biggest …