Chicago Bulls: Are Luol Deng, Kyle Korver and Jimmy Butler Enough?
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With the NBA regular season coming to a close and the playoffs right around the corner, now is a great time to review the play of the Chicago Bulls' small forwards during the 2011-2012 regular season. Luol Deng, Kyle Korver and Jimmy Butler have occupied the majority of minutes at small forward this season and have helped lead the Bulls to the league-leading record with two games left in the season.
In a season that featured 66 games in 120 days, there have been many highs and lows for the Bulls' small forwards and injuries have played a significant role. With this combination of an all-star, a lights-out shooter and a defensive-minded rookie, the Bulls have one of the more well-rounded small forward units in the league—so let's review their highlights and statistics.
Deng Good Defense
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Going into this season, the Chicago Bulls were counting on Luol Deng to provide the same high level of play that he demonstrated last year. A genuine defensive stopper with the ability to shoot from outside and create a little bit off the dribble, the main thing the Bulls would have wanted Deng to improve on during the offseason would have been his strength for when he is guarding strong players like LeBron James.
This season, Deng has averaged 15.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.7 blocks in 39.5 minutes per game prior to Wednesday night's game. Deng has dealt with a torn ligament in his left wrist for most of the season and opted to forgo surgery in order to stay with team and not risk missing the rest of the regular season or postseason.
Deng was off to a great start this season with familiar strong defense and smart offensive production. Deng played so well early on that, despite missing games in late January and early February, he earned his first all-star game selection.
Although struggling with injuries, Deng has anchored the Bulls throughout a tumultuous injury-filled season by playing in 54 of the Bulls' 65 games this season. On top of this, at 39.5 minutes per game, Luol Deng leads the league in minutes played per game.
Deng's best game of the season was against the Boston Celtics on January 13, when he scored 21 points on 8-17 shooting and added 16 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block.
As previously mentioned, Deng has dealt with a wrist injury for most of the season which has affected his shot and defensive ability. Deng has been visibly bothered by the pain at times, and it wouldn't be beneath certain opponents to attempt to disrupt his game by targeting his wrist.
Aside from the injury, fatigue is the biggest struggle for Deng. Coach Tom Thibodeau has relied heavily on Deng's leadership on the floor and has pushed him harder than most any other player in the league has been pushed.
Regardless of the injury, Deng has been an invaluable asset to the team. Leading through injuries to Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton and providing solid defense, Deng has done all the Bulls could ask of him this season. Deng's willingness to play through his injury rather than having surgery that could have him playing at 100 percent for the upcoming Summer Olympics speaks volumes to his loyalty to the Bulls organization. Deng will be absolutely crucial if the Bulls are going to make a run to the championship and get by the LeBron-led Miami Heat.
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The expectations the Bulls' management has for Kyle Korver are pretty simple to summarize: 1) Do a good job coming off screens. 2) Shoot if open (meaning, if there will be at least 0.5 seconds of time wherein Kyle can catch, turn and shoot.) 3) Make a good percentage of your shots. 4) Pass the ball if you aren't given enough room to shoot.
Defensively, Korver can be a liability—not because of his heart and effort but because of his speed and size. Korver is slower and weighs less than many of the small forwards he plays against. But what Korver gives up defensively, he makes up for in basketball IQ and shooting ability.
Korver has averaged 8.0 points on 42.6% shooting (43.0% from three-point,) 2.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.2 blocks in 22.6 minutes per game prior to Wednesday night's game. Korver has been able to stay healthy and play in all 65 games this season.
Though he has only started 7 games this season, Korver has been given a lot of run by coach Tom Thibodeau this year, having played at least 24 minutes in 27 games this season. Although he isn't a great defender, Korver is a key piece on a team that boasts the lowest points allowed, second lowest allowed field goal percentage and the greatest rebounding differential.
Primarily used to stretch defenses, Korver is the 11th best in the league in three-point percentage and three-pointers made this season.
Korver's best game came against his old team, the Utah Jazz, on March 10, scoring 26 points on 10-16 shooting (6-11 from three-point) and added 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 block and 1 steal.
Though he is a lights-out shooter, Korver can often find himself in multi-game slumps. At the end of January, Korver had five games in a row where he shot less than 50 percent and scored less than 10 points. Korver needs playing time to shoot consistently, which may be a problem in the playoffs when Thibodeau relies more heavily on his starters. Many would point at Korver's defense as a struggle, but in my opinion, he tries hard on the defensive end and does what Thibodeau asks of him.
In the playoffs, the Bulls will need some big shots at key moments and if Derrick Rose is rusty and Deng is affected by his injury, Korver will be called upon to make those shots. If Korver can come through for the Bulls in those situations, he will be loved by fans and management alike. But, if like last year, Korver's shooting falls off during the playoffs, the Bulls may consider moving him to clear cap space in the offseason.
Jimmy Butler, Rookie
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The new kid for the Chicago Bulls this season is Jimmy Butler, a 6'7" small forward from Marquette. He certainly has a story to tell, but others can tell it better than I. Little was expected from a rookie on last year's second best squad in the Eastern Conference, but Butler has impressed both fans and Tom Thibodeau with his hard work in limited minutes.
Butler has averaged 2.4 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.3 steals and 0.1 blocks in 8.1 minutes per game. Butler has made appearances in 41 games this season and generally draws the task of guarding the best scorer on the floor. Butler's numbers may not seem impressive but for the sake of review, Butler's projected numbers in 48 minutes would be 14.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.59 blocks per game which are great numbers for a rookie.
Though he has not found consistent minutes in Thibodeau's rotation, Butler has impressed with his sound defensive skills. Most notably, Butler was able to record a block and a steal against Carmelo Anthony on February 2nd which is great for a rookie against one of the premier offensive players in the league.
Butler's best game of the season was against the Utah Jazz on March 10 when he scored 8 points going 2-4 from the floor and 4-6 from the free throw line and added 5 rebounds and an assist.
The biggest struggle for Butler at this point in his career is earning playing time, averaging only 8.1 minutes per game. With the postseason coming, it is unlikely that we will see much of Butler as Thibodeau shortens his bench like most coaches.
Butler is a great defensive player with offensive promise. As the Bulls seek to determine a way to keep key frontcourt players Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, they may look to move Ronnie Brewer and assign many of his responsibilities to Butler. As hard as Butler has played and with the results he has had in limited minutes, it wouldn't be a surprise to see much more from Butler next year and on into the future.
Small Forward Unit
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As a unit, the Bulls' small forward are better than average.
Scoring 17.8 points per game, the Bulls' small forwards are 16th in the league in scoring. They have the fifth best three-point percentage at 38.4 percent and only 2.0 turnovers per game.
Defensively, the Chicago Bulls have held opposing small forwards to 17.2 points per game, third only to the Utah Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies. Opposing small forwards are held to the ninth lowest field-goal percentage at 42.2 percent and the second lowest rebounding amount at 7.0.
Going into this season, the Bulls assumed that the small forward position was squared away with their soon to be all-star, Luol Deng. But, since Deng's injury, the Bulls have had to rely on Kyle Korver and Jimmy Butler to pick up the slack. The Bulls may well be set into the future with their current small forward group but it is a question mark for this postseason.
If the Bulls are going to get past the Miami Heat in the playoffs, they will need to at least contain LeBron James and that may be difficult if Luol is affected by his injury. If Deng is slowed, the Bulls may turn to Korver to pick things up offensively and may even give Butler a look to provide some defensive coverage on James.