Where is Jimmy Butler the best fit in Chicago's future?
But in what capacity? Is he their long-term shooting guard? Is he Luol Deng's replacement? Where will Jimmy "Buckets" ultimately find his niche in Chicago's rotation?
Is Butler a better fit at shooting guard or small forward?
Last season, he provided suffocating defense from either spot, and his combination of size (6'7'', 220 pounds) and quickness creates flexibility whereby Chicago can use him in a variety of positions.
During the 2013 playoffs, Butler guarded point guard Deron Williams in first-round stints. He then checked small forward LeBron James (who is built like a power forward, or truck) during the second round.
Needless to say, Butler is unquestionably versatile.
However, he did excel the greatest while guarding shooting guards. According to 82games.com, Butler limited opposing shooting guards to a PER of 7.0. This amounts to 14.8 points and 3.5 assists per game over a full 48 minutes. The video below shows how much Butler pestered Kobe Bryant in a Bulls versus Los Angeles Lakers matchup.
This type of production warrants Butler's name in talks about the league's best perimeter defenders.
In fact, examine his PER in this category compared with other prominent defensive two-guards: Kobe Bryant (12.8), Tony Allen (11.8), Andre Iguodala (12.7), Dwyane Wade (12.0) and Thabo Sefolosha (12.6).
If some think it's premature to regard Butler as one of the game's best wing defenders, this analysis reveals that it surely isn't.
This is all the more amplified when noting that Butler held opponent's small forwards to a PER of 12.7. While not as staggering as his mark against shooting guards, this is still downright productive. Essentially, Butler makes shooting guards cry, and he causes small forwards to moan excessively.
He's simply a phenomenal fit at either location from a defensive standpoint.
Offensively, Butler logged serviceable minutes at both wing areas. Interestingly, it was his PER at small forward (16.4) that topped his figure at shooting guard (13.4), per 82games.com.
While this is noteworthy, it also isn't something to analyze too much since the discrepancy is small. More importantly, Butler had a rather unique transformation during the latter stages of the 2012-13 campaign.
For instance, according to NBA.com/Stats, after the All-Star break, Butler shot an astounding 47.5-percent from three-point land (he only netted 25.0-percent of his looks from distance prior to the break).
Butler's progression places him in a more adequate stance to contribute from either position. Plus, any such offensive ratings could be wildly altered now that Chicago has Derrick Rose back in the mix. Rose should make Butler into an even more potent offensive player, whether as a shooting guard or small forward.
Butler is remarkably skilled defensively, and he is blossoming on the fast track offensively.
As a result, he can really play either wing position. He could be their shooting guard of the future, but he could also mesh effectively at small forward. There really isn't one spot that claims its place as his obvious destination.
Therefore, it basically boils down to what Chicago does with Deng, who is a free agent after the upcoming year. Butler's adaptability provides Chicago with some freedom concerning Deng. The Bulls could view Butler as the 28-year-old Deng's replacement, or they can entertain thoughts of trading Deng or letting him walk in free agency while they target other options.
What's the most sensible way to handle this? This decision largely holds the keys to Chicago's championship hopes.
If they choose not to re-sign Deng, they'll potentially have financial flexibility to lure a top-notch free agent in one of the next few summers. Such a maneuver could finally give the Bulls a secondary superstar.
Yet, if they bring back Deng, such a pursuit would probably be too financially troublesome, depending on his asking price. The recent deals given to Josh Smith and Andre Iguodala don't help the Bulls in this regard.
If they don't see Deng as part of their future, they would be much wiser to trade him and at least gain a promising youngster (or draft pick) in return. If the right deal presents itself, the Bulls should definitely ponder it.
Since Deng has been in the league for nine years and is likely reaching the back side of his prime, it's worth speculating offers.
But losing Deng could prove costly.
Consider the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs, who both lost to the Miami Heat in seven games during the 2013 playoffs. While the Pacers and Spurs have quality players across the board, they are not centered upon "star power." They combine offensive chemistry with defensive grit, and it almost culminated in them dethroning the Heat.
It should've resulted in this for San Antonio, specifically.
These series debunked the idea that it must take a team of multiple superstars to challenge Miami.
Therefore, the idea that the Bulls must land another top-tier player to beat the Heat is illegitimate.
Truthfully, Chicago may have just the right recipe for a championship run if they simply keep Deng at small forward and establish Butler at shooting guard. These two provide elite defensive efforts (Deng limited opposing small forwards to a PER of 11.2 in 2012-13, per 82games.com), and Rose's return should stimulate Chicago offensively.
Assuming they're healthy, Chicago already has a core that is more than capable of beating anybody.
Plus, let's dwell upon Chicago's foes in the Eastern Conference. The Heat (James and Wade), Pacers (Paul George and Danny Granger) and Brooklyn Nets (Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce) all have multiple talented offensive weapons on the wing.
With that in view, it only makes sense that the Bulls should have two sufficient defenders for such marquee threats. Why would they want to lose Deng when they know that perimeter defense is imperative to defeating any top opponent in the East?
Consequently, while there's some rationale to moving on from Deng and inserting Butler at small forward, there's actually greater sense in keeping Deng and pegging Butler as the shooting guard of the future.
As the old adage goes, offense wins games, defense wins championships.
With Butler and Deng, the Bulls arguably have the best perimeter defense in the league, in a conference that requires this type of dynamic to be successful.
Thus, it's the most reasonable decision to solidify these two as their wings for the ensuing years. Butler has been a pleasant surprise, but he doesn't make Deng expendable. He shouldn't be identified as Deng's replacement, but he should rather be seen as their shooting guard of the future and quite possibly the final piece to the championship puzzle.