Jimmy Butler probably isn't trying to take Luol Deng's job. But if the 24-year-old forward performs during the 2013-14 NBA season at the level the Chicago Bulls hope and expect he will, Butler may well wind up wearing Deng's shoes anyway.
Deng and the Bulls have already broken off what had reportedly been only preliminary discussions regarding a possible contract extension. As a result, Deng will play out the remainder of his current deal before hitting the market as an unrestricted free agent next summer, according to his agent, Herb Rudoy (via NBA.com's David Aldridge):
We never negotiated. We had several meetings. One was to discuss the medical care he got, or did not get, after his spinal tap [in May], which was of great concern to him.
And we had another meeting to discuss whether they would discuss a contract. He [Bulls GM Gar Forman] called me a week or two ago and decided they did not want to discuss a contract and that it would have to wait until after the season. I told them they'd have to wait until after July 1, because he would have to see what the market is, and that he would become a free agent. And I couldn't promise he wouldn't sign somewhere else. Now, he loves being there, and he loves playing for [coach Tom] Thibodeau. Loves playing for him. But he has to see what the market is.
That puts into play the distinct possibility that Butler will be manning the wing in Chicago without Deng come fall of 2014.
It's a position with which Butler is already familiar. He essentially stepped into Deng's place during the final seven games of Chicago's most recent postseason run, after the Sudanese swingman wound up on the wrong end of a botched spinal tap.
Butler made the most of the opportunity, and then some.
In those seven starts, he averaged 14.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals while hitting 38.5 percent of his three-point attempts and defending the likes of LeBron James and Joe Johnson about as well as anyone could.
To be sure, Butler's display wasn't merely the byproduct of his teammate's misfortune. The Marquette product started next to Deng during the last 14 games of the regular season and remained in the lineup for the first five playoff games, before suspicions of meningitis took a turn for the worse for Deng.
Parsing out the impact of Deng's presence on Butler's game isn't exactly a straightforward exercise, either.
On the one hand, Butler performed more efficiently during that 19-game stretch between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs (when Deng was still fit to play) than he did after Lu went down.
Those contests saw Butler successfully convert 48.3 percent of his attempts from the field, including an outstanding 51.1 percent of his three-point tries. Butler's counting stats (13.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.7 steals) weren't quite as impressive as those he posted after Deng was hospitalized, but that's to be expected when a player's role suddenly expands.
To focus too intently on these particular games, though, is to ignore what a small sample they represent.
On the whole, the numbers suggest that Butler performed better without Deng last season. Here's a look at Butler's per-36-minute stats when Deng was and wasn't on the floor with him (via NBA.com):
Again, the counting stats (i.e. points, rebounds, assists, steals) didn't change much, though Butler's shooting percentages skyrocketed when Lu wasn't around.
This makes some intuitive sense. It stands to reason that when two players of such similar size, playing styles and talents are on the same team, the understudy (Butler) would fare better when the lead (Deng) wasn't around.
What's interesting, though, is that reverse wouldn't seem to be true in this case. According to NBA.com, Deng actually scored more points, took more shots and grabbed more rebounds per 36 minutes when he and Butler were together and shot about as well from the floor in either situation.
The Bulls, then, must hope either that Deng sees the benefit in playing with Butler to the extent that he'll give the incumbent team a hometown discount or that Butler plays well enough this season to render Deng obsolete.
The team came to a similar crossroads last year when the front office inked Taj Gibson to a four-year, $33 million extension. The Bulls had been angling to replace the expensive and defenseless Carlos Boozer for some time, and Gibson, a late first-round pick like Butler was, represented the organization's best in-house option for that.
But instead of playing well enough to force Boozer out of the starting five, Gibson proved to be limited on offense and produced at a clip nearly identical to his career average.
Granted, with Derrick Rose out, Chicago needed all it could squeeze out of Boozer, who, despite his shortcomings, is still a steady offensive option.
The Bulls must hope, then, that Rose's return will eliminate the need for Boozer's contributions, at least enough to justify paying him to not play in Chi-town via the one-time amnesty clause.
That would all but ensure that the Bulls don't get slammed with the dreaded "repeater tax" under the new collective bargaining agreement while freeing up the finances to keep Deng or pursue other options via free agency and trades.
Or, better yet, the Bulls can keep their fingers crossed that getting Rose back will have a similar effect on the squad's situation on the wing.
Butler is slated to start at shooting guard for Chicago when the season tips off against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat on October 29. Rose hasn't shared the backcourt with another legitimate scoring guard since his rookie season, when he played alongside Ben Gordon.
Asking Butler to score 15 to 20 points per game, as Gordon did during his five seasons in Chicago, may be a bit much. Then again, the Bulls may just be scratching the surface with Butler, who showed flashes as a slasher and three-point shooter over the course of the previous campaign.
In some respects, then, the Butler-Deng dilemma could be like this year's version of the Gibson-Boozer dilemma from 2012-13, but on the wing instead of in the post. If the former in each pairing evolves into an offensive threat, then the latter becomes expendable.
In theory, anyway.
In practice, severing ties with a guy like Boozer, who arrived in Chicago as a free agent three years ago, is entirely different from doing the same with Deng, who's been with the Bulls ever since they made him the No. 7 pick in the 2004 NBA draft.
Deng is easily the longest-tenured player on the Bulls roster. He's played for four head coaches—five if you include Pete Myers' one-game stint in 2007—in nine seasons, including the entirety of Tom Thibodeau's tenure.
Thibs has developed a soft spot for Deng in that time. He spoke glowingly of Lu, who in many ways embodies Thibodeau's coaching philosophy, toward the end of last season (via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times):
You need rebounding, he’ll give you rebounding. If he’s not shooting well, he gives you great defense. No matter how the game is going, he’s always going to be there late for you, no matter if it’s pick-and-roll offense, swinging the ball, moving without the ball, making a great random cut from the weak side. He has great impact on winning.
You can’t ask anything more of one of your best players.
As much as Thibs may cherish Deng's presence, he hasn't shied away from heaping praise on Butler. As he recently told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
Jimmy has changed. He's in a different place, and I think there are some different things we can change to take advantage of what he does well.
Jimmy is very deceiving. He's an excellent athlete, very explosive, very quick to the ball. That tells you how he sees the game. His reaction to the ball is special. He's very quick, strong, can think ahead, very strong.
I get a kick in the offseason, everyone's had a great summer, everyone looks good, but Jimmy actually puts the work in. He doesn't have to say anything. You look at him and his actions tell you what he's doing. There are no shortcuts with him. He puts the work in and gives you a solid day's work.
It would appear that Thibodeau is already preparing himself and his team for a future without Deng, one that features a lot more of Butler doing what Lu does. Whether this apparent pivot is Thibs' by choice or is driven by pragmatism is another story entirely.
As with seemingly everything Bulls-related these days, the outcome will depend largely on how the team reacts to having Rose back. He's the player who will most need help from Butler and Deng on the offensive end, and he'll be in the best position to set them up to do so.
If Butler blossoms into a reliable sidekick for Rose, then the Bulls will have an easier time offering Deng less money and, if needed, subsequently selling his departure to those inside and outside the organization.
If not, the decision about Deng could turn into the toughest of Gar Forman's career in Chicago.
After all, Forman's task at this point is to ensure that the Bulls can and do contend for championships so long as Derrick Rose is who he is. Anything less than that would be a disservice to the players, the coaches and, most importantly, the fans.
Who would YOU rather have on the wing?
Losing a player of Deng's skill and stature within the organization would be a massive blow to those efforts, at least in the interim. But if Butler proves equal to the task of shouldering Deng's workload, his cheaper salary, in place of Lu's, would allow the Bulls to refresh their roster with talent while satisfying the fiscal demands of team owner and noted spendthrift Jerry Reinsdorf.
All of which brings us back to the same inevitable conclusion that every Chicago-related story comes to these days: that the 2013-14 season will be a pivotal one in Bulls history, in large part because of Derrick Rose's return and the ripple effects because of it.
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