Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls will be playing together extensively for the first time this year, and as they do, they will quickly establish themselves as one of the most dominant backcourt duos in the NBA.
It is the third season that the players have both been on the roster, but they have played a mere 74.5 minutes together in the regular season according to Basketball-Reference. That’s mostly because Butler played limited minutes his first year, and Rose didn’t play Butler’s second year.
Now Rose is back and Butler is starting. The anticipation of seeing the two working together is positively electrifying, whether you’re a Bulls fan or just a lover of basketball.
The early returns are validating that excitement.
While the preseason is limited, and there are only so many conclusions you can draw from it, there are indications that the Rose-Butler backcourt could very well be the most dominant guard tandem in the NBA this year.
I looked at how the Bulls compared with some of the other elite offensive backcourts in the NBA.
The tandems I compared included Chris Paul and J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers, James Harden and Jeremy Lin of the Houston Rockets, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon of the New Orleans Pelicans, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters of the Cleveland Cavaliers, John Wall and Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, George Hill and Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, and Deron Williams and Joe Johnson of the Brooklyn Nets.
For the Nets tandem, I used last year’s regular-season stats because Williams hasn’t played this preseason.
First, as a disclaimer, I anticipate and acknowledge all the “It’s just preseason” arguments. However, there are four things to realize:
- The numbers are pace and minutes adjusted to help compensate preseason disparity in playing time.
- None of the numbers are really that far out of line with what you would expect in the regular season. The exception may be Rose, whose scoring is a little high, but his passing numbers are also a little low.
- There is no reason to presume that the preseason numbers favor the Bulls tandem over any other tandem. In fact, due to Rose returning from injury and the limited minutes they’ve played together, the opposite is more likely true.
- It’s not intended as a definitive conclusion. It’s only to establish they are in the conversation.
Following is a look at the basic production of the NBA’s top offensive backcourt starters, pace and minute adjusted, from Real GM.
As you can see, Rose and Butler, as a tandem, are doing as well as any backcourt tandem this preseason, except for Paul and Redick (who are also still learning to play together). While a lot of that has to do with Rose’s overwhelming success in his return, Butler has proven to be a valuable asset himself.
Some would argue that’s just because Rose dominates the ball. So let’s look at the same tandems’ individual player efficiency ratings (PER).
Rose’s unreal 38.0 PER leads not only the players on this list, but all players in the NBA during the preseason. Butler’s 18.5 PER is a very respectable fourth among the shooting guards on this list. Only Harden, Beal and Hill are better.
Together they have the highest combined PER of any backcourt.
There are going to be regressions when the season starts. Rose is not going to shoot over 50 percent from the three-point line over the course of the season. But there will be progressions too. For example, Butler isn’t going to shoot 25 percent from three either.
So, yes, it’s understood that preseason isn’t the final say.
Having said that, let’s not throw the basketball out with the bathwater. The essence of what we see will carry into the regular season unless there’s a specific reason to doubt it.
The ability to get to the line and draw fouls is not something that disappears once the regular season starts, and that’s been an absolutely remarkable area for Rose and Butler this preseason. They have combined for a total of 20 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes.
Considering they have both shown they can shoot over 80 percent from the stripe, that’s a dangerous number—even if you account for a 25 percent regression. That puts them on par with prolific free-throw-shooting tandems Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (15.9 attempts last year), of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat’s LeBron James and Wade (13.1).
Additionally, Rose and Butler are arguably the most athletic backcourt duo.
Most would agree that the most athletic two point guards in the NBA are Rose and Westbrook (in whichever order) and the third-most athletic is Wall.
When you look at his pre-draft measurements from NBA Draft Express, what is amazing is that Wall barely fared better than Butler, who had a 39" vertical and a 3.15-second three-quarter sprint compared to Wall’s 39" and 3.14.
Butler is very nearly as athletic as Wall!
Harden’s numbers were 37” and 3.13. Beal’s were 39” and 3.28. Gordon’s numbers were superb, 40” and 3.01, but he’s lost something since his knee issues.
While Rose is arguably the most athletic point guard, Butler is very much in the conversation for the most athletic shooting guard as well. Now of course, athleticism doesn’t directly translate into skill, but it can often translate into transition points.
As Rose and Butler play more together, that athleticism should factor into a healthy number of fast-break points, since Butler can do things like this...
And Rose can do things like this...
We’ll probably see more of both. In fact, the more they play together, the better they will play together, especially since their strengths accommodate one another.
I've previously written extensively about this, but suffice to say Butler is a great catch-and-shoot three-point shooter; Rose is brilliant at setting up shooters. Teams have frustrated Rose in the past by trapping him. Butler is a capable enough ball-handler to bail him out. Rose is a high-usage player, but Butler doesn’t need high usage to be effective.
Their skill sets are complementary, so as they play together, they should only play better together.
That’s not going to change just because the regular season starts. In fact, as they get used to playing together, that’s the sort of thing we should see more, not less of, and transition points are the most efficient points there are.
The bottom line is that it is a perfectly reasonable expectation that the Bulls tandem will be a top-five pairing offensively among NBA backcourts.
But that isn’t the whole reason that the Bulls pair is one of the NBA’s most dominant. Defensively, you can make an even stronger argument.
Here is a look at the top tandems in opponent’s player efficiency rating (oPER) when guarding their position, according to 82games.com. Since they don’t track preseason stats, I used last year’s stats, with the exception of Rose, whose 2012 stats were used.
I included a few pairs that weren’t in the offensive rankings, such as Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha, Mike Conley and Tony Allen, and Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley. I did not include the worst of the defensive duos among the offensive pairings.
It’s not hard to make a case that Rose and Butler are the best defensive backcourt in the NBA. In fact, they both have the lowest oPER at their position of the players in question. If you look beyond oPER, you could make a strong case for Conley and Allen as the best, but either way, the Chicago duo is in the conversation for best defensive pairing.
Once again, the benefit of playing together should only help the numbers. Both players will benefit from playing alongside a better defender than they did previously. Rose spent most of his time playing alongside Richard Hamilton, who wasn’t bad, but he was not Jimmy Butler. And Butler spent considerable time compensating for the defensive failings of Marco Belinelli or Nate Robinson.
Both players should get even better as they won’t have to accommodate the other’s weaknesses.
The Bulls pair tops both the PER and oPER list. They are also the second-most productive per 36 minutes. The Clippers pair is the only other one to even make the top-five on all three lists.
Is this just a Chicago Bulls writer going homer and twisting numbers?
Here are the combined ranking scores from ESPN’s #NBAranks. The numbers are the scores they received from ESPN’s Forecast Panel, which was not in any way a “Bulls homer” panel.
I’m not really endorsing the accuracy of every one of these rankings. I’m merely stating it was a broad panel of experts who performed the rankings.
In fact, if anything Rose was considerably underrated, and that’s probably in large part because the rankings were completed prior to the start of the preseason. My guess is that if they had to do it again, he wouldn’t be behind Curry, Irving or probably even Westbrook (especially considering the delay in his own return).
Regardless, even while underrating Rose, the panel still ranked the Bulls backcourt the third-best in the NBA, which establishes they are—in as close to a “consensus expert opinion” as we have—one of the most dominant backcourts in the NBA.
In sum, the Bulls duo has been the second-most productive and most efficient offensively this preseason. They are arguably the best defensive starting backcourt in the NBA as well. They are also one of the most athletic combinations. And to top it all off, the majority of NBA analysts recognize this.
The only thing they haven’t done much of together is play, and the more they do that the more they will become a major story of the season. Look for them to dominate games and be a major factor as Chicago tries to bull its way towards the team’s first title since Michael Jordan.