The former Marquette Golden Eagle is the third player to start at the 2 under head coach Tom Thibodeau and the first legitimate two-way threat paired with Derrick Rose.
Considering the strides he made last season, it is understandable to have high expectations for his current campaign; however, a sampling of the early slate of games shows that Butler has a way to go before he evolves into what the team needs him to be.
Butler’s mission in his new role is simple: Be productive enough on offense to keep some pressure off of Rose while staying strong as a perimeter defender.
The newly-minted starter has always shown the potential to be a formidable defender in Thibodeau’s system; it was not until late in the 2012-13 season that the upside to his offensive skill set became apparent.
In starting all 12 of the Bulls’ postseason contests, he averaged 13.3 points per game and shot 40.3 percent from beyond the arc.
Butler’s sudden thrust into the more prominent starting role was a result of Chicago fighting that all-to-familiar battle with multiple injuries.
He was only an NBA sophomore then, but he responded with a veteran’s poise.
Butler was asked to step up again over the summer, only this time in the capacity as the team’s new starting shooting guard.
It remains to be seen how the entire scenario will play out, but the bare minimum of expectations has to include duplicating his late-season stretch over the course of this year’s 82-game run.
Despite starting the season with a lopsided loss to the two-time champion Miami Heat, Butler’s performance was promising.
He finished the game with 20 points, scoring 17 in the second half on a combination of penetration baskets, free-throws and three-point buckets.
Butler scored a total of 13 post-halftime points in the four games succeeding the Heat loss. Three of those games had him posting nothing to the team’s 4th quarter scoring column.
His lack of aggressiveness has been the biggest difference.
The varied offensive attack displayed in the season opener has been nonexistent.
Butler has become complacent with moving around on the perimeter, merely catching and shooting when attempting to contribute.
This contentment has had a mostly negative impact on the team’s scoring production.
When Butler is attacking, he is either getting high-quality shots or drawing fouls for easy points at the charity stripe.
A positive ripple effect is created from this as it keeps the opponent’s defense from double teaming Rose and allows him to be more creative with the ball.
If the assertiveness from the third-year swingman is absent, it allows the opposition to crowd the Bulls’ former MVP.
Butler’s play needs to reflect that he is aware of his symbiosis with Rose as it will be crucial for establishing a team chemistry that will help restore their former conference dominance.
It is expected that sometime soon Rose will have a breakout game, and his initial struggles will quickly be forgotten.
Butler does not have that same luxury; in fact, his play is supposed to help facilitate the All-Star guard’s return to form.
But his contributions extend well beyond allowing Rose to reestablish his groove.
Now that The Return is official, the Bulls find themselves heaped with expectations of challenging for Eastern Conference supremacy.
That role would have been pretty easy to take on a year or two ago, but the upper echelon has expanded beyond Pat Riley’s Heat.
Teams like the Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks have added quality talent. The prospect of facing any of those teams over a seven-game playoff series is a daunting task for any franchise.
This is where Butler’s mettle will be tried.
Not only will Butler have to disrupt these juggernauts’ offensive flow, he will also have to find ways to make them work defensively.
This is why it is important that he quickly figures out how to be a consistent contributor on both sides of the ball.
Anyone who is concerned with how Butler has played the first part of the season should be assuaged by the fact that it’s still early and this Chicago team still has a lot readjusting to do.
Butler has all of the physical attributes to be the player the team needs and the work ethic to maximize those qualities.
Honestly, his job is probably the hardest of anyone on the Bulls’ roster outside of Rose.
That doesn’t mean that Butler’s expectations are Sisyphean; if he can reclaim the resolve with which he played in their first game, he will be on his way to a breakout season that will bode well for the entire team’s prospects.
Not to add any more pressure to the young man, but Butler is the dime on which the Bulls’ season will turn.
The team will win games, but if they are to truly challenge for the NBA’s crown they need him shake off the early season rust and find that next level.
So what does an effective Butler look like?
On the offensive end it means that he is doing more than just catching and shooting.
While getting into position to receive the ball will be important, Butler has to think beyond pulling the trigger just because he is open; he has to quickly assess his options.
Is the pass being caught in a comfortable enough rhythm to get off a worthy attempt?
Is there room to put the ball on the floor and get a higher quality shot or draw a foul?
Should an extra pass be made to a teammate in a better position?
As the other guard on the floor, Butler’s responsibilities extend beyond the basic offensive duties of other role players.
He has to be the extra facilitator who makes sure that each play is extended in way to maximize the potential of a successful possession.
The defensive expectations for Butler are grander than the offensive ones, thanks in large part to the team’s dedication to Thibodeau’s “defense first” philosophy.
Given the caliber of talent that he will be up against, it is preposterous to expect Butler to shut down any of the elite athletes he stands to guard.
Disruption will be the key to him being effective against LBJ, Melo and the other superior conference wings.
Butler has demonstrated that his length and tenacity bothers even the most talented perimeter players, and he must continue to hone those qualities.
Against James and Dwyane Wade, he will have to force them to do everything from the outside. These guys are at their best when they can break a defense down with penetration and either finish at the rim or set up one of their sharp shooting teammates.
Butler will have to make every shot Anthony takes a contested one. The prolific Knicks scorer cannot be allowed to get into an offensive rhythm.
Luckily, Butler has the luxury of being on the same team as Luol Deng, so these responsibilities aren’t solely his.
However, he will be expected to defend a lot of elite players, and that means he cannot get comfortable with playing a different position than many of them.
When considering the many ways that Butler has to contribute, it becomes clear why he needs to quickly establish himself as a legitimate threat.
Chicago has Rose back in the lineup and the depth to once again be a contending team.
The days of getting by on potential are gone; Butler’s time is now and he must respond.
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