Of the manifold factors that contributed to the Chicago Bulls' unlikely success without Derrick Rose a season ago, the ascendance of second-year swingman Jimmy Butler may have been the most pleasantly surprising.
Here was exactly the kind of homegrown talent—tough, scrappy and brim-loaded with energy—that the notoriously spendthrift Bulls could feel proud of teaming with a fully recovered, ready-to-roll Rose.
But following last year's strong sophomore showing, Butler’s play has careened back to earth in a hurry. Through 36 games, he's regressed to his rookie-year output nearly across the board, according to Basketball-Reference.
Perhaps the most alarming trend has been Butler’s plummeting prowess from three-point range. After more than doubling his percentage of makes between Years 1 and 2, the sinewy wing's shot has fallen flat of late—alarmingly so, according to Nate Duncan of Basketball Insiders.
Like Duncan, K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune bore witness to Butler’s putrid 4-of-13 shooting display in Chicago’s 92-86 win over the depleted Los Angeles Lakers Sunday afternoon, noting:
A quick look at Butler’s last month only amplifies the trend: Since December 31, Butler has reached the 50-percent threshold in just three of his team’s 21 games.
So why the sudden, severe drop-off?
The best explanation is also the most obvious: a nagging toe injury that has already caused Butler to miss 14 of Chicago’s 50 games.
True to head coach Tom Thibodeau’s culture of toughness, Butler has refused to use the setback as an excuse for his spotty play. From CSN Chicago’s Mark Strotman:
I was good enough to play. I didn't play the way I wanted to, obviously. But that's part of the game; you can't play the way you want to every night," he said. "But that's why we have another one on Monday.
In a sport so dependent on having a pair of functioning feet, the impact of Butler’s injury on his overall performance is all too understandable.
At the same time, his drive to fight through the pain highlights one of the principle criticisms of Thibodeau’s tenure: the latter’s willingness to run guys into the ground despite the game—and even championship aspirations—being all but out of reach.
Butler has become a poster child of that very phenomenon: His 36.8 minutes per game rank him 10th in the NBA—ahead of Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and Damian Lillard, and just behind LeBron James, John Wall and LaMarcus Aldridge.
What do those six players—along with a slew of others in that category’s top-20—have in common? They’re all All-Stars playing for teams whose very success depends on them being on the floor as much as possible.
For all his talent and upside, Butler simply doesn’t deserve to be in that conversation—at least not yet.
But nor does he deserve the burden of burn that Thibodeau has foisted upon him.
Indeed, Butler’s ever-increasing usage rate (17.3) has made him an almost accidental offensive focal point on team currently ranked 28th in the league in both efficiency (97.3) and pace (93.1).
After starting just 20 of the team’s 82 games a year ago, Butler has trotted out with the first unit in all 36 of the games in which he’s played so far this season. In so doing, he’s gone from primary second-unit option—against inferior competition—to primary first-unit option.
All of which dovetails toward one overarching question: Is Butler regressing back to the mean, or are his struggles merely a case of too much, too soon for a player still looking to carve out an NBA niche?
At 24 years old, it’s hard to believe that Butler has somehow hit his ceiling. At the same time, he’s old enough to where the leaps left for him to take are bound to become fewer and farther between.
Analysis of Butler’s woes have focused primarily on the offensive end of the floor—and for good reason, given Chicago’s glaring lack of options in that department.
At the same time, once Rose returns and the Bulls are back happy and healthy, Butler’s value might merely re-shift back to where it initially stood: as a prime-time defensive stopper.
From a preseason piece penned by BlogABull’s Ricky O’Donnell back in August:
For all of the development on the offensive end, Butler is even more promising defensively. Butler and Deng give the Bulls the ability to lock down opposing wing players in a way few teams can compete with. Butler's second season saw him earning "Kobe Stopper" nicknames during the regular season and guarding LeBron James competently in the playoffs for almost every minute of every game.
With Luol Deng now officially out of the equation, Butler will eventually have his chance to grow into the defensive force that many envisioned him becoming.
More comforting to Bulls fans would be whether Butler can take his own advice, imparted during an interview with Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley back in September:
Lu told me, 'You're going to have good games, don't get too high on yourself. You're going to have bad games, don't get too low on yourself.'...That's huge because there's games when I come out and I score 20-plus points (and) there's games when I come out and I play terrible. But I think of what Lu says and it's just like, 'It's going to be alright. You got a next game.'
It tends to be the case that All-World point guards get that reputation, in part, by making those around them better. Tragically, the resurrection of Derrick Rose earlier this season was far too brief for Butler to help bear that logic out.
Even if Butler manages to right the statistical ship this season, Chicago’s prospects are such that he’ll have to be content with a mantra with which Bulls fans—and Rose especially—are all too familiar: Wait until next year.