Why Jimmy Butler Is the Chicago Bulls' Small Forward of the Future

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Why Jimmy Butler Is the Chicago Bulls' Small Forward of the Future
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Jimmy Butler is still a part of the Chicago Bulls' future, he's just not their shooting guard of tomorrow.

Season-long struggles have left some to question whether or not Butler is worth investing in and how much he's worth if he is. Although his play has picked up of late, he's still battling inconsistencies, specifically on the offensive side of things.

At year's end, Butler will be eligible for an extension, and it remains unclear where he and the Bulls will go from there. As a defensive linchpin with an immeasurable work ethic, Butler typifies everything the Bulls look for.

Unlike last year, though, when Butler's stock couldn't be abated, the third-year swingman has given reason for doubt. 

Is his ceiling as high as initially projected?

Yes, just not at shooting guard.

Small forward is where he belongs.

Strength in Numbers

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Moving Butler to small forward indefinitely goes beyond his size. But at 6'7", the size thing is important. 

Shooting guards tend to fall in that 6'5" to 6'6" range. Some are shorter; very few of them are taller. 

In some instances, bigger shooting guards work out, like in the cases of Klay Thompson and DeMar DeRozan. Butler isn't one of those case studies. He's statistically better at small forward.

Last season, his breakout year, Butler logged most of his minutes at small forward, in part because injuries flanked Chicago's roster forcing him to play the 3. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has moved him back to the 2-guard position for most of this season. He's spending 71 percent of his time at shooting guard. And it's not working.

Take a look at how Butler's numbers from this season compare to last year's campaign when he played small forward:

Butler's Positional Regression
2012-13 26.0 8.6 46.7 38.1 4.0 1.0 121 15.2
2012-13 Playoffs 40.8 13.3 43.5 40.5 5.2 1.3 117 14.4
2013-14 37.2 12.9 39.4 26.1 5.0 2.0 106 13.9

Via Basketball-Reference

Butler's stats were markedly better last year—and skyrocketed during the playoffs—while at small forward. At shooting guard this season, he's on pace for a career high in points per game, but it's come on a career-worst field-goal percentage.

The difference in his offensive ratings is quite absurd too. He's 15 points worse per 100 possessions on that end this season compared to last year.

For a Bulls team that struggles to score, that's a decline they can't necessarily afford to cover up in the playoffs. Their offensive rating as a team with Butler spending most of his time at the 3 was almost two points better (100.4) than it is now (98.8), according to NBA.com (subscription required).

Per 82games.com, Butler's effective field-goal percentage has been better each of the last two seasons when at small forward. His player efficiency rating is noticeably lower at small forward this season, though the infrequency with which he plays there does skew the sample size.

Defensively, Butler is also a wash at the two positions. The numbers don't fluctuate significantly, so it's not as if Chicago is losing anything there by using him at the 3.

None of this a knock on one of the brightest swingmen in the NBA, either. Available personnel has contributed to Butler playing where he's playing and how Thibs is using him.

But inevitably shifting him to small forward is what's going to help Butler, the Bulls offense and the team's roster management beyond this season.

Versatile Roster Building

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

If not Butler, who will be Chicago's small forward of the future?

Even if you're not sold on the statistical benefits of moving Butler to the 3, there's no denying he can play there. With Luol Deng gone, the Bulls need an everyday small forward. Mike Dunleavy isn't going to be him and Tony Snell, another oversized shooting guard, doesn't appear to be the solution either.

To that question, some will immediately point at Carmelo Anthony.

CSN Chicago's David Kaplan brought word that the Bulls plan on giving him chase this offseason:

Soon after, ESPN's Chris Broussard reported that Joakim Noah has already started (illegally) recruiting Anthony. So, there you go.

But while that sounds like a solid solution in theory, it's shaky at best.

Gone are the days when Anthony was considered a small forward. He's best suited as a floor-spacing 4 who can knock down three-pointers with ridiculous efficiency and create mismatches off the dribble against more traditional power forwards. 

The last two seasons are widely considered the best individual campaigns of his career, and they've both come with him logging at least 62 percent of his minutes at the 4. Forcing him back to small forward could damage his productivity.

That's assuming the Bulls could even play him at small forward.

In order to create enough cap space to sign Anthony, the Bulls need to amnesty Carlos Boozer. There's also a good chance they would have to dump Taj Gibson as well, unless Anthony is willing to take one of the largest pay cuts in recent memory.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
If the Bulls plan on landing Anthony, Butler would (likely) need to play the 3.

That pay cut could amount to $7 million annually. Or more. If Chicago is serious about pursuing Anthony, then Gibson could find himself on the outskirts of Chicago's future. And if Anthony joins the Bulls, they won't have the manpower necessary to play him at the 3 after all they've been forced to give up. 

Playing Butler at small forward makes that scenario more feasible. More than that, it allows the Bulls to shop elsewhere in free agency.

By simply amnestying Boozer, the Bulls create significant cap space. Parting ways with him, and him alone, doesn't give them the ability to offer a max contract, but they can offer well into eight figures annually.

While they could then make offers to small forwards such as Gordon Hayward or Evan Turner, a guy like Lance Stephenson also comes into play, according to the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley:

If they fail to land a star of the magnitude of Anthony or James, there is a consolation prize. The Bulls would love to nab Lance Stephenson from the Indiana Pacers, move Jimmy Butler to the three and add highly touted Nikola Mirotic after using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer.

Stephenson is an intriguing option because of his playmaking abilities. With Derrick Rose's health constantly in question and his minutes potentially limited, housing a secondary playmaker in the starting lineup could be huge. 

The notoriously stingy Bulls front office is also more likely interested in keeping the team's core intact while adding modestly priced talent instead of breaking up the band for an aging superstar in Anthony.

One of These Futures Is Brighter Than the Other

Kent Smith/Getty Images

No matter what, Butler has a future in Chicago.

"His demeanor is terrific," Thibs said, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson.

The Bulls aren't in the business of cutting ties with Butler types. Energetic two-way talents with limitless work ethics are their pride and joy. 

Which position is Jimmy Butler better off playing?

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Whatever happens, wherever they plan on playing Butler, he's not going anywhere. Not unless they trade him, at least.

"We all believe in him," Thibs opined, per Johnson.

Butler can be a good shooting guard, but he could be a great, better team-serving small forward. So much so that Chicago's faith in him might just surpass its current level of unwavering.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and salary information via ShamSports unless otherwise noted.

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