All of this summer’s attention has been on Derrick Rose and the new additions to the Chicago Bulls: Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. But a large part of their success in 2014-15 will depend on the performance of two recently overlooked wingmen. Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell need to come through.
Butler’s offensive production took a deep dip in 2013-14, as the time he spent working tirelessly on his shot last summer seemed for naught. His percentage from beyond the arc dropped from 38 in 2012-13 to 28 this past year. It’s possible that Butler’s defensive intensity has taken enough energy away from his legs to worsen his touch—many have called for coach Tom Thibodeau to not work Butler so hard.
At 38.7 minutes a game, Butler was tied with Carmelo Anthony for most playing time in the league last season. And his defense was terrific over each of those minutes, as he earned All-Defensive second team honors for the year. With an emergence from the lengthy, hard-nosed Snell, however, Butler might be able to take many more minutes on the bench and save some of his energy for a more balanced game.
Butler is likely to start between Rose and Mike Dunleavy Jr. to begin the season, but his job status may depend on how far Snell can progress. A Summer League standout, Snell’s sophomore year as a pro, and his second in Thibodeau’s system, looks to be a coming-out party of sorts.
Snell could surge into a starter’s role by outplaying Butler—just as Butler did in 2012-13, outplaying a limping Richard Hamilton—but, alternately, he could end up starting next to Butler as opposed to in his place. Snell could certainly prove himself more valuable than Dunleavy at the small forward spot (especially as a defender), and he makes sense next to Butler. Thibodeau, alternately, may just move Dunleavy to the bench for more veteran solidity in his second unit. This could also put Snell into the starting spotlight.
Snell is mobile and long enough to challenge elite Eastern Conference wings like LeBron James, Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony physically. While he’s only listed at 6’7”, his wingspan is massive. The question will be whether he’s yet heady enough to keep up with the craft of such players. Defense comes first in Thibodeau’s world, so Snell’s minutes will depend upon his ability to do so. Butler’s Iron Man marks are a testament to that truth.
Rose’s presence will make life much easier for both players, as will Gasol’s. Rose and Gasol's abilities to create for themselves and mis-direct defenses will give Snell and Butler breathing room they haven’t yet seen as Bulls. Open shots and open lanes are forthcoming for both, and nothing more than simple offensive execution (making jump shots and timely cuts and screens) will be asked from either.
There’s little doubt that both players will buy into Thibodeau’s vision, regardless of what role he designates for them. The Bulls’ front office, in tandem with its coach, makes sure only to draft players ready to sacrifice their egos in the name of the team’s goals. Recent comments made by Butler, reported by CSN Chicago’s Mark Strotman, reflect this:
"My role's going to be to help win games, whether it's on offense, on defense, on the bench cheering, whatever it may be. I think that's all of our jobs, all of our role is help bring this city a championship."
Snell and Butler are both soldiers in the Thibodeau mold. They’re sure to stay in tight defensive strings according to their leader’s league-permeating principles. But the Bulls, more than anything, may need something that depends more on touch and finesse than on ceaseless pressing from both: shooting. Whether either can consistently provide high marks from deep is a bit of a mystery until the season starts.
As such, both embody the crux of the Thibodeau-era Bulls. Although scoring is a huge question mark, the defense will always be there, because their coach—in tandem with the indomitable Joakim Noah—will always make sure of it. Grantland’s Zach Lowe had this to say about the team’s “quest for perfection”:
Scary news for the rest of the league: The Bulls are pretty close [to perfection]. Watch film of Chicago’s defense until your eyes bleed/your wife kills you — and I did — and the precision, so close to perfection, is overwhelming and almost beautiful. The Bulls, more than any team I’ve ever seen — including the Duncan-era Spurs and the 2007-08 Celtics, for whom Thibodeau was the defensive coordinator — just do not make mistakes.
The Bulls’ two young perimeter warriors will surely help cement their team’s untouchable status as defenders. But on offense, the Bulls are still just an inside-out team without dependable help in the middle, between Rose and Gasol. Chicago has a hole in the shape of either of these young studs at their best, so if Snell or Butler (or both) can add the less harvestable factor of scoring power into their games in 2014-15, it will help the Bulls reach new heights.