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Jimmy Butler Shining in Derrick Rose's Absence for Chicago Bulls

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 18, 2014

Nov 4, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) reacts after the game against the Orlando Magic at the United Center. Chicago Bulls defeat the Orlando Magic 98-90. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

With superstar Derrick Rose shuffling in and out of the lineup, the Chicago Bulls have needed someone to help cover his absences.

Thanks to fourth-year swingman Jimmy Butler, the Bulls have found a remedy for that situation—and a second star for their backcourt.

The Marquette product has helped bring stability to a franchise that logic says should be struggling to find its footing. With no Rose or Pau Gasol, Butler powered the undermanned Bulls to a 105-89 road win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday with 22 points, eight assists, six rebounds and two steals.

"The testament was to Jimmy," Taj Gibson said after the game, per Bulls.com's Sam Smith. "He really took over the game late. We were going to him, iso-ing him. He's become one of those go-to players we are going to. Jimmy's focused, and he's having a big year. The sky is the limit for him."

Butler's mastery on Monday night followed a familiar script. He didn't dominate in any single area of the game, he controlled several of them.

As Chicago Red Eye's Adam Jun noted, Butler wreaked havoc on both sides of the ball:

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It was the latest in a growing line of head-turning performances put forth by the 25-year-old. While the Windy City faithful have marveled at his exploits, so too has the rest of the basketball world.

"He's having an All-Star season," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, per Beth Harris of The Associated Press.

To help hammer that point home, this wasn't even Butler's best performance of the week.

He torched the Toronto Raptors for 21 points on 70 percent shooting, nine rebounds and six assists last Thursday. Two nights later, he shredded the Indiana Pacers for a career-high 32 points while shooting 10-of-17 from the field and corralling six rebounds.

"Although the points are a new high, the production has become the norm for Butler in the early part of this season," ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell wrote Saturday. "Once viewed as a defensive force and offensive liability, Butler's transformation into a threat on both ends continues."

The Bulls have won eight of their first 11 games despite having Rose available for only five. While Butler isn't the only player keeping Chicago afloat—Gasol has had a strong start to his Bulls tenure with 18.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per gameit's hard to argue that anyone has played a bigger role in that success.

Since struggling to see consistent minutes as a rookie in 2011-12, Butler has made dramatic strides in every season since. He's on pace to post new personal bests in points, rebounds, assists and blocks for the third consecutive year.

But this breakout feels different than the others. Those took him from forgettable to solid, then solid to above-average. This season, he seems to be making the incredibly daunting leap from good to great.

Jimmy Butler's Four-Year Climb To the Top
SeasonPTSFG%3PT%REBASTSTLBLK
2011-122.640.518.21.30.30.30.1
2012-138.646.738.14.01.41.00.4
2013-1413.139.728.34.92.61.90.5
2014-1521.350.837.06.23.91.40.7
Basketball-Reference.com

If Butler's 2014-15 numbers don't jump off the page, they should.

There are only three other players currently averaging at least 21 points, six boards, 3.5 assists and one steal: James Harden, LeBron James and Rudy Gay. Last season, only four players cleared those marks: James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Paul George.

Butler has the NBA's 14th-highest scoring average at 21.3 points. Dwyane Wade (20th) and Tony Parker (47th) are the only other perimeter players inside the top 50 with a field-goal percentage of 50-plus.

By any measure, Butler is producing at an elite level, as Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy observed:

And Butler has learned how to be a force regardless of whether Rose is playing or sitting.

In the three games the pair has suited up together, Butler has averaged 18 points on 60 percent shooting, 6.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Without Rose, Butler's numbers are 23, 47.8, 6.2 and 3.5, respectively.

As impressive as his statistics are by themselves, the way he has compiled them is even more striking.

Butler has a 21.3 usage percentage. His previous high was 16.8. That type of added exposure could leave some players in over their heads, yet Butler seems as if he could take on an even larger role.

Despite the added responsibilities, he has never had a higher true shooting percentage (62.5) or a lower turnover percentage (8.9). He's playing more minutes than ever (40.3) and being asked to do more with them, but he isn't settling. He has a higher free-throw rate (.590) than Harden (57.6), thanks to his aggressive attacks of the basket, as seen in the shot chart below (courtesy of NBA.com).

Shot chart captured via NBA.com.

As Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau raved recently, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson, Butler has started to leave his fingerprints on all facets of the game:

He scores a lot of different ways. He's always had the ability to draw fouls, but he's doing a lot of other things now, making plays. The second defender comes, he's hitting the open man. He's getting us easy baskets, runs the floor hard, can post, can drive, hit spot-ups, moves extremely well without the ball, and his defense is good as anyone in the league.

Butler's ability to move without the basketball is a tremendous asset for a team with expert passing bigs like Gasol and Joakim Noah. Butler's vision and willingness to share the rock has made Chicago's deep collection of shooters even more potent. The Bulls have converted 37.6 percent of their threes on the season and 38.5 percent off passes from Butler, per NBA.com's player tracking data.

As the Bulls made abundantly clear over the past two, largely Rose-less seasons, they are not a team defined by one player. That said, it's hard to overstate the impact Butler has made.

With Butler on the floor, Chicago has outscored opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions. That number would be the NBA's third-highest net efficiency rating. Without him, the Bulls have been outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions. Only nine teams have a lower net rating than that.

Oct 16, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) reacts after he shot a last second three-point basket to beat the Atlanta Hawks 85-84 during the second half at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

It feels like a star is being born, and it could not be happening at a better time for Butler.

Because he didn't ink an extension with the Bulls this offseason, he's headed for restricted free agency next summer. Chicago reportedly had a lucrative offer on the table for him—an $11 million annual salary, according to Johnson—but Butler trusted his talents could net him even more.

"It came down to me deciding that I want to bet on myself," Butler told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. "It was about me believing that I put the work in this summer to become a better player with the hope that my improvement will give the Bulls a better chance to win a championship."

As Friedell pointed out, Butler's decision already looks like the best gamble of the offseason:

It's hard to say how much of his production will last once (if?) Rose becomes a more permanent presence in Chicago's lineup. However, the early returns suggest both can play off each other, with Butler helping to ease the scoring and distributing demands that Rose used to shoulder on his own.

If Butler's shooting proves sustainable and Rose can avoid the injury imp, the Bulls could have the league's best backcourt. More importantly, Chicago could have all the ingredients of a championship recipe for the first time since Michael Jordan stopped calling the United Center home in 1998.

After searching for the right backcourt complement and a secondary star for Rose, the Bulls seem to have found both in the soaring star that is Jimmy Butler.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.