One day, the Chicago Bulls will bask in the glow of a pain-free campaign.
For the time being, though, they have to deal with the harsh reality that their season has been ravaged by injuries.
First, it was Derrick Rose's torn meniscus. Then it was a left elbow sprain for All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler. As things stand, Rose is optimistic that he'll be able to return this season, although he's yet to outline a timetable for return, according to ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell:
On Butler's end, we're now seven days into the projected three- to six-week recovery period originally outlined at the start of March.
“That’s the nature of the league,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said, according to Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin. “No one’s going to feel sorry for us. Just got to go out there and get it done.”
At any rate, the Bulls need reinforcements. Following consecutive victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Washington Wizards sans Rose and Butler, Chicago's dropped three straight with slippage occurring on offense without their two leading scorers.
So this all begs an interesting question: Do the Bulls need Butler or Rose back more?
On the most basic statistical level, Butler resides in a more exclusive arena. He scores at higher rates, rebounds with more ferocity and is more disruptive on defense.
But it would be foolish to think those numbers tell the full story. Rose and Butler are both distinctly different and impactful contributors of the highest caliber, so there's still plenty of evidence worth uncovering that can paint a more vivid picture.
The Case for Derrick Rose
Questionable shot selection be damned, the Bulls miss Rose's ability to open up the offense and create his own shot.
Rose's average shot distance of 14.1 feet in the 2014 season is the longest of his career by more than a foot. That figure has been facilitated by a career-high 5.5 three-point attempts per game—shots he's hitting at a paltry 28.7 percent clip.
But even with that distribution producing discouraging shooting splits, Rose hasn't been a detriment to Chicago's offense. In fact, he's been just the opposite.
With Rose on the floor, Chicago's scoring nearly two points more per 100 possessions. That's the difference between grading out as a top-seven unit and a middle-of-the-pack one.
Even though basic box score stats indicate Rose hasn't been at his best this season as a scorer, he can still be insanely effective when he wants to be.
For instance, Rose ranks in the 90th percentile in isolation scoring, generating the same 1.06 points per possession as James Harden in those instances, according to Synergy Sports data provided to NBA.com.
He just needs to make sure isolation touches don't result in pull-up jumpers. Rose is shooting 34.5 percent on those attempts, which are comprising more than 41 percent of his offense this season. By comparison, isolation looks have accounted for just under 12 percent of his shots.
Basically, Rose is crazy efficient when he wants to be. He can still torment defenses with silly agility and aggressive cuts that lead to mind-bending contortions around the rim, but an uptick in passivity has prevented vintage aggression from ruling the day.
"The reality is the same now for the Bulls as it’s been all year," Highkin wrote. "If Rose is healthy and playing consistently at the level he had started to reach before the All-Star break, the Bulls are the only team capable of challenging the Atlanta Hawks or Cleveland Cavaliers for a trip to the Finals out of the Eastern Conference."
While Chicago's offense has been better on a per-possession basis with Aaron Brooks on the floor, he doesn't strike fear into the hearts of defenses like Rose can.
But it's all conditional. Rose can conceivably flip the switch and carry the Bulls on his back, but it's going to take serious stylistic reversion to help the Bulls challenge for a conference title.
The Case for Jimmy Butler
Butler's not only the Bulls' leading scorer—he's the team's most valuable two-way contributor.
Among shooting guards, only James Harden and Dwyane Wade have higher player efficiency ratings, which is pretty impressive considering Butler's usage rate is the lowest of any top-10 shooting guard and nearly 10 points lower than Rose's. More than seven free-throw attempts and 5.2 drives per game help tremendously in that respect.
Butler also ranks No. 6 overall in win shares, which estimates the number of wins contributed by an individual. The only players with higher totals this season are James Harden, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis and DeAndre Jordan.
And on the Bulls, no one comes close to sniffing Butler in the win shares department—including Rose.
From a personnel standpoint, Butler is theoretically easier to replace. Chicago's comprised solid depth on the wing in the form of Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell, Nikola Mirotic and the seldom-used Doug McDermott. Compared to Brooks and E'Twaun Moore, that's blissful.
However, none of those players can provide a calming sense of security on defense the way Butler does.
Even if his on/off splits aren't indicative of a profound impact, Chicago's defense still operates above league-average rates with his hounding opponents on the wings and in the post.
But Butler knows he can be better.
"I think it starts with me, to tell you the truth," Butler said, according to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard. "I'm supposed to be this prime-time defender and I don't think I've been holding up my end of the bargain lately. So I think whenever I start kicking it up three, four notches on defense and not worry about offense as much, I think it'll all turn around."
Butler was starting to back his words up, too.
In the six games he's appeared in since the All-Star break, Butler's limited opponents to 97.3 points per 100 possessions. To put that number in perspective, Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Draymond Green touts a defensive rating of 95.0.
His name and game may not captivate the same way Rose's do, but the stability Butler provides can't be taken for granted.
Butler not only maximizes his touches in a more efficient manner, but he offers a surefire solution when it comes to shutting down opponents' primary perimeter scorers.
Rose arguably changes the complexion of the offense in more profound ways. However, it takes consistent aggression around the rim for that sentiment to be confirmed.
Butler's not going to pack as much flash into his repertoire, but what Chicago needs right now is steady support on both ends—not the volatility that's progressively come to define Rose's offerings.
Stats current as of March 10 and courtesy of NBA.com unless noted otherwise.