Do Chicago Bulls Need Jimmy Butler's Offense or Defense More?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 15, 2015

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 14: Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls stands on the court during a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 14, 2015 at the United Center in Chicago,Illinois NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
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It's only natural for an NBA player in his mid-20s to undergo a period in which he questions his identity. But for Jimmy Butler, who recently celebrated his 26th birthday in style, the answer could very well determine how much of a threat the Chicago Bulls become in the Eastern Conference. 

When this swingman was leaving Marquette and preparing to overcome the odds in the Association, defense was the cornerstone on which he built his reputation. He was a lockdown stopper with the Golden Eagles, so effective on that end of the floor that his lackluster offensive game was almost irrelevant. 

As a rookie during the 2011-12 campaign, the No. 30 pick averaged just 2.6 points while shooting 40.5 percent from the field. He couldn't connect from the outside, and he generated an equal amount of assists as he did turnovers. 

But Butler has steadily improved throughout his time in the league, and this past year, he used his many talents to become a bona fide superstar on the offensive end while earning a max contract with the Bulls. In 2014-15, he posted 20 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists during his typical outing while connecting on 46.2 percent of his shots from the field, 37.8 percent of his three-point attempts and 83.4 percent of his tries at the charity stripe. 

CHICAGO,IL : Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls drives to the basket against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the United Center During Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 14, 2015 in Chicago,Illinois NOTE TO USER
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Those are sensational numbers. In fact, he was one of just five players in the entire league to top 20 points and three dimes per night with a true shooting percentage of at least 58 percent. The full list?

  1. Jimmy Butler
  2. Stephen Curry
  3. Kevin Durant
  4. James Harden
  5. Kyrie Irving

How's that for impressive company? 

However, things aren't all hunky-dory in the Windy City. As is so often the case for young players still realizing their full potential, the massive amounts of increased offensive responsibility proved detrimental on the other end. Butler, whose reputation on defense always preceded him, struggled to continue asserting himself as a shutdown wing.

You can see the monumental shift in focus quite clearly by looking at offensive and defensive box plus/minus (OBPM and DBPM), which estimate how many points per 100 possessions a player impacts an average team on either side, as compared to a league-average contributor:

The upward trend on offense is fantastic. But the rise in value is severely mitigated by the crumbling of what was previously his calling card, and Butler is perfectly aware of what's happening. 

"I think it starts with me, to tell you the truth,'' the swingman explained to ESPN's Chris Broussard during February, trying to find the reason for his team's middling defensive numbers. "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.''

But as he went on to say, it's tough for him to do so while also functioning as the go-to offensive player. 

"You have to pick and choose your battles and save your energy for both ends of the floor now,'' Butler told Broussard. "I'm not going to lie, I thought it was going to be easier than it is. But to go on one end and produce and then go on the other end and have to stop the best player on the opposing team is not always an easy task.''

That's not going to change anytime soon. Butler will always have to pick which hill he wants to expend his energy scaling, and not every choice is made equal for the Bulls. 

The Case for Offense

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 4:  Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls shoots the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 4, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  NOTE TO
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Considering the Bulls still boast the services of a former MVP at point guard (Derrick Rose) and a five-time All-Star in the frontcourt (Pau Gasol), it might be a bit strange to prop up a player who was previously a defensive specialist as the best offensive option. But such is the case for Butler. 

At this point, making a case for Rose as Chicago's No. 1 scorer is rather difficult. Not only is he coming off myriad injuries, now four seasons removed from his MVP campaign, but there are too many glaring flaws in his game. Turnovers and poor shooting percentages continue to plague him whenever he steps onto the court without multiple days of rest, and those sparse stretches are tough to come by in a busy NBA schedule. 

Even during the Bulls' 2015 playoff run, Rose mixed in inexplicably poor trips up and down the floor with the flashes of his old form. For all the slashing plays he made in crucial situations and the occasional throwback moments, he still finished with a 39.6 field-goal percentage. 

Was Chicago better with him running the show? Certainly. But it was also devoid of any other legitimate options at point guard, and Butler was still just...better.

It's that simple. 

"Butler is a phenomenal foul shooter—anytime he draws a shooting foul, he gets his team 1.67 points per possession. It may not be pretty, but it's definitely effective," Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry wrote during the 2014-15 campaign. "And the good news for Bulls fans is that very few young players get to the line as much or knock down their free throws as much as Butler."

This past season, Butler took 7.5 free-throw attempts per game when the Bulls won. But when his team was on the wrong end of the winning margin, that number shrunk to 6.5.

That discrepancy isn't mere happenstance. 

Chicago was at its best when he was constantly attacking, and that's not going to change under new head coach Fred Hoiberg. In fact, it'll be even more important for him to continue using some energy on the offensive end, making the most of his slashing ability as much as possible in a system that prioritizes off-ball screens and movement along the wings. He needs to be constantly seeking out lanes to the hoop. 

"Jimmy's an attack player," the former Iowa State head coach told reporters after the Bulls hired him. "If you can get him the ball on the run, on the move, and attacking the basket with pace, it's an ideal system for him."

K.C. Johnson @KCJHoop

But I do think what Butler's agent said today is true: Butler is one who has changed into primary scorer so Rose, as PG, must adjust.

The identity of this team has now shifted dramatically. Under Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls were always going to be a grind-it-out squad that focused on defense, but Hoiberg's arrival promises quicker tempos, more points and increased levels of creativity on offense. 

It could be time for Butler to keep shifting right along with it. 

Maintaining an offensive focus won't prevent him from serving as one of the better wing defenders in professional basketball. He's talented enough to continue developing as a two-way player, especially because it'll be easier for him to expend energy on both sides after a year of adjusting to the increased offensive responsibilities.

As the years continue to roll on, it's tougher for Rose to turn back the clock. The same is true of Gasol, whose lumbering and ball-dominant style of offensive basketball makes him more of a novelty item than a go-to option in Hoiberg's offense.

But Butler is a perfect fit.  

The Case for Defense

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 19:  Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls guards LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on January 19, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Jason Miller/Getty Images

For a while now, Butler has believed that he's the leader of this team's defense. At the end of April, he said as much to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times

The numbers say I've scored the ball pretty well this year. I think I get stuck on that at times, to prove I can play on the offensive end instead of doing what got me to this point where I could prove I could play on the offensive end, which is defense.

I really do have to get back to it. I'm not saying it because the cameras are on me right now. I'm saying it because that's what it'll take to win. Somebody has to lead us defensively.

He's right.

Chicago should be an offensively tilted organization during the 2015-16 campaign, but someone still has to set the tone on the defensive end. As talented as Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are at protecting the painted area, it helps when there's a standout wing defender imbuing the rest of the troops with point-preventing energy and confidence. That's doubly true if the Bulls play small, letting Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic spend more time on the floor.

On the flip side, there are offensive weapons galore. Chicago has enough weapons to make the offense-by-committee approach work with flying colors, many of which would be various shades of red.

Even if Butler takes more of a backseat role, he's still going to thrive as a scorer. He's talented enough to produce in the natural flow of the system, coming off plenty of screens and attacking the hoop with his slashing ability while raining in some spot-up jumpers whenever a defense forgets about him.

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 17:  Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls shoots over Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks during the NBA game on January 17, 2015 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Randy Belice/Getty Images

Lest we forget, NBA.com's SportVU data showed that he finished in the 89.9th percentile as a spot-up shooter in 2014-15, giving him the best mark on the entire Bulls roster. Though players who spend possessions in constant motion, using screens and weaves through crowded areas to create space (see: Korver, Kyle), are the exceptions, those who spend more time waiting for feeds generally get to conserve energy for defense. 

Though Butler could be the No. 1 offensive option in Chicago and is a perfect fit for Hoiberg's style, he's talented enough in this role that he can still capably fit it. Instead of taking over and picking that hill to climb, he should instead be willing to defer to the plethora of offensive options while showcasing the true extent of his Defensive Player of the Year-caliber stopping ability. 

Rose, though he won't compete for MVP in 2015-16, can still run the show. Gasol is a tremendous option. Player such as Mirotic, McDermott and Tony Snell are on the rise, while Mike Dunleavy remains one of the Association's deadliest shooters. 

As a result, Butler is most valuable to the Bulls if he takes on the toughest defensive assignment every night and still scores around 15 points per game in efficient fashion. Just because he can get 20 each time he steps onto the floor doesn't mean he needs to. 

It's time for him to remember what got him into the league in the first place. 

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com.

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@fromal09.


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