CHICAGO — The 2015-16 Chicago Bulls are a team full of familiar faces and familiar problems. By record, they’re in good shape, but the last week has shown they’re far from being a title club just yet.
Through all of the struggles and questions about identity, Chicago has had a common denominator to its success—one that emerged last year.
His name is Jimmy Butler.
“Jimmy does take great pride on that [defensive] end of the floor,” coach Fred Hoiberg said this week at practice. “He’s a two-way player. There’s not a lot of those in our league. But he’s always going to try to do his job on the defensive end of the floor. He’s a guy we have to find, especially when he’s got it going.”
With Derrick Rose struggling despite relatively good health and the Bulls’ other rotation mainstays failing to be consistent, Butler has established himself as Chicago’s best, most important player. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he's carrying the load at both ends of the floor and bringing consistent effort on a team where that’s been hard to come by.
Butler emerged last season as a first-time All-Star and the NBA’s Most Improved Player, receiving a max contract extension in the process that was every bit earned. Now, over a month into the season, he’s the only Bulls player who has been worthy of All-Star consideration. He's Chicago’s glue and its most dependable player.
Despite being among the league’s leaders in minutes per game at 37.1 and playing on a bruised heel for the past week, Butler has more or less maintained his production from last season, averaging 20.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and a career-high 38.8 percent from three-point range.
All this is coming while the Bulls have struggled as a group to adapt to Hoiberg’s offensive scheme. By points scored per 100 possessions, the Bulls have the fifth-worst offense in the league, per NBA.com.
And his offensive production has come while being tasked with defending the other team's best perimeter player—Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant. With Butler on the court, the Bulls give up just 97.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
Every Bulls player has shown themselves to be flawed at one end of the floor or the other. Except Butler.
Hoiberg’s offense was supposed to help Rose and Butler complement each other better, and Chicago has continued to play through Rose in an effort to get him going. But as a scorer, Rose has been an abject disaster, continuing to struggle with his shot and completing only 37.1 percent of his attempts in the restricted area.
Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic are still massive liabilities on defense, as is Joakim Noah on offense. With Mike Dunleavy out for the foreseeable future with back trouble, forwards Tony Snell and Doug McDermott have been inconsistent. In the wake of the Bulls dropping two very winnable games at home to the Charlotte Hornets (Dec. 5) and Phoenix Suns (Dec. 7), there’s plenty of blame to go around with this group.
But most of it cannot fall on Butler, who through all the ups and downs has done everything he can to keep Chicago in the conversation among the top of the suddenly competitive Eastern Conference.
If anything, he’s carrying too much of the load himself.
The Bulls are entering a critical stretch of the season, one that features eight home games in December, mostly against competition they should beat. But this team has struggled putting away opponents that are, on paper, inferior—much like it did last season.
At 11-7, the Bulls have a good enough record to paper over some of their flaws. But so far, this team looks to be much the same as it was last year: a solid regular-season outfit whose ceiling is a first- or second-round out in the playoffs.
“I think you either got it or you don’t,” Butler said after the Bulls’ 103-101 Monday night loss to the Suns, which involved giving up 42 points in the fourth quarter and blowing a 16-point lead over the final 12 minutes. “Right now, we don’t have it."
The only thing that's championship-caliber about the Bulls has been Butler’s play. There’s plenty of time for Chicago to solve its other problems, but at this juncture, it's a team being held together by one player.