HOUSTON — In the 13 minutes per game he’s played thus far this season, Jimmy Butler has averaged a modest 4.7 points per game, nothing that would suggest that the second-year swingman is capable of dramatically changing the Bulls’ fortunes, for better or worse.
However, the stated objectives that he brings to the court in that scant playing time — defense, energy and when he’s open, taking and making shots — says otherwise.
It would be a stretch to say that Butler is the caliber of reserve that can rescue the Bulls if they dig themselves a hole on a given night, but his athleticism — his high-flying finishes, whether in transition or a follow-up dunk in traffic, have been arguably the most exciting Bulls plays of this Derrick Rose-less season — and commitment to defense are, at minimum, a welcome change of pace.
Still, while the country-music aficionado has managed to carve out a small niche for himself, it appears that for the time being, he’ll have to be content with the action he receives.
“We’ll see how it unfolds. A lot of it is going to be based on matchups,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said about his rotation, before moving on to Butler specifically. “Depending on what the game needs. If it’s energy, then we’ll maybe look that [Butler’s] way, but there’s a lot of things that our bench guys have to do better, too.”
Indeed, it isn’t as if late-first round picks who are nailed to the bench on veteran teams in their rookie seasons-- without the benefit of training camp -- are perfect, nor are they expected to be. But Thibodeau, for every Omer Asik (who the Bulls face for the first time as an opponent Wednesday), a young player who has gradually earned his trust and playing time, there’s a Marco Belinelli, a veteran who struggles out of the gates, but the coach isn’t willing to give up on just yet.
It’s understandable to a point, as the Bulls desperately need outside shooting and Belinelli, even when he’s not making an impact, at least provides a threat to stretch the defense. After the free-agent acquisition’s miserable preseason, he’s actually made 9-of-23 attempts from behind the three-point arc for a 39.1-percent mark — second on the team to fellow backup guard Nate Robinson’s 40-percent shooting from deep, on 12 makes out of 30 shots — and Thibodeau knows that by sticking with him, if not now, then later in the season, keeping Belinelli’s confidence up will pay major dividends.
But while he’s made some progress defensively, more often than not in Belinelli’s nearly 17 minutes a night, the shooting guard still struggles with his matchups and unlike second-unit predecessor Kyle Korver, he doesn’t make up for it with savvy team defense, hustle plays or other intangibles, let alone elite marksmanship. On those evenings, similar to when Thibodeau gives starting power forward Carlos Boozer an earlier hook in favor of the more defensive-minded Taj Gibson, but on a smaller scale, it’s worth giving Butler a shot.
Stuck behind ironman starter Luol Deng, the reigning and current league leader in minutes per game at 40.1 a night — teammate Joakim Noah is fourth, at 38.8 an outing — Butler must wait until Deng plays his typical 18 consecutive minutes at the outset of each game before entering the lineup. Sometimes, such as in last week’s overtime win in Phoenix, where he notched six points and two steals to turn the tide before halftime to begin the “Circus Trip,” he makes an immediate, obvious impact.
On other occasions, whether he simply doesn’t have it going right away or the situation calls for him to more subtly blend in, such as in the Bulls’ most recent loss Sunday in Portland, where he was just part of a unit that played improved defense and attempted an ultimately-failed comeback against the Trail Blazers, Butler’s worth isn’t as clear to the naked eye.
The Lone Star State native, who will play his first professional game in Houston, the NBA city closest to his hometown of Tomball, Tex., Wednesday, was penciled in to be a replacement for Ronnie Brewer — currently a Knicks starter, Brewer either put significant work into his outside-shooting ability or now has the freedom and confidence to showcase it more in New York — and while he has many similarities to one of his mentors, Butler’s lack of experience puts him at a disadvantage.
Given his hard-luck background — Butler’s story has been well-chronicled — and the recent history of success stories from his alma mater, Marquette, perhaps his relative youth should be disregarded because of a track record that reflects upon him favorably. Without discounting the likes of Knicks sharpshooter Steve Novak, journeyman point guard Travis Diener and of course, Chicago native Dwyane Wade, all of whom played collegiately during current Indiana University coach Tom Crean’s tenure, the likes of undrafted rookie-turned-NBA starter Wesley Matthews of the Trail Blazers, Butler’s mentor upon arrival on campus, and rookie Jae Crowder, a second-round pick getting rotation minutes in Dallas, illustrate that with enough talent, the requisite toughness needed to play for Buzz Williams’ program in Milwaukee can translate to, at the least, being a hard-nosed NBA regular.
“Well, he followed me around everywhere I went, so something’s supposed to rub off,” Matthews joked about Butler to CSNChicago.com, adding a playful, competitive and semi-profane jab at his fellow Golden Eagle, before turning serious. “He works hard, he’s talented and he wants to get better. That’s his best thing going for him.
“I think the sky’s the limit for him. With opportunity, he can show that he can play,” continued the Portland swingman, who burned the Bulls for 21 points Sunday and threw in a late-game block on Butler, for good measure. “He can defend. I think he showed that already. He’s got a nice mid-range game. Just with confidence and opportunity, he’ll be all right.”
Hopefully Thibodeau sees it that way because as opposed to 19-year-old rookie Marquis Teague, this was not slated to be a developmental season for Butler, who toiled away at the Berto Center all offseason and excelled at the NBA’s summer league in Las Vegas. For a team that could use energy when upon hitting its ever more-frequent lulls, a dose of athleticism and strong individual defense against some of the game’s elite wing scorers, let alone stealing a minute or two of rest for Deng when things are going well, Butler would seem to be the cure to ensure the Bulls, a .500 squad at the moment, don’t enter an early-season malaise.
Tags: Tom Thibodeau
, Portland Trailblazers
, Houston Rockets
, Chicago Bulls
, Taj Gibson
, carlos boozer
, Wesley Matthews
, Jimmy Butler