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Jimmy Butler’s Elbow Problem a Bigger Blow to Bulls than Injury to Derrick Rose

Compared to the fan and media reaction to Derrick Rose needing another surgery on his meniscus, Monday’s announcement that Jimmy Butler’s left elbow injury will keep him out 3-to-6 weeks seemed to pale in comparison. I definitely don’t mean to diminish it, or the obvious reaction by fans. It’s an injury that could keep him out until nearly the end of the season, and it’s hard not to get a little worked up when it happens to the Bulls’ most important player. That’s Butler, not Rose.

“Most important player” is somewhat hard to process, given the way we’ve been conditioned to look at the Rose situation over the last few years. The last time we remember seeing Rose fully healthy, he was one of the top players in the game and fresh off winning an MVP. He keeps having to sit, and we keep telling ourselves that when he’s healthy again, the Bulls will be able to field a contender.

While it’s debatable whether he’ll ever be healthy again and what his level of play will be, it’s hard to deny that a healthy Rose makes the Bulls a far more interesting team in the wide open East. Not because he’s Derrick Rose, MVP. Not because he’s a superstar, because this season he hasn’t been. It’s because he’s a dynamic guard with an ability to get to the rim (when he wants to, anyway) that teams have to game-plan around. He allows Aaron Brooks to play against weaker second-stringers and for Kirk Hinrich to play fewer meaningful minutes.

The Bulls could survive the loss of Rose without much problem in the regular season, once they adjusted and fit into new roles. It has happened the past few seasons. However, the loss of Butler is the back-breaker. Even with a healthy Rose, this Bulls team isn’t going anywhere without Jimmy Buckets. Butler has become the heart and soul of the team during a time where Rose and Joakim Noah have struggled to find consistency. While Brooks and Hinrich appear set to fill in for Rose, with E’Twaun Moore able to play point guard if needed, the depth behind Butler is less sturdy. Tony Snell is already playing big minutes frequently, and Tom Thibodeau seems unwilling to give Doug McDermott an extended look.

I found this quote from Thibodeau particularly telling of Butler’s importance to the team, via ESPNChicago.com:

“He’s a star, and he does it on both ends of the floor. He’s just an amazing player. We’ve had him play the point, we’ve had him play the 2, the 3, and tonight he played the 4. And he hasn’t had any opportunity to practice the 4. So he just got out there, he’s smart, he’s tough, he does whatever the team needs, and he found a way to help lead us into coming back and having a shot at the end.”

Thibs is right, too. Butler has been incredibly flexible for the Bulls the last few years, and he has really come into his own this season. While his individual defense has lagged at times, he’s still one of the top two-way players in the league and a clear top five shooting guard. When Rose isn’t on the court, the Bulls look at Butler as the “go-to guy,” and he has flourished in that role.

In the 14 games that Rose has missed to date, Butler has played just under 38 minutes per game, averaging 21.2 points on 45.6 percent shooting. He has put up over seven free throw attempts per game at 82.6 percent, and averaged 6.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.7 steals and only 1.5 turnovers. A lot of this is pretty similar to his overall season stats, but they underscore just how important the swingman is to the Bulls. Add in the fact that he’s often guarding the toughest player on the opposition, and my point is clear: Butler has become the best player on the team.

Rose, on the other hand, has too often been a turnstile on defense. On offense, Rose sometimes plays off the ball like a shooting guard, but rather than cutting to the basket to draw fouls, he opts to play catch-and-shoot at the three-point line. For his career, Rose has put up about 17 percent of his field goal attempts from behind the arc. This season, that number has risen to 32 percent. He’s also hitting on a dreadful 28.7 percent of those shots, his lowest percentage since before his MVP season. Compare that to the 46.5 percent efficiency on his two-point field goal attempts, which is actually relatively close to his career mark of 48.3 percent.

Whether by design or not, Rose’s facilitating role is usually to pass the ball to Noah or Pau Gasol in the high post early in the shot clock. When he does handle the ball, he’s frequently turning it over. He’s averaging 5.4 turnovers per 100 possessions, compared to his career mark of 4.3. Brooks is nearly a whole turnover lower this season at 4.6, and even the blood-pressure-raising Hinrich is considerably better at only 2.3.

Both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler are important players for the Bulls, present and future. It’s good news that it’s Butler’s non-shooting elbow, and I’m among those that are actually more reassured by this meniscus fix on Rose’s knee, as it actually makes it less likely for him to have that injury recur. It’s possible Chicago has both of them fresh and healed for a playoff run. The Bulls need Rose on the floor because of his dynamic play-making abilities and the headaches he can create for opposing coaches.

But they need Butler more.

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