The Chicago Bulls’ season may be over, but the storylines keep popping up. Recently, Dan Bernstein of 670 The Score reported that part of the reason the Bulls fell apart in Game 6 against the Cleveland Cavaliers was that there was an inward battle between Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose over which player would be the alpha dog.
I have no intention of getting into whether that inward battle actually happened, because Bernstein is well known for his anti-Rose sentiments and has a history of taking cheap shots at him. To say that we need to take anything written about Rose by Bernstein with a grain of salt would be to put it lightly. Bernstein could find a way to put a negative spin on Rose saving orphans from a burning building.
Kurt Helin of ProBasketballTalk seems to agree with my feelings on the topic, as well. He thinks that someone with an agenda is selling that story and getting it put out there, for whatever reason. But truly, for our purposes, that doesn’t matter.
The reason I referenced the Bernstein column is to bring up an issue that is overlooked in the story; who should be the alpha dog on the court for the Bulls? Is this still Rose’s team, so long as he continues to come back strong from his knee injuries? Or does this team now belong to Butler, with the assumption that the Bulls will be retaining the restricted free-agent?
It’s not as if Jimmy Butler just all-of-the-sudden started shooting a ton more the last few games of the season. Butler raised his scoring from 13 to 20 points per game this year, in part because of better shooting and in part because of more frequent shooting. Butler won the Most Improved Player award, and won his gamble when he turned down a contract extension prior to the season with the intention of getting paid in the off-season.
Butler’s True Shooting percentage went up from 52.2 percent last season to 58.3 percent this year, and his PER (Player Efficiency Rating) went from 13.5 to 21.3, which is a massive jump (15 is average). Over the course of the season, Butler was fairly even on his scoring averages. His highest scoring month was actually November, at 21.9 points per game. He didn’t average lower than 17.5 points in any month, with that number coming in March, when he only played four games.
The Bulls offensive rating as a team went up from 104.9 to 108.9 with Butler on the court this season, which says a lot about his improvement as a scorer. Of course, that doesn’t factor in the amount of time that Butler and Rose shared on the court this year. Often, the Bulls were at their best this season when Rose and Butler were both healthy and playing on the court together.
However, with only one ball available, it’s undeniable that often it was just one of Rose or Butler being able to shine in a given game. During the regular season, the Bulls were 5-2 in games where Rose and Butler both scored 20 points or more. That’s a good record, but it’s hard not to focus on the fact that Rose and Butler only had seven games in which they both scored 20 or more points, especially considering that Rose scored 20 or more 21 times and Butler 34 times.
Here’s where I’m going to go really statistical on you, so please bare with me. In those aforementioned 21 games from Rose, the Bulls went 16-5 (a 62 win pace). In the 34 games from Butler, the Bulls record was 22-12 (a 53 win pace). A lot can go into these wins and losses, including quality of opponent, other players on the court such as Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, and how well the individual player in question shoots.
But the difference in record helps illustrate the point, as I see it. When Derrick Rose is on, it’s hard to beat the Bulls. When Rose shot 41.5 percent or better from the floor, the Bulls were 20-4 this year. When he shot the ball between 16 and 20 times per game, they went 13-4. He often looked rusty, but when he didn’t it was something truly special.
That’s not to say that Butler isn’t a special player as well. In many ways, he’s better than Rose. He’s a better three-point shooter, he’s a better mid-range shooter, he’s better at getting to the free throw line, and he’s a far superior defensive player. In many ways, their strengths and weaknesses are opposite, and that’s why they should work so well together, in theory.
But this team, as currently constructed, goes as Rose goes. If the rumor about Rose passive-aggressively allowing Butler to be “the man” in Game 6 actually was true, it’s a solid example. The Bulls were down by two at the end of the first quarter, with Rose shooting 5-for-8 and Butler 1-for-3. The rest of the game Rose shot just nine times, while Butler was 7-for-19 and the Bulls were outscored 61-42.
As the Bulls inevitably change coaches and reshape their roster to extend their window of contention, the Bulls will have to, in some way, address who really is the lead guard on this team. It’s all fine and good for Butler and Rose to share the ball and be okay to sit back and watch the other guy take over a regular season game. But when the games matter, which guy should be “the man?”
Until Butler can prove differently, it’s Rose.