Prior to the 2014-15 season, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose had shared time in the Bulls backcourt for only 273 minutes.
It’s a number that is now exponentially higher, given it totaled 1,062 this season alone by February’s All-Star break. Still, it’s hard to believe, in part because Butler and Rose had been teammates for three years when the season began, but also because of the collective effectiveness on display from Chicago’s point guard and shooting guard through the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs.
Butler led the Bulls in scoring in their 4-2 series win against the Milwaukee Bucks. He averaged 24.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals while shooting 47.6 percent from the field. Rose recorded 34 points and eight assists in Chicago’s Game 3 victory in Milwaukee, and he averaged 19 points, 6.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds in the series. So how did they get to this point?
Butler, a 6-7, 230-pound shooting guard, played sparingly as a rookie and it took time to work his way into the regular rotation. Once he got an opportunity to start as the 2013 postseason approached, he never looked back. This year, he earned NBA All-Star status for the first time and is a strong candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Rose, a 6-3, 210-pound point guard, has dealt with multiple injuries since being named the NBA MVP in 2011. After shaking off the rust earlier this season, he worked his way back to the point of being a consistent presence who leads and makes his team better. Though surgery in late February to repair a medial meniscus tear in his right knee sidelined him for 20 games, he returned for the final handful of regular season contests and has played at a high level in the playoffs.
As Gar Forman and John Paxson, general manager and executive vice president of basketball operations for the Bulls, respectively, both acknowledge, Butler and Rose are being counted on this postseason. Their belief is that after all the trials and tribulations, this duo forms one of the league’s most dangerous backcourts, and it was worth the wait.
* * * * *
When the Bulls opened training camp roughly six months ago, uncertainties surrounded Butler and Rose.
A regular starter for the first time in 2013-14, Butler averaged 13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.9 steals. However, he shot a career-low 39.7 percent from the field.
Rose, meanwhile, returned to the court after his previous season was cut short by his second major knee injury, though this one not as serious as the torn ACL suffered in 2012.
Yet, knowing what they did about these players, both of which have been with the Bulls their entire professional careers, Paxson and Forman were optimistic about what they’d bring to the table in 2014-15.
“We had several unknowns heading into the season but we were also confident in what that pair could become given their work ethic and commitment to the game,” Paxson says. “It didn't take very long for us to see that they were going to be very good together.”
“We were always confident about how they’d fit together quite simply because good players can figure out how to play with other good players,” notes Forman. “They’re both team-first guys and that’s a real positive.”
While the Bulls understood Rose’s progression would be gradual—he improved from roughly 16 points per game in October and November to 20 a night in January as his minutes increased—Butler’s hard work in the offseason paid immediate dividends. In 15 November games, he averaged 21.9 points and shot 49.8 percent from the field.
“It’s difficult to sit out for as long as Derrick did and come back and be exactly where he was before,” Forman says of Rose. “We knew there would be bumps in the road. We just wanted to see improvement from Derrick throughout the year.
“As for Jimmy, no one is more thrilled for him than us,” Forman adds of Butler. “He’s become a terrific two-way player and very worthy of being of being an NBA All-Star. His determination and the work that he put into it has paid off in a big, big way and that’s a real positive for him and our team. His ability to shoulder some of the load, especially in late game situations, has been a plus.”
Whereas Butler was previously known for his defensive prowess, he now boasts an offensive skillset that makes him among the best all-around shooting guards in the league, Forman believes.
“Jimmy usually guards the other team’s leading scorer, so there’s a lot on his plate,” Forman acknowledges. “But he’s proven to be durable. He’s strong and he’s in great shape, so he’s up to that challenge each and every night.”
Paxson echoes Forman’s comments when it comes to Butler’s growth while stressing that among the Bulls’ top concerns this season has been to ensure Rose fits with the team and what it is trying to accomplish.
“Jimmy is a great story of determination and perseverance and his best days are ahead of him,” Paxson says. “It is very difficult for a young player to not play early in their career and keep the right attitude and approach because every player wants to be given the opportunity to show what they can do. Jimmy's attitude was that once he was given the chance he was going to prove his value and he certainly has done that.
“As for Derrick, we need him to play at a high level, but it is mostly about our team,” Paxson explains. “It is one of the great lessons I've learned over the years, having played on three championship teams. You need great players to win, but you also need everyone to play their part and come together. It is about how the pieces fit, how they sacrifice and play together that ultimately determines who becomes a champion.”
As Butler and Rose have demonstrated, they are two pieces that complement each other nicely in Chicago’s backcourt. Both players possess great strength and physicality with the ability to put pressure on the defense in a variety of ways. They both play well in transition and off the pick-and-roll. And, when complemented by another wing capable of knocking down shots from the perimeter – whether it’s Mike Dunleavy, Nikola Mirotic or Tony Snell – it allows Butler and Rose even more room to operate and create.
Those are just a few reasons the Bulls are optimistic about their chances with Butler and Rose on the floor.
“Playoff basketball is always more physical and the intensity is heightened,” states Paxson. “To have two physical guards who can get their own shot and who can get to the free throw line can be extremely valuable. If both remain healthy, we are very optimistic that they will give us a great opportunity to have success.”
“They’ve both been through it now, though not together,” adds Forman. “But like the majority of our core, they’ve gained from various experiences. We have a lot of confidence in our guys and we think with good health, they’ll continue to get better and have a real good rhythm as we compete in the postseason.”
In a season that began with question marks, the regular season and playoffs thus far have provided some answers. In part, that’s included even more confidence in the backcourt of Butler and Rose.
“We knew Jimmy was a very good player and we loved everything he brought to the table out of Marquette,” acknowledges Paxson, “but we didn't envision him playing at this level. He deserves all the credit in the world and we are very proud of him and happy for him.
“We hope to have Jimmy Butler in a Chicago Bulls uniform for his entire career,” Paxson adds. “I think that says it all.
“We are also proud of Derrick and how he has responded to everything,” Paxson continues. “Having played the game myself, I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to be out because of injury for the better part of two years. Derrick continues to find his way and there is no question that we are a much more dangerous team when he gets below the free throw line with the ball in his hands. He is still capable of creating a lot of problems for opposing defenses.
“With Derrick healthy and Jimmy's emergence, we feel we have one of the top backcourts in the league,” Paxson concludes. “They're both still young and that is very encouraging for our future.”