Jimmy Butler, we know, is irreplaceable, the Bulls leading scorer this season at 25.7 points per game, second on the team in assists, third in rebounding, first in steals, even first among the regulars in three-point shooting, the team’s best defender and a league Most Valuable Player candidate.
But with Tuesday’s disappointing home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves after having a 21-point lead, it’s becoming ever so clear that the fate of the team most rests with Dwyane Wade.
Not to say the absence of Butler wouldn’t be critical. It probably would be fatal to the team’s playoff aspirations.
And not to say Wade isn’t having an excellent season. He is, averaging 19.9 points, second to Butler, and second on the team in steals, third in assists and shooting a career high 34 percent on threes. The team effect of Wade’s presence and professionalism cannot be overestimated in its impact on Butler’s development and the internal chemistry. Wade is probably the most promising and successful free agent acquisition in franchise history.
You know a big however is coming after all that. It’s not so much Wade with his ejection against Minnesota faded late—the Bulls have been outscored in the fourth quarter the last nine games with three costly toward victory—it’s more that perhaps the Bulls have had to play Wade too much and changes are ahead.
It’s a delicate issue both given Wade’s pride as a competitor and how much the Bulls need him. Wade’s presence as something of the captain of the reserves has been a given this season. Though Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has had to use more starters with the reserves lately given injuries and inconsistent production off the bench. He’s indicated rotation changes will continue.
After being outscored in 14 straight games, the Bulls reserves had the edge against Minnesota, though the Timberwolves limit bench play. The Bulls reserves played 89 minutes to 47 minutes for Minnesota’s. The Bulls reserves had a 23-9 scoring advantage.
Thursday in Milwaukee, where both Wade and Butler attended college, begins yet another crucial early season stretch for the 13-11 Bulls. The Bulls still are second to Cleveland in the Central Division, but now tied for fifth in the elastic Eastern Conference. They are a half game out of third and a game and a half ahead of 10th place Milwaukee. They could trade places with the Bucks by Friday night with a back to back. Following this series of unusual home losses to losing Western Conference teams like the Lakers and Minnesota, the Bulls now play five straight and 12 of the next 13 games (Christmas Day in San Antonio the lone exception) against Eastern Conference teams with movement in the standings possible. Seven of the next 12 are against Central Division games. And though division means little in the NBA, it is a measure of team strength against prominent rivals like the Bucks, Pacers and Pistons.
There are always numerous areas to point at with a loss or lack of success. Starter Rajon Rondo’s absence Tuesday with a sprained ankle was critical as the Bulls without him fell into more fourth quarter isolation play without enough ball movement. He said after the game he remains day to day and hopes to play in Milwaukee Thursday.
Bench play has been much examined as well as three-point shooting.
Wade’s influence is, obviously, significant.
The Bulls suffered their largest loss of the season, by 25 points in Dallas earlier this month, when he rested for a second game this season. The Bulls won the first one he took off to rest, which was generally agreed to by the Bulls and Wade before the season. Turning 35 years old next month with a history of knee problems, it’s vital for the Bulls to keep Wade healthy toward the playoffs. He played 74 games for Miami last season on a similar schedule and was one of the league’s best players in the playoffs, averaging 21.4 points on 52 percent three-point shooting.
So Hoiberg and Wade have been in constant communication about playing time and days.
Wade has played in the second game of three back to backs this season, averaging his fewest points in those games, 12 points on 28 percent shooting. He sat out two others. Another back to back comes up Friday, and then two the last week of the month. With one day off, he’s averaging 20.8 points and 22.6 on two days off. He falls a bit to 19.5 with three or more days off. Which is hardly a surprise with a veteran player given his circumstances.
The larger issue for the Bulls and Wade has been less the macro effect than the micro effect.
Like against the Wolves on Tuesday, Wade’s production declines after halftime in losses. There always are other factors and simply the vagary of missed shots and lost opportunities with rebounds or turnovers.
Wade had some late lapses getting back in transition against Minnesota, but that was more a team picture against a young, athletic team. The Bulls lead the league in offensive rebounding. It’s quite the feat to also be great at defensive transition, which they pretty much have been, while attacking the offensive boards. So it does suggest a Bulls team that has been working hard.
“We've been pretty solid all year rebounding the ball and getting back,” Hoiberg said after Wednesday practice. “We're one of the few teams in the league that has rebounded the ball well on the offensive glass, done a solid job getting back in transition. Last night we didn't do either and it cost us.”
But perhaps they have been asking Wade, obviously out of necessity, to do too much. He’s proven to be a natural leader on the team and vital for Hoiberg as the messenger in the locker room and on the court. Though he might need to cut back from that seemingly reasonable 31.4 minutes he has been averaging, which is second on the team to Butler. And taking so much responsibility with that second unit.
The impact Wade brings to the game, the respect from officials and opponents, are some of the intangibles that cannot be overstated.
But the second half of losses have proven a concern given Wade’s importance to the team and likely not a coincidence the Bulls haven’t been a fourth quarter finisher the last month. Wade has had big or bigger second halves in the wins over Miami, San Antonio, Cleveland and Philadelphia compared with these losses:
- Minnesota, Dec. 13. First half: Eight points on 3-7 shooting. Second half: Four points on 1-6 shooting.
- Detroit, Dec. 6. First half. 10 points on 3-9 shooting. Second half: nine points on 2-4 shooting.
- Portland, Dec. 5. First half: 23 points on 9-13 shooting. Second half: 11 points on 2-10 shooting.
- Lakers, Nov. 30. First half: 11 points on 5-11 shooting. Second half: Six points on 2-4 shooting.
- Denver, Nov. 22. First half: 12 points on 5-10 shooting. Second half: 10 points on 4-11 shooting.
- Clippers, Nov. 19. First half: 18 points on 6-10 shooting. Second half: 10 points on 3-10 shooting.
- Atlanta, Nov. 9. First half: 17 points on 7-8 shooting. Second half: Eight points on 3-9 shooting.
- Indiana, Nov. 5. Wade’s poorest game this season on his opening second of a back to back with four points overall and 1-9 shooting.
- New York, Nov. 4. First half: 19 points on 7-10 shooting. Second half: 16 points on 5-10 shooting.
Working with Wade has been an evolutionary process for the Bulls as well as for Wade given his 13 years in Miami. Each side has had to learn about one another, how they fit, how best to play and when and how often. The Bulls and Wade both said it would be progressive as the season continued.
It’s almost a third through the season and the Bulls by most accounts are playing better than anticipated. They are on pace for about 45 wins. Their point differential of plus-2.8 is fourth best in the conference. Their road win/home loss differential of plus-2 also is fourth in the conference, suggesting a solid playoff team even with declining offensive statistics. It indicates a professional and hard working team. But it also shows how vital Wade’s presence and performance is to the team’s success, and that adjustments may still be necessary to assure increased efficiency and results.
This continues to be so much about Dwyane Wade.