Behind Butler and Wade, Bulls continue to look for the right formula for success

Jimmy Butler loves Dwyane Wade. And Dwyane Wade has been great for Jimmy Butler. The Marquette guys have become exceptionally close, dining together after most games, hanging out weekends. Last week, Butler joined Wade and his movie star wife, Gabrielle Union, at a prep basketball game on a team day off.

Wade’s presence and influence seem to have helped Butler mature and relax. Teammates say his moods have been much more even and upbeat this season, his involvement with teammates more frequent. Wade regularly credits Butler and several times even has said the team puts too much burden on him, yet Butler responds like a superstar. Butler seems to be trying to emulate Wade’s superlative leadership and professionalism, and it’s helped lead to easily the best season of Butler’s career.

Butler is averaging 25.3 points per game, more than 10 above his career average, along with 6.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists in being regarded alternatively among league MVP candidates and the best two-way players in the game.

So when Butler was asked about Wade being out with a swollen knee after Butler’s 52 points in Monday’s victory over Charlotte, Butler immediately checked his phone for a message from Wade.

But here’s the rub.

It’s not the biggest sample, but Butler generally has had his best games when Wade hasn’t played.

Wade has been vital for the Bulls, unquestionably. He is averaging 18.8 points and been the locker room leader the Bulls missed last season. And, undoubtedly, with Wade out, Butler clearly understood he had to do more.

“The same mindset I always have,” Butler said after Monday’s game about playing without Wade. “Do whatever it takes to try to help this team win. Maybe be a little bit more aggressive, try to get other people shots because that is going to make my job easier.”

Wade has been reliable this season, missing just three games, two to rest and Monday with a swollen knee after the back to back last weekend. Coach Fred Hoiberg Tuesday said Wade is a game time decision Wednesday in Cleveland, though Wade told him the swelling is not unusual for him and he doesn’t consider it serious.

Unfortunately, the Bulls again lost rookie Denzel Valentine to a sprained ankle. It was the same left ankle he sprained early in preseason that cost him several weeks. He then was unable to get back into the rotation. Valentine did Monday with Rajon Rondo’s banishment, hit three three pointers, and went out again with the ankle. Hoiberg said Valentine didn’t travel to Cleveland and doesn’t know how long Valentine will remain sidelined. Valentine was optimistic it won’t be as long.

But Hoiberg also didn’t commit to playing Rondo.

“We’ll see how everything plays out,” Hoiberg said Tuesday. “We’ll cross that bridge when and if that happens.”

Here are Butler’s games with Wade out:

Nov. 20, Lakers: 40 points on 14 of 23 shooting, 12 of 14 free throws with seven rebounds and six assists;

Dec. 3, Mavericks: 26 points on eight of 18 shooting, 10 of 12 free throws with nine rebounds and four assists;

Jan. 2, Hornets: 52 points on 15 of 24 shooting, 21 of 22 free throws with 12 rebounds and six assists.

Butler’s only other game of the season with at least 40 points was last week against Brooklyn. Butler with his first career game winning shot had 40 points on 14 of 29 shooting, 11 of 11 free throws with 11 rebounds and four assists. That was the game Wade came down with a migraine headache and had to leave, playing 22 minutes, one more than his season low, and just nine minutes in the second half.

It could just mean the obvious that when the team’s second leading scorer is out, Butler feels duty bound to take on more offensive responsibility because the only other Bulls player scoring in double figures is Taj Gibson at 11.9 points per game.

The Bulls had unusually nice flow to close Monday’s win, a rare 36 points in the fourth quarter and a season high equaling 118 points with a lineup that mostly included spacing shooters Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott with big guard Michael Carter-Williams to defend along with Gibson.

It was an unusual circumstance with Butler superb and evolving late in the game into a point guard and main scorer. Hoiberg said Butler rested Tuesday following his previous six days of impressive work. Wade also didn’t practice. But the Bulls can hardly expect or ask Butler for those sorts of games regularly, while also defending the top players like LeBron James Wednesday if James decides to play. And the Bulls aren’t about to get great ball movement and pace with Butler in that ball handling role.

But with Butler in that spot with perimeter shooters and a slasher like Carter-Williams, it was a more free flowing, moving Bulls game that Hoiberg often has sought. There were better driving lanes for Butler as well. It was one issue the Bulls faced coming into the season: How would it work with players like Butler, Wade and Rondo, who are best with the ball in their hands making plays?

Butler did pass to McDermott on one back door cut late in the game. Hoiberg said he called several rare postups called for McDermott to get him involved. But mostly there were Butler pick and rolls with Carter-Williams, who obviously is not a pick and pop player, something likely more advisable with McDermott. Perhaps he doesn’t screen well enough. But McDermott in pick and pop would presumably space the floor better for Butler.

“I like to make the right play, the right pass,” says McDermott, who admits he’s at times been too hesitant to shoot. “Sometimes I have to be selfish; that’s what they told me. It puts pressure on the defense and will allow me to get my confidence quicker because sometimes they are glued to and I get a little rushed. Lately, I’ve been trying to take a deep breath and make the right play.”

It shows Hoiberg with personnel and rotation changes still is trying to fit the pieces of a not-so-easy puzzle. Remember, when two brilliant basketball talents and minds in Wade and James got together in Miami they still were around .500 a quarter of the way into the season.

And, remember, this wasn’t the Bulls draft time plan. They didn’t have a point guard on the roster with the Derrick Rose trade. One guaranteed year for Rondo instead of committing themselves to some long term big money deal before establishing a true direction made sense. So then a few weeks into free agency, Wade shockingly becomes available and with Rondo and Butler on board it’s not an easy drawing board.

Rondo is out of the rotation for now. With Jerian Grant getting nine points and six assists Monday and 10 points in last week’s win over Indiana, he’s probably staying at backup point guard for now. Hoiberg also credited the group of five young reserves playing together at times for their ball movement and energy. They were primarily responsible for a 33-point second quarter.

Now it’s on to play the Cavaliers, whom the Bulls defeated a month ago in the United Center 111-105. Rondo had a triple double in that game with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Butler had 26 points and Wade 24. Crucial, though, was the rebounding as the Bulls had a 49-33 margin with 22 second chance points to two for Cleveland.

That’s been the essential formula for Bulls success this season. Mostly it’s been a work in progress, and the building continues. But it still makes for compelling theater.