The Bulls and Jimmy Butler can’t wait to get to Friday, and not just for a chance at revenge against the Phoenix Suns, who less than two weeks ago ran out and ran away from a staggering Bulls team near the end of what would be a 2-4 Western Conference road trip. The Bulls recovered with two narrow wins going into the All-Star break, and now wait out the Thursday NBA trade deadline and their future.
The Bulls are 28-29 heading into this sprint to the finish line and hopefully the playoffs, a dash of sorts to destiny for the team.
There’s been much uncertainty this season with trade rumors, team meetings, flexible rotations and questions about the future. That likely will become more focused over these next 25 games.
“I am optimistic,” said Butler, who left for a short vacation following the All-Star game in New Orleans Sunday. “We have a good enough team; now we just have to go out there and show everybody. String together (effort and enthusiasm) every single night; we do it in practice.
It’s likely with the inconsistency plaguing the team much of this season that the team’s direction could be determined in a big way over this stretch. Make the playoffs and make some noise, and perhaps minds and ideas crystalize on moving forward. Perhaps that happens this week, though it seems quiet for now. With the Bulls seventh in the Eastern Conference and a game behind sixth place Indiana and with a 6-1 record against the Cavaliers, Raptors and Celtics, the Bulls are one of those teams you don’t want to necessarily face in the first round.
They have an All-Star starter in Butler, and championship veterans in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. They have veteran interior strength with Robin Lopez and Taj Gibson to make up a duo that’s put the Bulls among the league leaders in rebounding all season. Their half court, three-point shooting deficient game could prove more provocative in the playoffs.
Still, there are questions that should be answered these last 25 games:
--- What will the Bulls see from Wade? The veteran has began to miss more games, lately though with illness, seven this calendar year. He’s on pace now to play fewer than 70 games after playing 74 last season, though he still is averaging about the same 19 points. Last season, Wade built up toward the playoffs and rolled back the clock with brilliant playoff play that nearly carried Miami to the conference finals. Is it still in him?
--- Is Rondo a buyout possibility? It seemed so months ago, but he doesn’t exactly fit the profile of the scoring guard off the bench for a playoff team, and he’s proven valuable for the Bulls reserves. He’s become a top team mentor for the young players and still a player who’ll push the ball. It seems he could be valuable in a playoff series.
--- What happens at power forward? Bobby Portis moved in for Nikola Mirotic before the break with Mirotic having back problems. Portis averaged almost 14 points per game the last three and shot well. He showed three-point range and with his hustle on defense he could move ahead of Mirotic. It seems Cristiano Felicio has solidified his place behind Lopez.
--- Can Doug McDermott bring the road back home? The mercurial shooting forward who could be the late season X-factor with his shooting had a strong close to the run up to the break, averaging about 15 points the last four games and shooting 40 percent on threes. He’s still the team’s best three-point shooter, and he’ll need a big finish to solidify his place. February has been his best scoring and shooting month thus far this season.
--- Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams or Denzel Valentine at point guard? Coach Fred Hoiberg relied on Grant most before the break as a player who can shoot threes to play off Butler and eventually Wade, who tend to control the ball and play more in the mid range. Grant improved his three-point shooting to 44 percent in February with four double figuring scoring games. Valentine has that potential, but seems to be a place behind Grant, playing just five minutes in the win over Boston. Carter-Williams has had offensive highlights, but doesn’t balance Wade and Butler as well at times. He had back to back 20-plus scoring games and then three points and four points, though eight minutes in the latter. He’s only shot 18 percent on threes this month and 21 percent for the season. It seems likely that spot along with Rondo’s play remains a shifting situation based on matchups and who might be going well. No one has truly pulled away from the others.
As currently comprised, the Bulls, who play in Cleveland Saturday on the national ABC-TV game, still have it at their disposal to make something of this season.
And, fair or not, much still falls on Butler, the team’s dominant figure on offense and defense. He says despite what anyone may think, he’s ready to bolt out of the All-Star starting blocks to the finish line.
“I need rest,” he said before leaving New Orleans. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to get any.”
Which Butler says is fine with him. He’s ready. He likes comparisons to Clark Kent, the mild mannered Superman alter ego, whom Butler says he mirrors off the court. The cape is for the game.
“Like Clark Kent,” Butler said with a laugh. “He never sleeps. I watched Smallville. He’s always up.
“Nothing surprises me,” said Butler, “but would I be in disbelief, yeah (about where the team is the way we it started the season combined with the season he is having). It’s here, it’s happening right now, so we have to figure out a way to turn it around to where we can (make a run). What do I have to do better?
“I can always do more,” said Butler. “Always remind people what to do out there, how to guard a guy; not a statistic but that’s part of what I can do. Everybody doing what they are supposed to be doing, whatever is asked to help us win games. You may not like that sometimes. That’s the part of the game you have to have. Coach always says the role players are going to be the ones that really win it; that’s fact."
It’s time to act on everything that’s been repeated for four months.