DEERFIELD, ILL.— Not that the Bulls weren’t already a defensive-oriented team, but with second-year swingman Jimmy Butler proving himself in the recent five-game absence of All-Star Luol Deng, they have become that much more dangerous on that side of the ball.
While Rip Hamilton is the team’s starting shooting guard and Marco Belinelli is the primary backup at the position, Butler offers a new dimension.
Hamilton’s movement off the ball and veteran savvy, as well as Belinelli’s long-range marksmanship — coincidentally, the reserve’s best stretch was as a starter, during Hamilton’s nearly month-long recovery from a torn left plantar fascia in December — are more conventional attributes for a shooting guard, but Butler’s size, athleticism, knack for making plays and most importantly, defensive versatility, give Bulls head coach the option of utilizing a lineup that can be dominant in the way that he desires most.
“It’s the matchups. Some teams play small and quick. Jimmy and [Luol] can guard two, three and four. That gives you flexibility,” he said after Tuesday’s abbreviated afternoon practice at the Berto Center, prior to the Bulls’ trip to Milwaukee, where they face the Bucks on Wednesday’s opener of a six-game road stretch. “Depending on what the game needs, we can go to a lot of different things. We can go offense too. We’re pleased with the way the bench is coming along. We have great versatility.
“[Butler] has the ability to start or come off the bench. In some cases, a guy has a hard time starting or coming off the bench. Jimmy does both very effectively. He also has a very quick motor. Oftentimes he didn’t play a lot in the first half and ends up finishing the game. Whether you put him in early, late or in the middle, he handles everything well. It doesn’t take him long to get going. He gets right in the game and starts moving. I think his toughness is a big aspect. Now that he’s gotten more experience, he’s gotten better and better. I want him to continue to do so. He’s a very important part of the team,” Thibodeau continued.
“From the beginning of the season, we try to get to defensive versatility in every game. From a toughness standpoint and quickness standpoint, it gives you an intensity that sets the tone for what you’re trying to get accomplished defensively. The entire defense is five-man defense in every aspect from defensive transition to low-post defense to catch-and-shoot to pick-and-roll. It’s very hard to guard guys individually in this league. So you need a commitment. It has to be a priority. I think we have a lot of guys who have done that. “
While Butler was drafted as a natural small forward and even played some power forward on the college level at Marquette, his ability to defend smaller players, as well as his blossoming ball-handling skills and outside-shooting ability is intriguing. Instead of being stuck behind Deng, the second-year swingman could emerge as more of an option in the backcourt as time goes on.
“Do I think he can play that? Yes. Is that up to me? No. Jimmy’s playing well. He’s just got to keep doing what he’s doing. That’s really how you get recognized in this league and everything else will take care of itself. But he’s just got to keep playing, keep improving and if eventually, he moves to that spot, he moves to that spot,” said Deng, who’s been a mentor to Butler. “He’s really improving at the right time. He’s getting his opportunity and he’s playing hard. When you play hard, good things will happen. Sometimes in the NBA, it takes a while to figure out your game and I think he’s just scratching the surface of figuring out what he can do out there, and the more he gets used to it, the more consistent he will be.”
Deng tacitly acknowledged that having Butler in the lineup next to him on the wing could make the Bulls an even stronger defensive unit, as a quintet of those two, the underrated Kirk Hinrich at point guard, Joakim Noah at center with Taj Gibson at power forward, even for short stretches, would be potentially dominant.
“We’re very tough. Every guy you just mentioned, I think defense is their first priority. It will take time — getting more reps together, playing more together, just like anything — but I like it. I think everyone is playing well at the right time,” he explained. “I feel like Kirk does so much that we don’t see. Jo is playing great. We know what Taj can do. I’m just getting back from the injury, but I know what I can do and Jimmy’s figuring out what he can do now, and it helps everyone. It makes everyone’s job a lot easier and that way, we can just focus on winning and not so much on what I’ve got to do individually to win the game—and I’m talking about everyone—but when you have guys stepping up like that, everyone’s just got to be solid and consistent with what they do.”
As for Butler, he’s taking the new-found attention that he’s receiving in stride. Staying even-keeled is a bit easier when Thibodeau is in his ear.
“[Thibodeau] mentioned a few things to me to focus in on at the defensive end. My teammates are the ones who are like, ‘Be aggressive on the offensive end.’ It levels out because I knew my role going into that game coming off the bench,” Butler said. “I didn’t know how many minutes I would play but I knew whenever I did have my opportunity, I had to capitalize on it.”
Butler knows that he’s capable of defending opposing shooting guards, but admits that he has a ways to go on the offensive end of the floor. Still, playing alongside Deng, he believes he can play the position at certain junctures for the time being.
“Lu makes everything easier. If there’s a ball screen, everybody can switch on the floor,” he explained. “On the offensive end, he draws so much attention it’s easier for me to get open shots or when I drive, he can space because he can knock down a shot or kick it to him and he can drive and create for somebody else. I guess that’s the perks of having an All-star on your team.”
“I feel comfortable [at shooting guard]. I feel there’s a ton of things I need to work on before the people in this organization make me a shooting guard. I’m working on it every day before and after practices. I have a ways to go,” the Texas native continued. “I feel I can guard a shooting guard at the defensive end. My offensive skill set has to get much better in order for me to be a shooting guard.”
Still, just the fact that it’s an option for the Bulls is a start and with the team playing at a high level, as well as getting healthy, a luxury, too.