It was fitting that when asked who on his team deserved to be an All-Star on the brink of Thursday's announcement of the reserves, the first name Tom Thibodeau mentioned was Luol Deng. Bulls fans spent the majority of their energy hyping up Joakim Noah's candidacy this year -- not dissimilar to the public push Deng received last season before getting his first All-Star nod. The reason the fans appreciate Noah is self-evident -- he's come a long way since his rookie season, he gives maximum effort every night, he's the only extroverted personality (save for Nate) in an organization that famously banned its players from wearing headbands.
Deng? He's easy to take for granted. He never bats an eyelash when Thibdeau makes him play seemingly every minute of every night; he had no reservations about putting off surgery on his torn wrist ligaments after the Olympics because he knew the Bulls couldn't afford to be without both him and Derrick Rose. Deng's importance to the league's premier defense is widely recognized, but it's easy to feel like his contributions run deeper than the surface level.
Luol Deng is a highly valuable cog in the engine that is Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls. So what does that say about Jimmy Butler's effort over the last three games as Deng has rested with a right hamstring injury?
Think back to when we were making our preseason predictions on win totals. Nick Friedell said the Bulls would win 50 games, and even former NBA coaches called him crazy for it. The blogfather over here set the low end of the spectrum, if I remember correctly, by guessing closer to 42 wins. I sided with YFBB for one main reason: I didn't know how the Bulls would be able to overcome additional injuries without Rose in the lineup. While many of the Bench Mob's replacements have been underwhelming through the first half of this season, Butler seems like the one guy who has taken a substantial step forward. It makes sense for a 23-year old who had a very unrefined offensive skill set when the Bulls tabbed him with the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Butler had showed flashes of promise earlier this year, but he rarely saw enough minutes to gain any sort of steady footing. It's hard to get into the lineup when the starter at your position leads the league in minutes played. But with Deng gone the last three games, Butler has been given the opportunity to spread his wings a little bit, and he's done just that. Save the 'Shooting Guard of the Future' talk for now, let's just all agree that Jimmy Butler has been pretty good the past three games in Deng's stead. That's something worth getting a little excited about.
There's been two very noticeable things about Butler's three-game stretch. The first is the shear number of minutes he's played. As Dan Devine noted on Twitter, even replacement Dengs play the whole game. There are 48 minutes in a basketball game, and over the last three contests Butler is on the court for an average of 45 of them. That's jarring for a guy who was averaging well under 20 minutes per night.
The other thing that's impossible to ignore when Butler is on the floor: he's a monster on the offensive glass.
Consider: our old friend Tyson Chandler leads the NBA offensive rebounds per game at 4.4. Over the last three games, Butler is averaging four offensive boards. Not bad for a 6-foot-8 small forward.
Because I've recently been blessed with access to the NBA's incredible media stats site, I took it upon myself to rip video of every offensive rebound Butler has secured over the last three games. I'm no pro at this and the video lags a bit, but it's still interesting to see how Butler attacks the offensive glass, I think. Let's go game-by-game:
Grizzlies -- 1/19
Offensive rebounds: Four
Butler was just 2-of-10 from the field until the fourth quarter on Saturday vs. the Grizzlies. He would then proceed to go ham. Check out his fourth quarter stat line:
It's no surprise that the rest of the team would follow suit, as Chicago outscored Memphis 29-16 in that final frame but still fell by three points. That game will mostly be remembered for Thibodeau bizarrely benching Noah in the fourth quarter, but don't forget about Butler's work. That really was the first time he proved he could carry a big burden against a formidable opponent.
Lakers -- 1/21
Offensive rebounds: Three
Say what you will, but that Sports Illustrated cover was spot-on: this Lakers season really has been a blast. For everyone but the Lakers, that is.
If Butler ever goes on to have a substantive NBA career -- we're all optimistic, I think, but it's still too early to say definitively -- this game will be remembered as the first time he really left his mark. His offensive stats weren't jawdropping -- 4-of-10 from the field for 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists. But as he walked off the floor, his teammates shouted "Kobe Stopper!" at him. Word to Ruben Patterson.
Butler's defensive effort vs. Kobe was pretty stellar. Bean finished 7-of-22 from the floor and 0-of-6 from three-point range to end the night with only 16 points. I noted on Twitter that he reminded me of the time Thabo Sefolosha helped hold Kobe to 19 points during his rookie season, but Butler's effort was even more impressive. Thabo only played 20 minutes against Bryant that day, Jimmy logged over 43.
He also did this:
Pistons -- 1/23
Offensive rebounds: Five
18 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 46 minutes of work. He held Tayshaun Prince (R.I.P.) to 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting. No overzelous nicknames, M.J. moments or standout narratives, just Jimmy Butler ballin' out to help the Bulls win the fourth quarter 28-14 to steal a thoroughly ridiculous victory from the Pistons.
Hamstrings are tricky things -- raise your hand if you remember that year seemingly every player on the Bears suffered a hamstring pull in training camp -- and there's no timetable yet for Deng's return. Honestly, take a few days off, Lu. Regular season wins are important, sure, and the Bulls stand a better chance at beating the Warriors on Friday night with their All-Star in the lineup. But: the Bulls already have plenty regular season wins. More than I thought they would! There's no reason to rush Deng back, especially with an injury that can linger.
Which is to say: let Jimmy Butler eat. He's been a joy to watch over these past few games, and there's no reason to go against riding the hot hand while Deng recovers.