The Chicago Bulls opened training camp just over three weeks ago, but the run-up to the first game of the regular season vs. the Miami Heat -- now only two weeks away -- is starting to feel like a closed circuit track. This isn't the same type of anticipation that coated the entirety of last season -- it's of a much healthier variety these days, distinct more by full-blown optimism than the certain type of existential dread that only comes from watching a full season's worth of Nate Robinson pullup jumpers in transition.
If anxiety has rolled over from last season, it's officially made the switch from worried to excited. We've seen Derrick Rose move in the flesh this preseason, and he looks damn close to the world class athlete we remember.
The Bulls are coming, and it's finally close enough to feel. This has all the markings of what could be a special season.
There are plenty of statistically-backed reasons for hope. The last time Rose was even half-healthy (2011-2012), the Bulls finished with the league's best point differential. They had the No. 1 defense and the No. 5 offense. And even beyond the efficiency measures, they finished with the most regular season victories in the league in each of coach Tom Thibodeau's first two seasons in town. Per the preseason broadcast vs. the Pacers, the Bulls have won 78 percent of their games with D. Rose under Thibodeau. That is pretty wild.
Those are some objectively eye-popping stats, the type that make you think the Bulls have reached the baseline for legitimate title contention this year. There's reason to believe this season's team could be Thibodeau's best yet. Mostly, it's because of Jimmy Butler.
Rose and Butler never shared meaningful minutes during Butler's rookie year. To the point, the entire projected starting lineup for this season -- Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Butler, Rose -- has never played a single minute together. While that uncertainty might be frightening for some, the projected fit and talent of that group (particularly when Taj Gibson is subbed in for Boozer late in games) is something worth getting excited about.
This is because if you were build the ideal backcourt mate for Rose, that player would look a lot like Jimmy Butler.
Roster building in the NBA is as much about surrounding your star with complementary talents as it is maximizing the strengths of the rest of the roster. What the Bulls are will always come back to Rose. In Butler, the Bulls would seem to have the perfect backcourt counterpart.
There may very well be some growing pains early this season while the Bulls learn to play with Rose, but that's to be expected. Rose is an extremely unique player. When Rose won MVP in 2011, he finished with a usage rate of 31.1, the second highest mark in the league. Only Kobe Bryant accounted for more of his team's offensive possessions than Rose. Even when he was hampered by injuries throughout the course of the following season, Rose still finished with a 29.9 usage rate. That placed third in the NBA.
The point is that the Bulls are Derrick Rose's team -- when he's playing, he's going to have the ball a lot. That's part of what makes Butler such a seamless fit. Some bemoan the lack of a second isolation scorer in Chicago, but I'd rather have a player who can impact the game without touching the ball next to Rose. That's Jimmy Butler.
Butler finished last season at some incredible statistical plateaus, and he did it with a usage rate of only 14.6. That placed him dead last on the team, behind even Kirk Hinrich and Nazr Mohammed. To put it in perspective, Butler ranked No. 340 out of 427 players league-wide who played more than 100 minutes last season.
Butler isn't a chucker at the two like J.R. Smith or Monta Ellis. He isn't going to shoot the Bulls out of a game, or have an ego problem when it comes to deferring to Rose. Butler's knack comes on baseline cuts, something that makes him a tremendous offensive rebounder and a player who knows how to get to the free throw line. Those are extra possessions and efficient points. It's exactly what you want.
It wouldn't matter as much if opposing teams could cheat off Butler on the perimeter. Just think back to how the Bulls defended the Nets in the first round of the playoffs last season, outwardly daring lesser shooting threats to beat them from outside by rotating Thibodeau's famed strong-side zone defense away from anyone who couldn't hit a jump shot. That won't be a problem with Butler, who shot a remarkable 47.5 percent from three-point range after the All-Star break last season on two attempts per game.
What other attributes would you want next to Rose? Size, for one. The ability to play killer defense against the opposition's best wing. Enough athleticism to keep up with Rose in the open court and finish in transition. Oh, and durability.
Butler checks off that entire list. There was nothing sweeter than seeing Rose on the receiving end of an alley-oop in the open floor during his pre-injury days. It will still probably happen from time-to-time moving forward. But what's really exciting is that Rose isn't the only player capable of finishing above the rim anymore. Rose is going to throw Butler plenty of lobs, and the result will be beautiful. Here's where we link Butler's slam on Chris Bosh just to hammer the point home.
There's a certain sector of the savvy basketball-viewing community that believes Bulls fans are borderline delirious about Butler. It's a criticism that was more fair before Butler's ridiculous second half push, when he essentially bodied any reasonable expectation for his development. What I think gets lost in the gloating and the hyperbole is the role Butler is grabbing. The last time the Bulls were fully healthy and Rose was at the height of his MVP powers, this was a team that started Keith Bogans.
Bogans was a very sound perimeter defender and had the ability to space out defenses by hitting three-pointers. It wasn't like he was Tony Allen out there, who shot just 12 percent from three-point range last season. The problem with Bogans was that he couldn't help the team in any way that extended beyond kick-out threes and defense.
There's one stat that will always stand out with Bogans. When he scored six or more points during the 2010-2011 regular season, the Bulls were 26-2. The Bulls were damn good even when playing four-on-five offensively that season; when they got anything out of the shooting guard spot, they were almost unbeatable.
Rip Hamilton was brought in to be an upgrade at the two the following summer, and we know how that turned out. Butler profiles as the type of player the Bulls always needed. It all comes down to the playoffs, when the most valuable resource might be big, athletic defenders to matchup with the likes of Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Danny Granger, Paul George, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Deng can't do it himself. Now he doesn't have to.