The story of the 2012-13 Chicago Bulls was one of frustration, spontaneity and immediacy. It was about the team on the floor's ability to overcome a seemingly endless stream of injuries and adversity vs. a city more preoccupied with the status of Derrick Rose as the point guard chose to sit out the season even after being medically cleared to play for months. It was a holding pattern, mostly, a year deferred, one that ended up being fun and memorable for its own reasons even if the majority of the gains were based in the short-term.
Nate Robinson was a wild ride, Marco Belinelli a value signing, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah as dependably tough and productive as they have been for years now. But if there was one development that has the ability to affect the Bulls' long-term outlook, it was the unrelenting progress of Jimmy Butler.
Butler entered his second season as the de facto replacement for the departed Ronnie Brewer, a relatively minor reserve role most were confident he'd be able to fill but also one with a glass ceiling few saw him eventually smashing. That's exactly what Bulter did in going from a question mark to a core piece over the second half of last season. Now the continued evolution of Butler might be the Bulls' best bet at internal improvement, and subsequently their most realistic hope for being able to take down the Miami Heat (or the Nets, or the Pacers) in a playoff series next season.
The Bulls know what they have in most of their rotation players, at least if you're optimistic enough to assume Rose will be back to his world-beating ways post-injury. But Butler is still a bit of a mystery, a wild card that could have the potential to give the Bulls' exactly what they've been missing since Tom Thibodeau made this team an unassuming juggernaut three years ago.
Butler didn't start receiving extended playing time until January after a hamstring injury to Luol Deng, but from there his integration into Chicago's plans on both ends of the floor was seamless. Butler's first five games as Deng's replacement saw him logging 48, 43, 46, 44, 45 minutes per night, respectively, showing signs of the two-way force he started to become by season's end.
The trend continued as the Bulls made their way into the playoffs, a run distinct by some inspirational play from Robinson and Noah but perhaps best personified by Butler. Butler finished with a complete game -- all 48 minutes -- in five postseason games, the second highest number of all-time, only behind the seven 48-minute games LeBron James played in 2006.
For Butler, it was just one of a number of statistical oddities that helped make his second season the breakout Chicago desperately needed. In fact, when you combine Butler's newfound three-point shooting stroke with his elite ability to finish at the rim and an unparalleled knack for grabbing offensive rebounds, he becomes one of the most unique players in the league. And that's all only at the offensive end.
Let's start with the shooting. Butler was a solid but low volume three-point shooter in college, draining 36 of his 90 attempts his last two seasons at Marquette. He was trigger-shy his rookie year as he barely saw the floor, making only two of the 11 threes he attempted. But by March of last season, Butler was hitting almost a three per game at a 41.9 percent clip. In April, he was taking 2.5 three-pointers per game and making an astounding 56 percent of his attempts.
Those shooting numbers are impressive by themselves, but they become truly rare when paired with Butler's finishing ability. Butler took 45 percent of his shots at the rim last season, and made 63.2 percent of those attempts. That placed Butler in some fine company, making him seventh in the NBA among players with at least 220 attempts from within five feet. Of that group of players, Deron Williams was the only other competent three-point shooter.
Andre Igoudala converted the highest percentage of his attempts at the rim, but only shot 31 percent from three. Dwyane Wade made only 17 threes all season, and Tony Parker only made 24. Kobe Bryant and Lance Stephenson (the group's other surprise entrant) each shot about 33 percent from deep, a middling mark.
Butler, meanwhile, ended the season as a 38.1 percent shooter from three-point territory. Given how he didn't start really coming along until the second half of last season, it seems fair to project him as an even more viable threat from outside this upcoming season.
Then there's Butler's work on the offensive glass. As Butler gained confidence in his outside shot, he became even scarier cutting along the baseline to attack the glass when the Bulls had the ball. When the Bulls snapped the Knicks' 13-game winning streak in April, Butler finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds, with seven boards coming on the offensive end. By the end of the regular season, Butler's 7.3 offensive rebounding percentage was tops in the league for any player designated as a guard, per NBA.com's stats page. Only Tony Allen at 6.7 percent was particularly close.
For all of the development on the offensive end, Butler is even more promising defensively. Butler and Deng give the Bulls the ability to lock down opposing wing players in a way few teams can compete with. Butler's second season saw him earning "Kobe Stopper" nicknames during the regular season and guarding LeBron James competently in the playoffs for almost every minute of every game.
That Butler is scheduled to make just over $2 million next season and $3 million the season after that is a huge boon for Chicago, and shows just how valuable connecting on late round draft picks can be. If Butler continues to progress the way he did in his sophomore season, he could eventually be in-line for an even wealthier contract than the $38 million the Bulls gave Taj Gibson last season. In a world where fellow shooting guard DeMar DeRozan got $40 million, it seems foolish to try to put a cap on Butler's next deal.
But all of that is in the future for the Bulls, and it's a financial worry that only comes if Butler continues to build on everything he showed last season. Shooting guard has been a gaping hole for the Bulls for years, with Keith Bogans providing dreadful offense in 82 starts in 2010-11, and Rip Hamilton being a failed veteran experience the last two seasons. Butler not only offers a sense of stability at the two, but also the chance to develop into something really special.
If the Bulls are going to threaten to reach the NBA Finals next season, Butler's development might be the third most important factor next to staying healthy and the return of Rose. He's not a finished product yet, but he seems like the ideal type of player for what the Bulls are going to see in the playoffs.