[OK, so this was written before Butler hurt himself in Saturday's game. If anything it underscores the loss it'd be if he's missing some time -yfbb]
Since Derrick Rose has gone out with his newest knee injury, the Bulls have returned to last year's Joakim Noah centric offense. They should fight against that impulse to rely on the familiar, because this year Jimmy Butler has shown he can handle a much bigger role. In fact, even when Rose is back, it would serve the Bulls well to allow Jimmy to handle more and more of the offense.
If you look around at championship teams over the last 10 seasons, it's exceedingly rare that a championship team's best offensive creator is its point guard. The only exceptions might be some of the years the Spurs won titles with Tony Parker really cooking, but those teams relied on the driving and dishing abilities of Manu Ginobili as much or more so than Parker creating individual offense. This reliance on wings and bigs as the dominant offensive forces on championship teams makes a good deal of sense. It is just hard for the smallest guy on the floor to see everything and effect the offense when defenses can key in on them. Chris Paul's struggles in the playoffs, despite consistently being one of the three best players in the league, can partially be traced to this phenomenon. (The other part has just been bad luck.) The advantage wings have as offensive creators is size and the ability to see over the top of the defense in a way that a smaller guard can't see. They are also, typically, harder to trap and double than shorter players. Bigs, on the other hand, have the advantage of playing closer to the basket and, again, size to see the floor.
A lot was made of this problem when the Miami Heat were able to trap and completely lock Derrick Rose down in the closing moments of several crucial Eastern Conference Championship games in 2011. It's a problem that hasn't really changed and the problem is magnified to an even greater degree by Rose's health problems. You're not winning much with a 75-80% version of Rose or, worse, Aaron Brooks running the offense. As much as I love Joakim Noah and his passing from the high post, that's not a successful long-term strategy for the Bulls. Noah does a ton of his damage right now by hitting guys with bounce passes of back-door cuts or lobs off of spin-moves. Noah is tremendous at throwing those passes when teams sag off of him, but as we saw in last year's playoffs, when opposing teams' bigs crowd Noah at the elbow and take away his passing lanes, as Nene did, or when the opposing teams' guards play those passing lanes, Noah's ability to facilitate largely dries up. Relying on Noah to run the offense with Rose out would be a huge wasted opportunity.
I propose the Bulls rely, instead, on Jimmy Butler. I envision Butler in the James Harden role, as a primary offensive creator and ball-handler for the Bulls. Here are the reasons why.
Pick and Roll Creation
Butler is a tremendous pick and roll ball handler, when he's been allowed to do it. Per Synergy's play-type data, Jimmy is producing .93 points per possession as a P&R ball handler, good for roughly 89th percentile in the league. James Harden, by comparison, has produced .94 points per possession just a smidge ahead of Butler. The big difference is that Houston's offense runs through Harden. Harden has finished 378 possessions as a ball-handler in the pick and roll, while Jimmy has only finished 161 possessions in the same way.
(All data in this article current as of February 28, 2015. This does not include Sunday afternoon's game against the Clippers.)
I believe Jimmy can do more of this without much of a drop-off in his efficiency in these spots. The Bulls should definitely give it a try. It can't be worse than Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich, and Joakim Noah trying to handle the job of serving as the offense's primary hub. Jimmy has also been much more efficient out of the pick and roll than Derrick Rose, as Rose has produced only .75 points per possession when finishing pick and rolls as the ball handler. Rose has more than doubled Jimmy's number of pick and roll finishes with the ball at 330 such possessions, despite playing almost 700 fewer minutes. Given Jimmy's obvious ability in these situations, the Bulls' offense would almost certainly be optimized by transferring more of these possessions his way, even when Rose (hopefully) returns.
Similarly, if you compare Jimmy's production just on drives (via SportsVU), he looks like a guy who should be doing much more on offense. Jimmy produces 1.25 team points per drive. Harden is superior, producing 1.34 team points per drive, but there's also the important context of the spacing and pace-pushing emphasized in the Rockets' system over the Bulls'. The difference, again, is volume. Jimmy only has 285 drives on the year, compared to Harden's 608 drives, which is 4th in the entire league.
The Bulls have two elite drivers on the team and one of them, Rose, is on the shelf. It stands to reason that Jimmy should see more time with the ball in his hands in Rose's absence (and even when Derrick returns).
Butler has been extremely ball secure this season, despite his uptick in scoring and overall usage. Per basketball-reference, Jimmy's only turning the ball over on 7.9% of possessions, easily the lowest mark of his career, despite his 21.6% usage rate, well above his previous seasons' rates of 14.9, 14.6, and 16.8 percent. Looking at the SportsVU data, Jimmy is turning it over just 2.6 times per 100 touches, on a total of 3,108 touches. James Harden, on the other hand, turns it over 5.3 times per 100 touches, on 4,365 touches. Derrick Rose has turned it over roughly 4 times per 100 touches on 3,661 total touches. That's another mark in favor of getting Jimmy used to handling more of the offensive role while Derrick is out, and keeping Jimmy as one of the main offensive hubs, in conjunction with Rose, when Rose, hopefully, returns.
It's time for Coach Thibodeau to give Jimmy Butler the keys to the offense. If he did this, and moved Hinrich off the ball, in the Patrick Beverly defensive pest and spot up shooter role, the Bulls would benefit immensely. It'd also help, if you're going to let Jimmy be the main offensive creator to run fewer post ups for the bigs and more pick and pops (where Pau is excellent) and try to get more shooters on the floor to space things out for Jimmy's drives, much the same way that Houston keeps the paint open for the Beard. So, in short #LetJimmyBeHarden.