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Jimmy Butler is the Bulls’ best player since Michael Jordan. They must stop wasting him

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This Week in the Bulls is all about the greatness of Jimmy Butler.

Charlotte Hornets v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The best stretch of Jimmy Butler’s career couldn’t be stopped by the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, his own team’s crunched floor spacing or the consistently bizarre rotation choices of his head coach. Instead, the Bulls learned this week the only thing that can truly stop Butler right now is the flu.

A stomach bug rendered Butler useless against the Thunder on Monday, then sidelined him for the next two games as the Bulls slipped to 0-3 this week. Butler’s historic tear might be over, but we can’t let it pass without appreciating it one last time:

  • It looked like Butler would be done for the night against the Nets on Dec. 28 when he crumbled to the floor grabbing his ankle in pain with under five minutes left. But Butler would return, scoring nine points in the final 2:30 of regulation and winning the game on the first true buzzer-beater of his career. He finished with 40 on the night to keep the Bulls from losing to the worst team in the NBA.
  • Five days later, Butler played the game of his life against the Charlotte Hornets. He scored 52 points, with 17 of them coming in the final four minutes to lift the Bulls to victory. It was objectively one of the best performances the NBA has seen in more than 30 years:
  • Butler started off cold against the Cavs the very next game, but came alive when the Bulls needed him. He scored 10 straight points late in the fourth to make the Bulls 2-0 against Cleveland this season.
  • The next game, Butler willed the Bulls back from a 19-point second half deficit against Toronto almost single-handedly. He scored 42 points and iced the win with a nasty step-back three:

ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh detailed Butler’s impact on the Bulls’ bottom line on Thursday, concluding that he’s been worth nine wins by himself this season, the most in the NBA. You don’t need to understand the formula behind RPM wins to agree with the outcome: the Bulls are straight garbage without Butler; with him, they’re beautifully mediocre.

And that’s the problem: instead of using Butler’s rise as a lottery ticket toward real contention, the Bulls have treated it as a bandage for everything else that troubles them. It’s part of an aim-low philosophy that permeates throughout the organization.

This is a franchise that would rather sign recognizable names than hunt for better players, one that touts meaningless accomplishments like making the playoffs in favor of actual progress. If the front office is able to boast about starting a new playoff streak this year, it’s only because Butler dragged a deeply flawed roster there by himself.

The Bulls showed their true colors when they gave away Kyle Korver for $5 million, then traded two top-20 picks to draft a player whose best case scenario is Kyle Korver. They did it again when let E’Twaun Moore’s steady three-and-D skillset go so they could bid against themselves for Rajon Rondo. They consistently do it in signing past-their-prime stars to create a wave of positive publicity that doesn’t necessarily correlate to wins. They’ll even undermine their own hand-picked coach with players that don’t at all fit his system just so long as they can sell a few more tickets and create extra revenue.

Meanwhile, Butler has blossomed into a legitimate top-10 player on one of the most team-friendly contracts in sports. If the Bulls can’t build around Jimmy Butler in his prime when he’s making $17 million per year, how will they do it in his 30s when he’s likely making — get ready for this — $46 million per year on his next deal:

This is the story of the season: the Bulls are old and average, but they’re only good enough to get to the middle because they have a legitimate superstar.

There are five players in the NBA this season averaging 25 points, six rebounds and four assists per game. It’s LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Rusell Westbrook, James Harden and Jimmy Butler. Objectively, Butler is playing having the Bulls’ best individual season right now post-MJ. You know what that means:

Even before you consider defense — both on-ball and matchup versatility — the numbers are pretty similar, and they slightly favor Butler:

Jimmy Butler vs. MVP Derrick Rose

Points per game True shooting percentage PER Rebound rate Assist rate Steal rate Block rate Free throw rate BPM Win shares
Points per game True shooting percentage PER Rebound rate Assist rate Steal rate Block rate Free throw rate BPM Win shares
25 55 23.7 6.4 38.7 1.5 1.3 34.8 5.9 13.1
25 58.7 26 9.8 21.8 2.4 0.6 56.1 6.6 7.2

Keep in mind that win shares stat is cumulative — so Butler’s 7.2 through 40 games means he’ll edge Rose there too if he can stay healthy.

This isn’t to discredit Rose, whose MVP season was my favorite year of being a sports fan. It’s to place into context just how great Butler is right now.

Rose’s best was able to carry the Bulls to the best record in the conference twice and Eastern Conference finals once. Butler has been just as good, maybe even better, and the Bulls will be happy to sneak into the No. 7 seed. How damning is that on the front office?

Perhaps the Bulls have stumbled into a formula by making Butler the primary ball handler and surrounding him with shooters. They should have recognized that from the start. The least they could do is follow that format when constructing the roster next season.

For now, the Bulls are essentially wasting the best post-Michael Jordan season the franchise has seen as they chase a low playoff seed. Jimmy Butler is amazing. If only he could get some help.

This ruled

Also good

I’ve watched this like 25 times, and it’s not enough. Wade just seems like such a cool dude.

D. Rose corrects himself

Maybe my favorite thing all year, so good.

Most fire outfit of 2017

There was an amazing Photoshop of this with Sean Highkin’s face over Wade’s that seems to have disappeared. Please drop it in the comments if you have it.

Miss you, Thibs

Thibs may be gone, but he’s the gift that keeps giving to this column.

Can he start immediately?

The only thing that can save this country now is a JLIII-Nate Robinson ticket. I’m here for it.

PAU

I am so glad it’s safe to like Pau again now.

The Booz News

This has been the Booz News.