When Dwyane Wade signed with the Chicago Bulls after a public but ultimately mysterious fallout with the Miami Heat, there were questions.
Going to Chicago made sense — the Bulls offered a massive deal for Wade to return to his hometown — but the fit with the Bulls was confusing.
The Bulls wanted to go to a pace-and-space system for second-year coach Fred Hoiberg. The front office then went out and signed Rajon Rondo, who can’t shoot, and Dwyane Wade, whose mid-range game was, in theory, everything the Bulls were trying to avoid.
But the big question revolved around Jimmy Butler, the Bulls’ do-it-all All-Star swingman. The Bulls moved Derrick Rose and let Joakim Noah walk earlier in the offseason, making Butler the Bulls’ best player and team leader. It’s a role the gregarious and intelligent Butler had earned, and it symbolized a new era of the Bulls.
Then they signed one of the most affable players in NBA history and a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Wade said all the right things at the beginning of the relationship — “this is Jimmy’s team” — and Rondo had his “Three Alphas” line, but the power struggle, contentious or not, was always going to play out on the court.
Butler has won, emphatically, and the Bulls are a better team for it.
Chicago is absolutely Jimmy Butler’s team now, and while the Bulls’ deficiencies haven’t been eliminated, they have at times been covered by Butler’s play. The Bulls are 9-6 on the season — the fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference — and Butler is a bonafide MVP candidate.
Butler’s coup started after a blowout loss to the Pacers on Nov. 5. After the back end of a back-to-back beatdown, Butler declared that he needed to be more aggressive. He was making his move.
Since then, Butler is averaging 29 points per game on 47 percent shooting. His influence in the offense has increased in obvious ways to onlookers, and the spike in his usage numbers back that up — his overall usage has gone from 22 percent in October to 29 percent in the last nine games and his team point percentage has spiked six percent.
Butler has become a de-facto point guard for the Bulls. The 27-year-old made some waves when he said, repeatedly, that he sees himself as a point guard, but he’s showed off those skills over the last few weeks. He’s right. He’s pretty good at it.
Because of Rondo’s inability to shoot the ball, the Bulls have used Butler — who is taking the 3 more often and is shooting more than 100 percentage points higher than last season — at the point to space the floor. His ability to keep defenders honest on the outside and command double-and-triple teams on the inside has created some spacing in a Bulls offense that is still struggling to find open 3-point shots. Rondo is the transition point guard — that’s where his speed, intelligence, and court-vision can thrive — whereas Butler is more and more frequently the half-court 1. Wade has become the complimentary scorer who can create his own shot off isolation — an important role for a winning team and one that fits him in this latter stage of his career.
Much like in Houston, where James Harden switched from swingman to primary ball handler this year, the benefits of putting the ball in your best offensive player’s hands from the onset of a possession is reaping benefits for the Bulls.
The Bulls are 6-3 since that loss to Indiana — a run that has pulled the team out of an early-season lull and likely established the order of business in Chicago between now and the All-Star Game.
It hinges on Butler — if he can keep this level of play up, the Bulls will be contending for home-court advantage in the playoffs; if he falls off, this team might not be able to piece together a recovery plan.
There is only one alpha in Chicago. The Bulls are absolutely Jimmy Butler’s team now, and they’re better for it.