The Chicago Bulls were already undermanned with Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson injured, and the Bulls got more bad news when an MRI on Jimmy Butler’s injured left elbow revealed that the swingman will be out three-to-six weeks. With an imposing part of the schedule coming up, these injuries are coming at an especially awful time.
Not surprisingly, the Bulls’ offense was already showing cracks in the armor in the immediate aftermath of Rose’s injury. In the three games following the news that Rose had torn his meniscus again, Chicago scored just 97.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Butler missed most of the second half against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday and Pau Gasol has been battling sickness, but that low number is similar to what we’ve seen in the past without Rose.
Now that Rose and Butler are going to miss an extended period of time, things could get really ugly. The Rose injury was bad enough, but Butler has been a better player than Rose this year, and the combined effect of them sitting out is going to put a ton of pressure on the Bulls’ other players.
Butler is the Bulls’ leading scorer this year at 20.2 points per game, and his ability to get points for himself has been huge for the offense. There have been various points this season where Chicago’s best offense was Butler putting his head down and bullying his way to the basket and drawing fouls. The fourth-year man is third in the NBA in free throws made and fourth in free throws attempted.
Butler has also been a dynamo as a pick-and-roll ball handler this season, putting up .915 Points Per Possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology. That’s in the 87th percentile of the NBA, and it’s the play type that Butler has run the most on the year.
Tony Snell will almost certainly take Butler’s spot in the starting lineup, and Snell has shown the ability to be a legitimate NBA player over the last few weeks. After an uneven rookie season and a rough start to this year, the second-year man has exploded over the last few weeks. He averaged 13.6 points in February, and he shot a scorching 58.2 percent overall and 52.2 percent from three. His hot three-point shooting carried into March, as he went 3-of-5 from deep on Sunday.
However, questions remain whether Snell can keep up his excellent play in a significantly larger role. He has shown that he can hit open shots and has shown improvement with his off-the-dribble game, but he hasn’t shown much of an ability to be a playmaker. One aspect of Butler’s improvement has been making plays for others, and Snell will need to show some of that if the Bulls are going to stay afloat.
Chicago will also need Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich to not be terrible, which is what they’ve been lately. (Hinrich has been bad most of the year). Brooks was brilliant off the bench for the first few months of the season, but he averaged only 6.5 points in February and shot just 27.8 percent overall and 26.8 percent from three. The diminutive point guard went 5-of-17 against Los Angeles.
Hinrich has never been an efficient shooter overall, but now he’s not even hitting threes at an acceptable rate and looks like he’s just about done:
Kirk is shooting under 27% from 3 over the last 3 months.
— Jason Patt (@Bulls_Jay) March 1, 2015
The Bulls’ offense often grinds to a halt with Hinrich on the floor, and he has also slipped on the defensive end, although he still has his moments. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau trusts the veteran guard to a fault, and Hinrich is going to have to at least start knocking down those open threes at a better rate.
One has to wonder whether rookie Doug McDermott will actually see some burn. McDermott has been buried on the bench since returning from knee surgery, despite Hinrich’s struggles, and there were times when the Bulls could certainly have used his shooting. Sure, the rookie was awful from three before the injury, but I’d like to think that would improve.
Sadly, there’s still little reason to think McDermott will see significant minutes. E’Twaun Moore has been getting in games ahead of McDermott, and we may just see way more Nikola Mirotic at the 3. More Mirotic isn’t really a bad thing, and the European rookie showed his immense potential against the Clippers, pouring in a career-high 29 points. However, he hasn’t had all that much success playing the 3, and he’s clearly better suited to be a stretch 4.
And of course, guys like Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy will need to step up. Expect to see more Gasol in the post, although running pick-and-pop may be more effective. Noah will continue to play more of that “Point Center” role, initiating the offense from the top of the key. And Dunleavy needs to show a bit more consistency as he tries to round back into form following his own injury.
Thibodeau’s Bulls have had some success when short-handed in recent years, but playing without Rose and Butler over the next month will be quite the test. Four of the next five games come against teams currently in the playoff picture, and the fifth is on the road against an Indiana Pacers squad that has been playing much better of late. Management may add another player to help out (Nate Robinson, anybody?), but it’s hard to imagine somebody making a huge difference.
Chicago holds the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 37-23, but a drop in the standings could easily be in order. And if it happens, it’ll likely be because of an inept offense.