You can see it, a tide rising in Chicago that grows with every game as the one thing many felt was improbable now feels more and more likely.
Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.
Or Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, however you choose to describe it.
But no matter how you put it, the Bulls’ backcourt is not only playing well together but efficiently, and the most important thing shouldn’t go unnoticed: They’re complementing each other.
Well, they’ve always complimented each other in public, especially after games, in respectful terms. But now there appears to be more of an appreciation and synergy with one another.
Perhaps it’s mere coincidence the most valuable Bull and most important Bull are playing their most efficient basketball in this successful stretch where many are in agreement about the Bulls being ready to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy.
Perhaps it’s mere coincidence Butler’s two best passing games of his career have taken place since Rose has returned from a three-game absence with a hamstring injury.
Or maybe, just maybe, Rose’s newfound aggressiveness many believed no longer existed in his body or psyche caused Butler to play more of a facilitator — or even vice-versa.
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“He’s explosive. And he’s staying aggressive and attacking the rim,” Butler said of Rose. “When he’s playing like that, he’s making it easy on everybody. When you gotta guard everybody, it makes it easy. Yeah, he made some great shots and great moves.”
While Rose attacks the basket with a careful version of reckless abandon, Butler has been the one finding Doug McDermott for triples or kicking it out to Pau Gasol for open jumpers.
“We’re good, but we can always get better,” Rose said. “I told him to keep shooting, to keep being aggressive because him being aggressive opens it up for everybody else. He continued to do that.”
In other words, they’re performing like a total backcourt, becoming more keenly aware of the team needs in the construct of recognizing who has to do what when the other is in a rhythm.
“Derrick has got his rhythm back,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after Thursday’s win over the Celtics. “It’s good to see Derrick sharing the ball with Butler, and they play off each other and it makes us much better.”
Former Detroit Pistons president Joe Dumars was a member of perhaps the best backcourt in modern NBA history, with himself and Isiah Thomas leading the Pistons to titles in 1989 and 1990, each winning Finals MVP (the only time backcourt mates have won the award in consecutive years).
When Dumars put together a title-winning backcourt as an executive with Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, he wasn’t looking at “point guard” and “shooting guard.”
He looked at skill sets.
“I looked at what each guy could do individually and figured they could play well off each other together,” he once said.
Simple as it sounds, Dumars was drafted in 1985 with the thought of being a perfect complement to Thomas.
The game’s best backcourt these days, Golden State's Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, was put together with a similar thought in mind, as Thompson was drafted in 2011 as an early first-round pick to pair with Curry, who had been in the league for two years.
Ditto for Bradley Beal being drafted as a dead-eye shooter to sit next to John Wall’s window-to-Wall speed and penetration in Washington, D.C.
Any top backcourt this league has to offer was put together on purpose — except for this one.
The Bulls didn’t have the foresight to see what Butler could become when drafting him in 2011 — it just happened that way. And even if John Paxson and Gar Forman could envision this fantasy coming to reality, it was done under the guise that Rose would be a consistent MVP candidate.
So both are working under circumstances nobody could predict, and even the best well-placed situations take time.
It makes for good copy, as the public sentiment appears to be a “Rose vs. Butler” stance. Whether by rumor, grain of truth or flat-out media creation, things look firmly split in two factions: Team Jimmy or Team Derrick, with no room for nuance, common sense or patience.
The urgency of everything surrounding last season made Rose and Butler central figures in a drama-filled 2014-15 season, but either few paid attention to or noticed the uneven nature with everything surrounding the duo.
Once Butler began to emerge as a legit All Star in the first two months, people began wondering or even demanding the two figure it out together, in the midst of all the internal and external issues surrounding the franchise last year.
Rose, having taken basically two full years away from the game, was trying to find his own game with his new reality of dealing with a fragile body. Negotiating his own basketball existence took priority over “figuring it out” with anybody, let alone a burgeoning teammate.
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Butler, the overlooked, under-recruited, overworked workaholic, was dealing with being a far better player than he was the year before, a true focal point for the first time in his basketball career. We’ve long seen and bemoaned as a basketball public how players who’ve had rose petals thrown at their feet their entire careers dealt with professional success, both on and off the court.
And for Butler, it was his first time experiencing all of those emotions at once — with clearly no room for patience from the public and no room for mistakes with so much riding on last spring’s playoff run.
A playoff run, it should be said, that was the only time both Rose and Butler played together for an extended period, with the highest circumstances, the most pressure and biggest microscope.
Of course things aren’t going to flow in the same direction at all times.
But now, things are beginning to mature at their own pace, and the two most talented Bulls are at the center of it.
It’s happened in part because they’ve embraced the new offense implemented by Hoiberg. And much was made about their so-called lack of belief in the offense, but players who don’t need systems to be effective are usually the last on board in embracing radical change.
Now that they are, not only is a mutual respect and admiration growing, but it also seems to be an understanding between the two.
“I think we’re starting to figure out where each other is going to be on the floor,” Butler said. “You kinda don’t even gotta look, you just know where he’s gonna be. A lot of that is on Fred. Putting us in positions where you know you gotta get 'here' when another guy is 'there.'”
And though there are many more tests to be passed, they’ve passed an early critical one with flying colors.