Bulls

How Jimmy Butler is stepping up in the 'clutch' for Bulls

How Jimmy Butler is stepping up in the 'clutch' for Bulls

There's little debate Jimmy Butler is well on his way to becoming an NBA superstar, if he's not there already. The sixth-year shooting guard is 10th in scoring, will be headed to his third straight All-Star Game in two months, and is one of the league's top two-way players. But there's a part to Butler's game that's been as good as ever over the last month or so that shows he may be taking the next step in his incredible career progression.

Butler was dominant from start to finish on Monday night, pouring in a season-high 52 points on 15 of 24 shooting while adding 12 rebounds and six assists in a crucial win for the Bulls, who came in losers of three straight. Impressive as Butler was on both ends of the floor (three steals and a block) and at the free-throw line (21-for-22) the Bulls, playing without Dwyane Wade, still found themselves in a tight game down the stretch.

That's when Butler came through in the clutch. Literally. The NBA defines "clutch" as plays that occur in the fourth quarter or overtime, with less than 5 minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points. It's not an exact measurement of what truly constitutes a "clutch" player, but it's what they use.

On Monday night Butler, in the "clutch," went 5-for-6 from the field and hit all five free-throw attempts, finishing with 15 points in a little more than four game minutes. The Bulls were +9 in the clutch with Butler on the floor, and +11 after he returned to the game with 6:24 remaining. It'd be too easy to make a declarative statement about how much Butler has improved in these situations with one simple game, especially in one where the hoop probably looked twice its normal size when he shot. Any time a player scores 52 points it's safe to call the performance an outlier.

But this isn't new for Butler.

In his last six games that included "clutch" time - that is, the game was within five points with five minutes or less in the game -Butler, in 28 combined minutes, has scored 40 points on 66 percent shooting (12-for-18), made 16 of 17 free-throws, and committed just two turnovers. Here are Butler's clutch scoring numbers in each of those last seven games, beginning Dec. 10 against the Heat.

Dec. 10, Miami: 10 points, 2-2 FG, 6-7 FT, 5 minutes
Dec. 13, Minnesota: 4 points, 2-4 FG, 5 minutes
Dec. 26, Indiana: 3 points, 0-1 FG, 3-3 FT, 5 minutes
Dec. 28, Brooklyn: 6 points, 2-3 FG, 2-2 FT, 4 minutes (buzzer-beating game-winner)
Dec. 30, at Indiana: 2 points, 1-2 FG, 4 minutes
Jan. 2, Charlotte: 15 points, 5-6 FG, 5-5 FT, 5 minutes

(Note: The Bulls' Dec. 21 game against the Wizards was "clutch" for a single possession when the Bulls cut the deficit to four with 3 minutes left, but a Bradley Beal 3-pointer the next trip down pushed it out of "clutch" range for the remainder of the game, so it wasn't used)

Not surprisingly, Butler leads the Bulls in points, field goal percentage, field goals attempted, and free throws attempted in each of those six games. Butler has attempted 18 shots; the rest of the Bulls have attempted 26 as a team. And only Michael Carter-Williams has attempted a free throw (1, against Charlotte) in any of those six late-game situations. Butler's usage rate in those "clutch" situations is 50.0 (to put that in context, Russell Westbrook's usage rate this season is 42.2). And perhaps most importantly, the Bulls are 4-2 in those games.

It's a stark difference from the beginning of the season, when Butler struggled in these similar spots. Leading up to that Dec. 10 game against the Heat, Butler had appeared in 12 games that fell under the "clutch" category. While he did hit all 15 of his free-throw attempts, he shot just 6-for-24 from the field and his usage rate was 34.2 - an increase from his 27.2 usage rate on the season, but trailing Dwyane Wade for the team lead (27.9) and just 28th among qualified players.

Since Dec. 10, only Russell Westbrook (65.9) and DeMarcus Cousins (51.0) have higher usage rates in the clutch. And among players with a usage rate of 30.0 or higher in that span, Butler is fifth in true shooting percentage (78.5 percent), one spot above LeBron James (75.7 percent).

Last year Butler was solid in the clutch as well, shooting 45.4 percent, the same percentage he shot from the field in non-clutch situations; of players who attempted two or more field goal attempts per clutch game, Butler was third in field-goal percentage, eighth in points (3.6) and 10th in free-throw attempts (1.4). His usage rate in the clutch was 29.7 which trailed Derrick Rose (30.2).

This year there's no question about who the lead dog is down the stretch. Wade, one of the great closers in NBA history in his prime, dubbed the Bulls Butler's team before the year even started, and while Butler is making good on that proclamation in a number of different categories, his clutch play down the stretch is perhaps the most indicative statistic.

After the Bulls' 107-97 loss to the Wizards, Dwyane Wade said the Bulls might be relying too much on Butler down the stretch. But the reality is the Bulls are likely going to have to rely on him in close games, and certainly when Wade sits out.

They are admittedly small sample sizes, but Butler's late surges have propelled the Bulls to victories at a time when they're desperately staying afloat at the bottom of the East playoff picture.

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

The Bulls ‘rebuild’ seems to be just a one-year experiment after the team signed Chicago native Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40-million dollar deal on Saturday. Although on first look Parker’s contract would seem to restrict what they can do in free agency next summer, the reality is that the 2nd year team option gives the Bulls plenty of flexibility with—or without- Parker next year.  

If the Bulls pick up the option on Parker, they will still be able to sign a max free agent next July if they make the right moves between now and July 1, 2019.

The NBA projects the 2019-20 cap will rise to $109 million, up from $101.9 million for the upcoming season. The league bases a ‘max’ salary on years of service. A 10-year vet like Kevin Durant is eligible for more ($38.2 million) than his teammate Klay Thompson ($32.7 million), an 8-year vet. If the Bulls keep Parker, they’ll enter free agency with approximately $15.4 million next summer—far short of the cap space needed for a player like Durant or Thompson, but that number is misleading. The $15.4 million also includes cap holds (salary slots assigned to a player based on several factors including previous year’s salary). The cap hold is designed to prevent teams from completely circumventing the soft cap model the league uses. The cap holds for Bobby Portis ($7.5 million) and Cameron Payne ($9.8 million) are just theoretical if the Bulls don’t sign either to a contract extension before the October 31, 2018 deadline. 

Let’s say the Bulls are in line to sign a star free agent like Thompson; all they would need to do is rescind any qualifying offer to Payne or Portis, and then renounce them as free agents. This would effectively take the cap holds off the Bulls’ cap sheet and give them approximately $32.7 million in cap space. Coincidently (or perhaps it’s no coincidence), that’s the exact salary a 7-9 year free agent like Thompson would command.

In order to create enough space for Durant and his increased ‘max’ slot, they would need to waive and stretch a player like Cristiano Felicio or incentivize a trade involving a player by attaching another asset in the deal, like a future 1st round pick.

If the Bulls decline the team option on Parker, then they will enter free agency with anywhere between $35 million and $53 million. 

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

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USA TODAY

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

"We felt we needed to start getting younger and more athletic..."

It was 2016 when Bulls general manager Gar Forman made this statement, drawing ire from many Bulls fans for what felt like—at the time—a disingenuous statement. A swap of Derrick Rose for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant making you younger and athletic? No one was buying it.

But fast forward to July, 2018, and it is clear that at the very least, Forman has finally made good on his promise. The signing of Jabari Parker has been met with mostly positivity, as a short-term commitment to a former No. 2 overall pick is something that is difficult to hate. But when you factor in the rest of the pieces currently on the roster, it is OK for Bulls fans to be downright giddy over the future.

Lauri Markkanen is 21 years old, Wendell Carter Jr. is 19, Zach LaVine is 23, Jabari Parker is 23 and Kris Dunn is the elder statesmen of the group at 24 years old. If these five become the starting group moving forward, as expected, it would represent one of the youngest starting groups in the league with an average age of 22. 

And athleticism can be checked off the list as well. We know Markkanen has hopsLaVine showed off the explosiveness he was known for last season and Dunn had some dunks last year that legitimately gave fans a Rose flashback

Markkanen and Carter Jr. have both flashed the ability to switch onto guards for a limited amount of time and guard in space, a huge component of any defense that wants to switch a lot. And it also is the type of athleticism that is much more important at their position.

At this stage, Parker represents the biggest question mark athletically speaking. Despite his young age, the two ACL injuries make you wonder if there is any room for him to improve his agility. But at the least, Parker can drive to the basket and finish over the top with authority, even if his defense doesn't catch up.

So, Bulls fans are starting to become intrigued with this roster.

Fred Hoiberg wants his teams to play an up-tempo game, and last season was the first year during Hoiberg's Bulls tenure where the team actually ranked in the top 10 in pace. So if you have followed the Bulls carefully since Thibodeau's departure, you see a front-office that supports their new head coach, yet wasted a couple years to commit fully to his vision, and to a direction for the franchise.

But the point is Forman finally chose a direction.

The Bulls have a young core, and financial flexibility moving forward. And for all the jokes the "GarPax" regime have endured over the years, they have put the team in a position to have sustained success if they hit on all the young players they have acquired. 

And if they are wrong in their assessment of their young talent? 

The Bulls would be able to let Parker go, now that we know the second year of his contract is a team option. LaVine's offensive skill set will allow him to still have trade value years from now, as his contract won't look nearly as bad over time. 

And if the Bulls flurry of moves make the team significantly worse in a year where many expect them to take a step forward, all it would mean is being equipped with a high lottery pick in what is shaping up to be a top-heavy 2019 NBA Draft.

So Gar Forman wanted the team to get younger and more athletic, and though it took longer than it should've, the front-office made good on their promise. That is something that Bulls fans can believe in.