Now that the calendar has flipped to 2016 and the Bears' season is in the books, it's time to go all in on the NBA regular season, which is rapidly approaching the halfway point.
Today begins a series of weekly columns focusing on the state of the Bulls and news from around the league. We hope you'll make it part of your sports media consumption throughout the rest of the season.
After Sunday's heroic performance from Jimmy Butler, the Bulls find themselves in second place in the Eastern Conference at 20-12, winning four games in a row and five of their last six.
Butler poured in 40 of his 42 points during the second half of the Bulls' 115-113 win in Toronto, breaking Michael Jordan's record for most points in a half (39) against Milwaukee back in 1989.
The fifth-year guard out of Marquette talked throughout training camp about becoming more of a vocal leader with this team, but what the Bulls need most is a reliable crunch time scorer. Since Derrick Rose suffered his first knee injury during the 2012 playoffs, the Bulls have searched for a player willing to accept the responsibility of taking the tough shots late in regulation and overtime periods while also finding a way to get to the free throw line.
It looks like Butler is now ready and willing to take on that role. He brought the Bulls from behind against Indiana last week, scoring his team's last seven points to force overtime, then scoring the game-winner off a busted play. Then on Sunday, he rallied the Bulls from a 15 point deficit against Toronto, hitting tough shot after tough shot against a defense designed to stop him.
Butler told reporters during training camp he still had another level to take his game after winning Most Improved Player honors last season, and it turns out he was right. Butler is establishing himself as a Top 15 player in the league, one who's worthy of a max contract and the cornerstone for the future as the roster continues to evolve in Fred Hoiberg's system.
Now, the challenge is for Butler and Rose to co-exist as impact offensive players. It's probably not a coincidence that Butler's takeover games came with Rose sidelined because of injury. There's no reason why the Butler-Rose tandem can't be one of the top backcourts in the NBA. It's up to Derrick and Jimmy to play off each other's strengths and give the Bulls two players who can break down defenses with the game on the line.
Rose received a clean medical report from the MRI done on his right knee and hamstring, and could return to action as early as Tuesday's game against Milwaukee.
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
The other big challenge as we start the new year involves front court playing time. When Joakim Noah returns from a shoulder injury, Hoiberg will have five players looking for minutes at the center and power forward positions. Playing Nikola Mirotic at small forward alleviates some of the problem, but Hoiberg will have a tough time finding enough playing time for both Noah and rookie Bobby Portis. Portis has showed more than enough to stay in the rotation, which means once Noah is completely healthy you can count on hearing all kinds of trade rumors leading up to the Feb. 18 deadline.
After an evaluation by team doctors on Monday, the Bulls learned Noah definitely won't need surgery to repair the slight tear in his left shoulder he suffered back on Dec. 21, but his return to game action won't come as soon as Hoiberg hoped last week. Noah will continue to be evaluated on a daily basis.
Around the Association
Speaking of trades, the vultures are circling in Phoenix, where the Suns lost star guard Eric Bledsoe for the season because of a knee injury and high-scoring forward Markieff Morris has landed in coach Jeff Hornacek's doghouse. Hornacek could be fired at any point, but it's tough to blame the coach for all of the Suns' problems. The front office decided to break up the Morris twins last summer and Markieff has been unhappy ever since. Then, the Suns decided to give Tyson Chandler a big free agent contract with the hopes of luring LaMarcus Aldridge to the Valley of the Sun, but that didn't work either. Now, the Suns are getting blown out most nights and it appears to be just a matter of time before the front office tries to trade off some of its mistakes.
Keep an eye on Brooklyn for some possible deals as well. The Nets lost starting point guard Jarrett Jack to a season-ending knee injury over the weekend, leaving them with untested Shane Larkin and Donald Sloan at a critical position. Brooklyn traded away its first round draft picks for 2016 and 2018 in the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce all-in trade with Boston, so you have to wonder what's next for owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Can he lure a big name free agent to Brooklyn, where attendance has dropped off dramatically this season? Would the Nets take on the remaining year and a half of Derrick Rose's contract in a trade for Joe Johnson's expiring deal? The Bulls then could create a max salary slot for this summer to pursue Memphis free agent to be Mike Conley.
Well-respected NBA reporter Sam Amico lists the Bulls as one of several teams who have expressed interest in trying to acquire veteran swingman Kevin Martin from the Timberwolves. The 32-year-old Martin has seen his playing time drop with Minnesota committed to a youth movement featuring wings Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Shabazz Mohammad, but he's averaged almost 18 points a game for his career, shooting nearly 39 percent from 3-point range.
In case you missed it over the weekend, Tim Duncan failed to score a point in a regular season game for the first time in his career. Duncan had the longest streak in NBA history at 1,359 games, three better than Hall of Famer Karl Malone. Duncan's donut leaves Michael Jordan as the only player with 1,000 career games to crack the scoring column in every game.
Warriors' chase for 72
Each week, I'll update my personal odds of the Golden State Warriors matching the 1995-96 Bulls single season record of 72 wins.
Today, I've got it at 45 percent, mostly due to Steph Curry's nagging leg injury. In case you missed it, Curry returned to the Warriors' lineup Saturday after missing two games because of a calf strain, then had to leave at halftime after aggravating the injury. Golden State promptly blew a 24-point lead at home against lowly Denver before re-grouping to win in overtime. If Curry's leg injury becomes a recurring problem, the Warriors' chances of getting to 72 are sunk. Their remaining schedule also is loaded with tough games, including four against San Antonio, three against Oklahoma City, two against the Clippers and road contests against Eastern Conference contenders Cleveland, Chicago, Miami and Atlanta.
Stat of the week
Here's a closer look at Butler's second half outburst against Toronto on Sunday:
2-3 3-pt FGs
4 asts, 2 rebs, 1 blk, 1 stl
Quote of the week
And finally, did you hear what Lakers' guard Jordan Clarkson had to say after unleashing a vicious dunk against the Suns on Sunday?
Here's Clarkson's quote from the post-game locker room, courtesy of Baxter Holmes, "All I remember was Kobe telling me that I've been going to the hole like a light-skinned dude. So, I've got to start doing it like a dark-skinned (dude). So when I seen the lane opened up, that's all I remember."
Who said Kobe wouldn't have an impact on the Lakers' young players in his final season?