BY DAN McGRATH
For the Sun-Times
At the risk of forfeiting membership in the Marquette Homeys Society, I’m of the belief that if Jimmy Butler is your best player, you’re not an elite NBA team.
And there you have your 2015-16 Bulls. The 27-22 record they lugged out of Denver after their fourth-quarter collapse Friday against the Nuggets seems about right. So much for the ‘‘championship roster’’ idea they floated when they moved from Tom Thibodeau to Fred Hoiberg as coach eight months ago.
The current road trip is the Bulls’ season writ small but clearly. They’ve beaten the unrecognizably bad Lakers and the perennially bad Kings, as they should. They got thumped by the Blake Griffin-less Clippers, lost to the mirror-image Jazz when Gordon Hayward took over as the game was being decided and lost to the Nuggets after Butler was carted off the court with a sprained left knee late in the second quarter.
You might remember Hayward as the only exceptional talent on Butler University’s near-miss NCAA team of 2010. He sports the look of a 1940s movie idol these days, but a 27-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist performance against the Bulls displayed the range of his game. Hayward might approach Butler’s level as an all-around player, but his omission from the Western Conference All-Star team is indicative of his place in the league: really good but not quite great.
Sort of like Butler.
Back up here. I have watched Butler since his Marquette days, and I admire him. Nobody saw the first round of the NBA draft in his future when he showed up as a recruiting afterthought from tiny Tomball, Texas, but he came with a work ethic that exceeded his talent. Butler added something to his game each year and became the go-to guy for a Marquette team that was 71-35 and a two-time qualifier for the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in his three seasons.
Being the 30th pick of the draft guarantees nothing beyond decent money, which is more than ample reward for a surprising number of NBA newcomers. Butler had a deeper hunger and stronger motivations. Opportunities might have been slow in coming, but he responded to Thibodeau’s tough-love coaching by getting better each season while accepting a workload that would cripple an ox.
At 26, he is a two-time NBA All-Star and an Olympic-team aspirant with a five-year,
$95 million contract that doesn’t measure the esteem in which he is held around the league.
And he has maxed out, just short of the elite standard required of an NBA champion.
That’s a harsh judgment of guy with a 53-point game and a 40-point half in the books this season, along with an unsullied reputation for bringing it every night on both ends of the floor.
But does he bring enough to be a true game-changer in the manner of LeBron James or Steph Curry? Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook? Each one of the NBA’s elite-looking teams has one of those guys.
Then there are the Spurs. Maybe Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have aged out of consistent game-changer status, but the Spurs remain an elite team because of the complementary parts they have assembled. Who is the Bulls’ Kawhi Leonard, Taj Gibson? Tony Snell?
Of course, Mike Dunleavy will be back soon. He’s a veteran campaigner with a sure stroke and NBA acumen that’s useful on both ends of the floor. From the anticipation, you might have thought ’60s-vintage Jerry West will be lacing ’em up. Mike Dunleavy isn’t Jerry West.
There is one player on the Bulls who at one time brought them elite, game-changing talent. Derrick Rose was the Rookie of the Year at 20 and the NBA most valuable player at 22, with a future as bright as Cam Newton’s smile. But to watch Rose these days is to recall Mark Prior and lament what might have been. The longing is even more acute in Rose’s case because of a larger sample size.
The injuries that have cost him 218 of the Bulls’ last 360 games aren’t Rose’s fault, any more than the ailments that curtailed a Cubs pitching career after one splendid season were Prior’s. But those injuries have been so frequent and so debilitating that it’s foolish to think we ever will revisit the human dynamo that was Rose more than a handful of times each season.
That leaves Butler as the front man for a supporting cast that’s somewhat short of championship-caliber, despite front-office claims and Thibodeau’s constant insistence that ‘‘we have enough.’’ If Thibs really believed that, it might have been his real problem.