The Bulls can survive without Jimmy Butler, but just barely

The Bulls can survive without Jimmy Butler, but just barely

Jimmy Butler has joined the perpetually revolving crew of Chicago Bull contributors that are working through nasty injuries. Butler, typically a workhorse, left Sunday’s Chicago loss to the Los Angeles Clippers with a sprained left elbow. On Monday, his team learned the full extent of his injury:

A later Bulls press release pegged the ulnar ligament sprain as possibly keeping Butler out for three to six weeks.

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Despite playing the entirety of the 2014-15 season with a badly sprained left thumb, Butler emerged in his fourth season to become an NBA All-Star, a Most Improved Player award front-runner, and even a (regional, but still) Sports Illustrated cover boy. His points per game average has shot up to over 20 a contest, he ranks fifth in the NBA in free throws attempted per game, he rarely turns the ball over, and he’s been good for almost six rebounds a contest. Butler is leading the NBA in minutes per game at 38.9, and appeared no worse for the wear – unlike some of the other Bulls contributors that coach Tom Thibodeau hands endless and needless minutes to.

Due to his new batch of offensive responsibilities, Butler isn’t quite the dominant defender that we saw last year, when the third-year player managed to make the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team. He’s still as good as they come defensively at the swingman spot, however, and the Bulls will badly miss him on both ends of the court.

Of course, because these are the Bulls, they will try to chip away at that “three to six week”-diagnosis:

This is what this organization does, and in repeatedly drafting dogged types like Butler, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah, they’ve aligned themselves with a series of players that don’t mind playing through injury. Gibson himself has been playing through a sprained ligament in his left hand for weeks, but it took a serious ankle sprain to put him on the shelf recently. Noah, meanwhile, underwent what was clearly a serious knee operation in May, 2014 – one that he was clearly still feeling the aftereffects of even in the 2015 calendar year. The Bulls initially reported that Noah underwent a “minor” operation, even though the surgery was set to keep him off the court for eight to 12 weeks.

Chicago’s status in the Central Division was all but assured when the Cleveland Cavaliers got their act together and began the 18-4 run that currently has them just a half-game in back of Chicago. The Bulls have lost two of three since Derrick Rose went down with what could be yet another season-ending knee injury, but as is always the case with the Bulls, it is possible that they can circle the wagons.

A three-week return for Butler could have the All-Star missing 12 games. If Chicago can split those contests, and if the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards continue at their current pace, it is possible that the Bulls will only fall to the fourth seed upon Butler’s hoped-for late-March return. With LeBron and company rampaging as they are, Chicago was always likely to relinquish that spot atop the Central, and the third seed that goes along with it, so the damage might not be all that great.

It is possible that Kirk Hinrich could slide into the starting spot in Butler’s absence, as coach Tom Thibodeau’s security blanket can play both guard spots, but the veteran has missed 16 of 22 attempts from the field in Rose’s absence thus far. Luckily for Bulls fans, second-year swingman Tony Snell had a fantastic February – the youngster came out of Thibodeau’s doghouse to hit 58 percent of his shots on the month, and he hit three three-pointers in the loss to the Clippers on Sunday. He should and likely will start.

Bulls rookie Doug McDermott, whom the team traded two draft picks (one that became standout Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic) to select last June, hasn’t been a part of Thibodeau’s rotation since the first week of November. The Bulls coach has failed to develop or take chances on the shooter out of Creighton, to the source of much consternation from fans and likely the team’s front office.

With Butler’s 39 minutes a contest taken away, Thibodeau will be forced to rely on more than Snell, Hinrich, and veteran Mike Dunleavy to make up for his absence. McDermott will have to play, and he’ll have to contribute as he did earlier in his frustrating season – Doug hit for 16 of his first 30 shots as a pro before Thibodeau took him out of the rotation.

The Bulls haven’t been able to keep their injuries on the same page this season. Joakim Noah has finally rounded into an approximation of his former self, but it took him half of 2014-15 to get there. Derrick Rose was looking like a B-version of his former self in the days prior to his most recent knee injury. Butler started the season with an injured hand and he’ll miss at least a good chunk of the home stretch with the bum elbow. The Bulls were 9-10 with Dunleavy on the bench with an ankle injury, Gibson has been banged up all season, and McDermott missed weeks following a secretive (and possibly career-altering) snipping of his meniscus.

The Bulls can keep their heads above water, especially as Washington continues to fritter away its season. That much is in place.

Butler’s return is worrying, however. It wasn’t the element of surprise that allowed him to develop into a 20-point scorer, but the weight of expectations upon his comeback might be a bit much. He might forget what it took to stay in the moment and build his box score bucket by bucket. His work ethic and ability will be in place once he returns to live action, that’s not the fear in this instance.

It’s the expectation, one that asks him to keep with that uptick in usage and flip the switch toward 20 points instead of 11 per game. Recovering from this injury won’t be a problem for Jimmy Butler. Returning as an All-Star could be, however.

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Kelly Dwyer

is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!