three to four weeks with a strained left knee, removing one of the game’s best two-way players from the Bulls lineup for a daunting stretch of somewhere between eight and 12 games.After losing three straight games, five of six and eight of 11, things got even worse for the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday, when the team announced that All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler will miss the next
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The injury also means Butler will miss this weekend’s 2016 NBA All-Star Game in Toronto. The 26-year-old guard was selected by coaches as a reserve for the Eastern Conference squad, marking his second straight All-Star nod, but will now have to bow out of Sunday’s festivities. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Tuesday that Butler’s teammate, Pau Gasol, will take his place on the East squad. The Spaniard finished just 360 votes behind New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony for the East’s final starting frontcourt spot in fan voting, but will now make his sixth All-Star appearance.
Butler suffered the injury during the second quarter of Chicago’s Friday loss to the Denver Nuggets, when he took a hard fall after driving to the basket and being fouled by Nuggets big man Joffrey Lauvergne:
Before he was carted to the back, though, Butler forced his way out of the chair that the training staff had wheeled out for him so he could shoot the free throws he’d earned by taking the hit:
While he’d reportedly remained upbeat after the injury, Butler later said he heard a pop in his left knee, leading Bulls fans to fear the worst. After a magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed a strain and “no significant ligament damage,” though, it seemed possible that the All-Star would return to the court sooner rather than later. Instead, though, he missed the Bulls’ last two games — both losses, including a seven-game-road-trip-ending blowout at the hands of the Charlotte Hornets on Monday — before the team announced he’d need several more weeks away to recover. The Bulls said Tuesday that Butler has begun rehabbing his knee, with the next few weeks aimed at maintaining his conditioning ahead of his anticipated return.
The dour news comes with Chicago in the clutches of a grim stretch, having fallen to seventh place in the Eastern Conference, just one game ahead of the eighth-place Detroit Pistons and 1 1/2 games up on ninth-place Charlotte. Losing Butler — their best offensive creator and premier perimeter defender — becomes even more troubling when you look at the slate the Bulls will face without him: six games against playoff teams and a seventh against an increasingly dangerous Portland Trail Blazers club that’s just a half-game out of the Western bracket.
It’s a daunting stretch for a team that’s already working without center Joakim Noah, who’s out for the season, and forward Nikola Mirotic, who will miss more time than initially expected after experiencing a setback following his emergency appendectomy, and that has continued to struggle to find consistent fire and establish a new identity in its first year under Fred Hoiberg after a half-decade with the hard-charging Tom Thibodeau at the helm. From Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune:
“Fred is a great coach,” [forward Taj] Gibson said. “He has a lot of mental toughness. Even though he may seem quiet, he’s always in here giving us good talks, always giving us praise. He’s always trying to keep us encouraged. Every team goes through a rough stretch. In the ‘Thibs’ days, we went through … a lot of this so we had no choice but to keep rising. It was different personnel back then. We’ve got a totally different group of guys, young guys that are coming from a different club. We just have to try to mold them and try to keep pushing forward.” […]
“It’s a great group of guys — hands down — a great group of kids,” Gibson said. “It’s just a different group from what we had in the past. We had straight defensive guys, hungry dogs. Now we have guys that are almost coming in offensive minded, shoot the three.
“We used to be scrappy. Now we’re trying to mold these guys into getting scrappy. And every game is rough, because we’re still trying to get guys to talk. And you would think talking would be the easiest thing every day. It’s frustrating, but what can you do? Right now, other teams smell blood. We’ve just got to figure out a way to get over it. In this league nobody’s going to feel sorry for you.”
Even those who might be inclined to feel sorry for Hoiberg and company might also take note of what preceded Butler’s injury — not during the first couple of quarters against Denver, but in the days leading up to the contest.
Butler is, for the second straight year, leading the NBA in minutes per game, after finishing second in 2013-14. There are, of course, compelling reasons for that:
… but since this was previously believed to be an issue more related to Thibodeau’s maniacal refusal to concede a single second, even in games that were well-in-hand, that Butler’s monster workload continues under a new coaching regime might mean that it’s time to look at the elements of the Bulls’ braintrust that didn’t change this summer:
Whichever decision-maker bears the brunt of the responsibility for heaping so much on Butler’s shoulders, in the here and now, the Bulls must deal with the fallout and do their best to weather the storm. The recent return to the lineup of veteran swingman Mike Dunleavy Jr. helps, and guard E’Twaun Moore has acquitted himself well on the wing in his recent elevation into the starting lineup, averaging 12.4 points, 2.7 assists and 2.6 rebounds in 33 minutes per game over the past seven outings while shooting 48 percent from 3-point land.
There’s only so much, though, that the Bulls can really replace the all-around production and spark offered by Butler, who has nearly single-handedly won multiple games for Chicago this season, as his ability to create and can tough shots in tight situations has helped bail out an often stagnant attack. If Hoiberg can’t find another answer for those tough spots, and quickly, the 27-24 Bulls could find themselves on the wrong side of .500, and on the outside of the playoff race, before too long.
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