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Jimmy Butler On Bulls Defensive Woes: “I Think It Starts With Me”

Jimmy Butler finally understands the massive burden star players carry. And even though it’s a difficult one to shoulder, the Chicago Bulls wing insists that he’s going to begin doing just that. Before his team’s 101-90 loss to James Harden and the Houston Rockets last night, Butler took blame for the Bulls’ relative defensive woes and promised to be better going forward.

Butler, who leads Chicago in scoring at a career-best 20.6 points per game, admits that additional offensive responsibility has sapped him of the energy and intensity that helped him develop into one of basketball’s best perimeter defenders. But that’s a trade-off he’s unwilling to accept, and one the 25 year-old says will no longer be necessary due to renewed personal commitment on the defensive side of the ball.

Here’s Butler via ESPN’s Chris Broussard:

“I think it starts with me, to tell you the truth,” Butler said before Wednesday’s 101-90 loss to the Houston Rockets. “I’m supposed to be this prime-time defender and I don’t think I’ve been holding up my end of the bargain lately. So I think whenever I start kicking it up three, four notches on defense and not worry about offense as much, I think it’ll all turn around…”

“You have to pick and choose your battles and save your energy for both ends of the floor now,” said Butler, who leads the NBA at 39.8 minutes per game. “I’m not going to lie, I thought it was going to be easier than it is. But to go on one end and produce and then go on the other end and have to stop the best player on the opposing team is not always an easy task.”

“I have to do it,” he said. “That’s what my team needs me for. So I’m going to do it.”

The outcry concerning the Bulls’ defensive performance deserves proper context. If not for the utter dominance of Tom Thibodeau’s teams in that regard over past seasons, Chicago’s play would barely be noteworthy – its 102.4 defensive rating ranks thirteenth overall.

But the Bulls have allowed points at an alarming clip during their current 5-10 stretch. Chicago’s defensive rating over the past 15 games is 105.8, a mark that would be the league’s 24th-best if extrapolated over the full season. The team is grabbing just 73.7 percent of defensive rebounds in that span, too, a number barely worse than its overall one but considerably lower than its Thibodeau-era norms. The Bulls allow opponents 28.7 shots from the restricted area in 2014-2015, a bottom-six mark, and force a league-worst 12.7 turnovers per 100 possessions.

Chicago’s defensive drop is real. But for Butler to act as if he’s the leading cause of it is nothing more than an honorable example of team-first mentality. That type of attitude is to be expected from a guy that insists he’s nothing more than a role player despite his first All-Star appearance.

Has Butler slipped defensively? Sure. His engagement when opponents have the ball is noticeably amped-up late in games, and the numbers support a decline in his impact – opponents shoot 2.8 percent better than their average while Butler is defending them this season compared to 3.0 percent worse in 2013-2014. His steal percentage is down from last year, and his Defensive Real Plus-Minus rates him as a decidedly below-average defender.

But the Bulls’ decline is far more about team than any individual. Derrick Rose’s effectiveness comes and goes. Pau Gasol is a defensive negative anywhere but the rim. Joakim Noah has been hobbled since the fall and struggled to adjust in his new role defending power forwards. Even Taj Gibson hasn’t been quite his all-court menacing self.

Chicago indeed needs to get better on defense if it wants to re-emerge as a legitimate title contender. It simply doesn’t have the offensive juice – despite Butler’s development – to be merely average on that end and achieve its ultimate goal.

As Noah slowly rounds into form and the Bulls finally get healthy, there’s enough historical precedent to believe they can make defensive strides over the regular season’s final months. And while a re-committed Butler would certainly help those efforts, he won’t make or break them – no matter what he says.

What do you think?

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