Category Archives: Player Profiles

The lowdown on some of the best and most interesting players league-wide.

Don’t Write Off Derrick Rose

There are generally two camps when it comes to Derrick Rose: those who tear him down at any chance and want him gone, and those who still hope he will rise like a phoenix from the ashes into his former MVP self. The latter is poetic, though wholly unrealistic. And the former confuses negativity for pragmatic truth. Let’s not fool ourselves: the Chicago Bulls need Rose’s athleticism, scoring, ball handling, and play-making abilities in clutch situations if they want any chance at a postseason run in the next couple years. But they also need him to be smart and efficient, something he was unable to do when the season began.

At the outset, Derrick struggled with bad luck and bad health once again, facing an orbital contusion that would have him playing with a mask to start the season. He did not play well, to put it simply. In November, he averaged 13.3 PPG on 35.3 FG%. In December, 15.3 PPG on 41.4 FG%. He was at the bottom of the list in key statistical efficiency categories for starting guards; in November, he had a PIE of 8.9, ranking 30th out of 40 players with at least 10 games played of 30 MPG. Early in the season, no player besides perhaps Kobe Bryant was using such a staggering amount of possessions at such inefficient levels.

But month by month, he has improved, and quite considerably. In January: 17.6 PPG on 47.1 FG%; February: 21.9 PPG on 43.9 FG%; and now so far in March: 17.9 PPG on 49.2 FG%. The Bulls have been injured more than ever of late, so Rose has taken a step up when defenses are even more able to key in on him.

This kind of production can be deceiving if his effectiveness is low, but his impact performance over the last two months has upgraded too: February and March finds Derrick with a PIE of 13.1, ranking 11th out of 51 qualifying players*. That places him among Kyrie Irving, Goran Dragic, Jeff Teague, DeMar DeRozan, Kemba Walker, and Isaiah Thomas. Much better.

This trend is no fluke – Derrick has changed part of his game to reduce the frequency of high impact collisions at the rim by developing what has become a reliable mid-range bank shot. Normally, we might scoff at this shot type as being one of the least efficient in the game, but Rose has become so consistent at hitting these that it feels like nearly a sure thing and is a nice component to the Bulls’ offense.

On average, he’s hit a remarkable 62% of shots classified as a jump bank shot or pull up bank shot. His other deadly mid-range threats add to the texture of his offensive weapons: floating jumpers (48%), pull-up jumpers (49%), and step-backs (52%). Over 20% of Derrick’s shots this year have come from these mid-range types – just enough to keep the defense honest. It has become such a reliable threat that teams have adjusted to play up on him when he gets below the free throw line, which has allowed him to use his speed and athleticism to drive for a layup, of which he’s converted 62% since the new year.

That said, one concerning area is that Rose’s Usage Rate is still sky-high; ranking sixth at 29.6%*, but only boasting an eFG% that is in the upper half of players at 40.0%. Still, Rose’s trainwreck start of the season remains a big factor in his season-long statistics. Further, in clutch situations (defined by NBA.com as ahead or behind by five or fewer points with less than five minutes to play), Derrick’s PIE jumps to 18.2, good for ninth out of 43 players who have played in five or more clutch game situations in February and March, yet another encouraging sign.

*Among players with at least 15 GP in February and March, averaging at least 25 MPG

It is well documented that Derrick has been recovering from two major knee injuries and that his body has betrayed him in one way or another these past few years. People in one camp have asked to give him more time to return; those in the other, feeling his time is over. But what if we just look at him as he is now? He’s easily the best point guard the Bulls have to offer, and the impending free agent point guard market is weak. Instead of using an ax to cut him down, let’s use a chisel to refine his game.

It’s time we look at Rose at face value, and stop talking about seeing “flashes of the old, vintage Derrick Rose,” (I blame you, Reggie Miller) and similarly, stop dismissing him as a half-man, half-machine, bionic, over-the-hump dead beat. He’s a reliable player with incredible athleticism who’s still improving, and the Bulls desperately need him to keep progressing. We may not see a renaissance, but it’s fun watching him reinvent his game, and we’ll be there with him every step of the way.

 

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Breaking Down The New Derrick Rose

As we rapidly approach the All-Star Break, now seems as good a time as any to check in with Derrick Rose’s latest comeback. Far too much time is spent wondering or discussing when Derrick Rose will “get back to his old level”. The fact of the matter is, Derrick is an older, more mature player now who has gone through several catastrophic seasons. We’ll never see 2010-11 Rose again and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What we can do instead is dig into the D-Rose we have now and see what we can learn.

Most talk surrounding Rose’s game (and there’s plenty of talk not about his game) this season has centered on how often he’s been shooting the three ball. The numbers unsurprisingly back this up. Rose is taking about 33% of his field goal attempts from distance this season, up from between 24-25% in 2010-12 (we’re going to ignore the numbers from Rose’s abbreviated 10 game season in 2013). While Derrick has very clearly had some hot and cold shooting streaks (he’s currently shooting net-seeking fireballs out of his hands from three), his three point percentage has averaged out to 32.2%. This is exactly on pace with Rose in 2010-11 and 2011-12, when he shot 33.2% and 31.2%, respectively, on bombs.

An uptick in threes isn’t surprising or necessarily discouraging for Rose’s game. Two major knee injuries were proof enough that his unconventional, aggressive playing style had to be altered in some way. The key is figuring out where the extra three point attempts are coming from.

We’ve established that Rose is taking threes about 9% more often this season. While most critics have argued that Rose needs to stop eschewing drives for jumpers, the reality is that his game has changed in more ways than just that (all statistics through basketball-reference).

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 6.22.59 PM

Although Rose is shooting threes more, he’s cut down on long two point jumpers, infamous for being the most inefficient shot in the game. While nearly 20% of Rose’s shots came as long twos (from 16 feet to the three point line) in his MVP season, he took only 16% from that distance in 2011-12 and is down to a career low 14.2% this season. Trading out long two pointers for threes is one of the best changes a player can make to his game. In this aspect, more threes from Rose is exactly what the Bulls need.

The dagger long two will always be part of Derrick’s game, but the more he trades them out for threes, the more efficient he can be. This season, Rose has converted about 32% on shots from 10-16 feet, 16 feet to the three point line, and on threes. While one would expect him to improve on the shorter attempts, the numbers clearly show that swapping out mid-range jumpers for threes will benefit the Bulls greatly.

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 6.28.49 PM

While the phasing out of long twos accounts for a chunk of Rose’s three pointers, a notable decrease in shots near the rim has yielded the rest. Around 30% of Rose’s shots came from there over his last two full seasons but he is only taking about 26% at the rim in 2014-15. Tom Thibodeau and Bulls fans alike want to see this number creep back toward 30%, but the reality is that it may not be in Derrick’s best interest to be that player anymore. He made 61.1% of such shots in 2010-11 and 58.2% in 2011-12, but he’s only converted on 54.2% this season. However, a new midrange weapon is worth keeping an eye on…

Amongst midrange shots, Rose’s percentages have largely stayed the same. He takes about 16% of his shots from 3-10 feet and 11% from 10-16. However, Rose has been absolutely killer in that 3-10 foot range, making 57% of his shots. There’s probably some noise in that sample, considering Rose shot 37% from there in 2010-11 and 45% in 2011-12, but it seems likely Rose’s floater has taken another step this season. Trading out barreling drives to the rim for five and seven foot floaters could be the change that helps Derrick reinvent his career.

It’s important to remember that these 35 or so games are still a pretty small sample. Still, the data shows us that Rose has made some subtle changes to his approach. As he continues to find himself and produce more consistently (hopefully), the new Derrick Rose could help take the Bulls to levels they never reached when he was MVP.

Magic Mike: Finding the Source of the Bulls’ Struggles

It is no secret that the Bulls have struggled mightily of late. The Bulls have posted a record of 4-6 in the last ten, dropping six of their last eight. The recent bout of poor play has Bulls fans searching for answers. How is it that this team, recently the winners of 13 our of 15, could suddenly fall back to earth so violently? What dramatic change has taken place that could explain this miserable start to 2015?

When I think about the Chicago Bulls’ starting five, my mind goes first to the former MVP and first overall pick Derrick Rose. I’ll think next of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and emotional leader Joakim Noah. I think next of the new addition to the front court, the two-time champion Pau Gasol. I then think of Jimmy Butler, the guy who has incredibly gone from defensive spark plug to focal point of the offense. And to round out the top five, I think about…wait, who’s the starting small forward?

Oh yeah, Mike Dunleavy, Jr.

Dunleavy is far and away the most anonymous member of the Bulls normal starting unit. Signed as a free agent last season, Dunleavy has enjoyed moderate success in his season and a half in Chicago. Appearing in 115 games so far with the Bulls (including a full 82 last season), Dunleavy has averaged 10.8 points a game, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He has posted 43%/39%/83% shooting splits, comfortably above average but by no means numbers that jump off the page.

Could it be that Dunleavy, who has been rehabbing a jammed foot since New Years Day, is the key to the Bulls success?

Dunleavy’s area of expertise is his ability to spot up around the perimeter and knock down catch-and-shoot opportunities. Dunleavy has hit 42.4% of his catch-and-shoot triples, the eighth highest total of guys who attempt at least 3.5 such threes a night. It is this specific ability that the Bulls have sorely missed. The instant respect that Dunleavy commands around the perimeter is crucial in opening up driving lanes for Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.

Dunleavy’s absence has shown the spotlight on a spacing issue that comes along with playing two centers. I’ve already talked about how the Noah-Gasol combination doesn’t really work, but I never appreciated how the presence of Dunleavy was keeping that pair afloat. When Dunleavy has shared the court with Pau and Joakim, the Bulls are an even 104/104 in offensive/defensive efficiency. With Hinrich in place of Dunleavy, the Bulls have a net rating of -4.1, scoring an anemic 95.8 points per 100 possessions.

What the Dunleavy injury has really done to the Bulls is force them to overextend Kirk Hinrich. In the ten games that Dunleavy has sat out, Hinrich has started eight, completing a starting lineup that has played the most minutes of any five man group in 2015. That lineup owns a depressing 92.1 offensive rating to go along with a 102.8 defensive rating. A lot of the Bulls’ critics have pointed to their inability to get off to a fast start. Look no further than Kirk Hinrich.

kirk

Hinrich, who frequently pulls up for jumpers that have an adverse effect on my blood pressure, was actually playing alright until Dunleavy went out. He was shooting 38% from the floor and 39.5% from long range. But since Dunleavy has gone out, open shots have become harder to come by, and Hinrich’s three point shooting has plummeted to 26.7%.

Hinrich’s increased role has had additional negative ripples for the Bulls. With Kirk inserted into the starting lineup, Jimmy Butler must shift from being an overpowering shooting guard to a slightly undersized small forward. Butler’s play overall has taken a sharp downward turn in January, and while general exhaustion is certainly a valid hypothesis as to why, the absence of Dunleavy is definitely a key factor.

When Rose, Butler and Dunleavy play together, the Bulls are a net +2. Swap out Rose for Hinrich, a trio that appears worse on paper, is scoring 104 points per 100 possessions and surrendering only 98.6. The key to the success is that Butler is allowed to dominate from the shooting guard spot.

Denver Nuggets v Chicago Bulls

When Rose, Hinrich and Butler share the floor, a group that forces Butler to the three, the Bulls are a net -1.3. While that number isn’t terrible and is certainly subject to some statistical noise, allow me to look a little deeper. In games that Dunleavy has been healthy, the three guard trio has appeared in 13 games for an average of 6.5 minutes a game. They’re blowing opponents out of the water, scoring 112 points per 100 possessions and surrendering only 99. In the games Dunleavy has missed, the same trio is averaging 17.5 minutes a game and posting a -5.9 net rating.

How can Dunleavy’s injury be impacting lineup combinations he’s not even a part of? Because when Dunleavy is available, the Rose-Kirk-Butler trio is only busted out in highly advantageous matchups. It is a gimmicky grouping that can exploit certain weaknesses when they present themselves. With Dunleavy on the sideline, that trio has logged the fourth highest minutes total of any Bulls threesome, forcing it to play in situations it is not cut out to handle.

Look, I’m not saying that Dunleavy is the glue that holds the defense together. I’m not saying he deserves underground #NBABallot buzz. He’s a roll player who thrives playing for this team because he is excellent at the few things he is asked to do.

But what I am saying is that even the smallest of changes to an NBA rotation has the potential to throw a team into a downward spiral. For all the incredible front court depth the Bulls boast this year, perhaps it is shallow wing play that could do this team in. Mike Dunleavy isn’t supposed to have this big of an impact on a team that has title aspirations. And he probably doesn’t have THIS big of an impact.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t missed.

The Butler: An Unexpected Journey

Jimmy Butler has been a fan favorite for most of his Bulls career, but it wasn’t until this season that he’s played like a true All-Star on both ends of the floor. I won’t get into his incredible life story, but it’s well worth a read if you’re unfamiliar. Most players as talented as Jimmy are great offensive players who take longer to become consistent defenders, if ever (like James Harden or Carmelo Anthony). Butler is the rare player who came out of the gate as an elite defender and has, early on this season, developed into a high level offensive player as well.

While the Bulls are no doubt ecstatic about this development, it has come at a particularly opportune time for Butler financially. In the NBA, first round picks are under cheap, cost-controlled rookie contracts for their first four seasons. The deadline for teams to agree to extensions with these players is on Halloween of their fourth season. (You might remember Taj Gibson receiving his contract extension at the buzzer two seasons ago). After Jimmy’s extremely disappointing campaign on the offensive end last year (which we’re about to dig into), the Bulls were hesitant to hand Butler the $12 million per year plus he wanted. With Butler on the shelf to start the year, the two sides agreed it would be mutually beneficial to revisit contract talks after the season.

jimmy butler

Of course, this could be horrific for Bulls fans. After the season, Butler will be a restricted free agent, where any team can sign him to an offer sheet that the Bulls will have the ability to match. While the Bulls have expressed that they’re happy to match a big contract if Jimmy is worth it, one only needs to look at Houston, Dallas and Chandler Parsons to see how dicey things can get when a savvy team gets creative with the offer sheet. In fact, stay in Houston for a moment and you’ll remember that the Bulls lost Omer Asik to a backloaded offer sheet that had more consequences for Chicago than Houston. The Bulls’ front office was confident about retaining Asik as well.

If Butler keeps up his current level of play, the Bulls will likely match a maximum offer sheet, especially if Derrick Rose’s health issues exacerbate and it becomes time to consider building around other young players like Butler. Let’s take a look at how Butler’s game has gone on the titular unexpected journey towards stardom. Here are Jimmy’s traditional box score statistics over the last three seasons (he didn’t get much run his rookie year):

(stats via Basketball-Reference)
(stats via Basketball-Reference)

The numbers that stand out first are the constant increases in scoring. What’s important to note is that Butler’s minutes increased by nearly 50% from 2012-13 to 2013-14 but have remained at the same insanely high level for this season. He’s fluctuated wildly in terms of efficiency from range, but this season’s small sample size is probably the most indicative of his true rate. While Jimmy’s not bricking his threes this year, he’s upped his scoring in multiple ways. Originally thought to have the ceiling of a “3 and D” guy who could lock down top scorers and knock down shots from the corners, Butler has instead become a dynamic playmaker.

To really dig in, we need to look at the advanced stats, which are actually quite simple. Usage % is an estimate of the possessions that a player uses while he’s on the floor. With five guys on each team, an average usage rate would be 20%. Free throw rate (FTr) is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt; it tells us how proficient a guy is at getting to the charity stripe. Three point attempt % (3PA%) is the percentage of FG attempts that come from long distance. Assist, rebound and steal rate measure how often a player accrues those statistics. Finally, Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WP/48) quantifies the number of “wins” a player contributes on a per game basis. It’s a stat that encompasses many aspects of the game and the career leaders are MJ, David Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, Chris Paul and LeBron. (All advanced stats besides FT rate do not include Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets):

stats via Basketball-Reference
(stats via Basketball-Reference)

The most shocking development in Jimmy’s game has been his usage rate. For his first three seasons in the league, Butler was a markedly below average player in terms of volume on offense. At times last season he would disappear for entire halves. Of course Butler was playing through turf toe, but his role was severely diminished regardless. Jimmy has not just been an important part of the offense this year; he’s been the integral part. Using almost 23% of possessions has made Butler the first or second option most nights on a team that has played far more often than not without its highest usage player (Derrick Rose).

Key to Butler’s increased volume has been the efficiency coming with it. On last season’s anemic Bulls squad, Jimmy took a very high 34.6% of his field goal attempts from long distance. Because he shot so poorly from range, he brought very little value on the offensive side of the floor. By bringing that number under 20% in the early part of this season, Butler has regained his efficiency through a vastly improved post game and constant activity cutting and driving to the basket. Furthermore, taking less contested jumpers has brought Jimmy’s three point percentage up to a more acceptable 33%.

Of course, the most important part of Jimmy Butler’s emerging offensive game is his ridiculous free throw rate. After setting a career high with 18 free throws made in 20 attempts in Denver, Butler’s free throw rate now stands at .588 which is higher than DeMarcus Cousins and free throw legend James Harden!!! It’s no wonder Stacey King loves comparing Butler to Harden (.579 FT rate). Getting to the stripe has always been a big part of Jimmy’s game, but it’s been a delight seeing him continue to rack up free throws as his volume increases so significantly.

Finally, we can see by using WS/48 that Butler may truly be ready to join the league’s elite. Going into Tuesday’s loss to Denver, his WS/48 of .209 would have ranked in the top ten in 2013-14 and is notably higher than his two previous seasons. Combining Jimmy’s constant All-NBA defense with his improved offensive game is lethal. If Butler can keep up what he’s shown thus far, he’ll be a no-brainer All-NBA and maximum contract player.

 

There’s a Hole in my Bucket

jimmy butler

After losing Derrick Rose to injury and Luol Deng to a cap-clearing trade, the Chicago Bulls easily could have packed it in for the remainder of the season and fallen towards the bottom half of the conference standings. But thanks to inspired play from Taj Gibson, DJ Augustin, and the truly incredible Joakim Noah. It’s been a season of overachievement for pretty much every member of this rag-tag squad, with the notable exception of one key cog in the Bulls rotation.

Jimmy Butler, the late first round pick who has captured the hearts of all Chicagoans with his rags-to-riches story and his balls to the wall style of play, has not developed in the way that I had expected coming into the season. I don’t mean to peg Butler as a complete disappointment, as his great on-ball defense and his ability to shoulder incredibly heavy minutes have added to the toughness that makes this team so great. But offensively, Butler continues to be half as effective as he is defensively.

Butler on the season is averaging an even 13 points a game on 39% shooting from the field and a pathetic 28.4% from three point range. In the 38 minutes a game that Butler averages, he is attempting just 10 field goals and 3.4 triples. While his minutes have increased significantly since the calendar switched to 2014, from 33 minutes to around 41 a game, his shot attempts have remained steady throughout the season.

To put those numbers into some context, I want to point out that Butler is currently fourth in the league in minutes per game. The other guys who make up the top ten are Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, Lebron James, Chandler Parsons, John Wall, Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry. What do all of these guys have in common, except for Jimmy Buckets? They each carry a large load on the offensive end. Butler, meanwhile, seemingly forces the Bulls to play 5-on-4 offensively for the vast majority of the game. Butler currently sports a usage rate (usage rate calculates the number of possessions a player either takes a shot, turns the ball over or is fouled) of 17.1%, placing him in the same category as Courtney Lee, Nick Calathes and Marvin Williams, guys that don’t play nearly as many minutes as Butler. Mario Chalmers sports that same 17% usage rate with similar minutes played as Butler, but he obviously is in an environment where he doesn’t need to be taking a lot of shots every night.

Butler has been at or below average shooting from every single spot on the court except one: Butler is shooting a robust 46% on corner threes, perhaps the best and most efficient shot in the game. But Butler seems to lack confidence in shooting even from where he’s effective, as he has attempted only 61 corner threes in the 57 games he has played this season. Perhaps the reason for this is that teams are completely unafraid to run him hard off the line. Butler is not efficient when he puts the ball on the floor, shooting just 30% on pull up jumpers and 38% on drives to the basket, percentages that do not strike fear into any hearts.

There is a reason that Butler, despite his offensive ineffectiveness, plays all the minutes that he does. Jimmy, since the departure of Luol Deng, has been the Bulls’ best and most reliable wing defender. Able to cover both shooting guards and small forwards, Butler’s versatility and seemingly endless amount of energy have allowed the Bulls to be a dominant defensive team. This year, the Bulls have allowed just 97.7 points per 100 possessions, second in the NBA to only the Indiana Pacers. Butler is featured in each of the Bulls’ top defensive lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes on the floor together. The Bulls starting lineup since the Deng trade has been Butler, Kirk Hinrich, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Joakim Noah, a lineup that has played just over 500 minutes this season, triple what the next most used lineup is. That starting five has a defensive rating of 92.2.

He also did this in a game where he later saved the day by poking the ball away from Lebron as the MVP drove towards the basket for a game winning layup, a play that was just business as usual for Butler who averages just a tick under two steals a game, which is tied for 4th in the NBA.

I bring all of this to attention as Butler and the Bulls are quickly approaching an important crossroad. This is year three for Butler, meaning that this summer he is eligible for an extension should the Bulls deem him worthy of one. These types of situations are tricky for NBA teams who are faced with a couple of options and no clear best solution.

Option number one is to sign Butler to an extension before the October 30 deadline. The advantage of doing this is that it allows the team to develop a clear plan beyond next season as they will know who the starting shooting guard will be for the next several years. It gives Butler peace of mind knowing that he doesn’t need to press and get his own numbers to lock down a contract the next summer. And it would be a move in good faith by the front office to show coach Tom Thibodeau that they aren’t systematically trying to give him a heart attack.

The drawback to this initial option is that the team is essentially bidding against itself. No other teams are able to even talk to Butler about what they believe his second pro contract should be worth. The last time the Bulls found themselves in this situation, they handed a giant contract to Taj Gibson, a player who has never started (although is finally getting starters minutes this season as Carlos Boozer begins to shop around for nursing homes) and similarly to Butler was believed to be a one way player. Gibson has grown his offensive game immensely this season and appears to be worth the 4 year/$33 million contract that he signed prior to this season, especially since he will likely move into the starting lineup next season. But is Butler worth that type of investment?

After taking a big leap in his second season, one in which Butler saw his playing time and scoring output triple, he has stagnated and even regressed in his new full time starting gig. After averaging 38% shooting on threes last year, on a measly 1.3 attempts a game, Butler has seen his percentage shrink ten percent this season. The most telling box on Butler’s basketball reference page is his per 36 numbers, which have stayed relatively stable over his short career.

The alternative option the Bulls can take with Butler is to simply let Butler finish out his rookie deal unextended and allow the Texas native to hit restricted free agency. As a restricted free agent, the Bulls would be able to match any contract offer that Butler receives from another team. The risks involved with this strategy are simple: some team will have the opportunity to either force the Bulls to overpay to keep their man, or risk losing him altogether. So what exactly is a player like Butler worth?The easy player comparison for Butler is probably Tony Allen, a guy who has lasted a decade in the league despite having almost no offensive skills. Last summer, as a 31 year old, Allen was awarded a 4 year/$20 million extension from a Grizzlies team that prides itself on the grit’n’grind culture that Allen represents. The deal was a curious one for the Grizzlies, as they are perpetually short of impact shooters and decided they would like to see how Allen holds up into his mid 30’s. Butler, at 24 years of age, is certainly at a different pint in his career than Allen. But how much better than Tony Allen is Butler ever going to be?

I believe the Bulls should try and lock down Butler this summer, for the right number. Coming off a down offensive year, the Bulls may be in the best possible position to negotiate a favorable contract with Jimmy. Perhaps a 4 year/$25 million dollar deal. I’m not sure that will be enough to satisfy Butler and his representation, but it’s a number that I honestly believe to be fair for a guy who has not been able to prove himself as a competent scorer.

Should the Bulls not reach an agreement with Butler, it is very likely that a similar deal could be struck the next year once Butler has had a chance to see what other teams value him at. But the big risk the Bulls face in letting Butler play out his rookie deal is that he might take the leap next year as a shooter that many expected him to make this year. Should Butler become a 38% three point shooter, some team will talk itself into making an offer in the $10 million per year range, a price that the capped out Bulls would cringe to match.

As the weather warms up in Chicago, expect discussions about Butler’s future with the team to heat up with it.