Luol Deng’s former teammates all talked about how “weird” and “strange’ it’s going to be when they face the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday.
For Jimmy Butler, who is sure to spend most of the night matched up with his former teammate on both ends of the floor, it will be a square off of Bulls' past vs. Bulls' future.
When the Bulls traded Deng on January 7 for the contract of Andrew Bynum and future draft selections, it was made with the future in mind. Regarding the move, Bulls VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson said “We are confident that we are going to take these resources, in the financial flexibility that it gives us, and put them back into our basketball team in the form of players and trying to get better.”
Bulls management first got a glimpse of that future last season when Butler begin to come into his own in earning coach Tom Thibodeau’s trust, therefore leading to consistent playing time and Butler showing the ability to be a dangerous two-way player. His performance during the postseason, particularly his individual defense on LeBron James in the Eastern Conference semifinals, led to him earning the starting two-guard spot coming into this season.
The thought of a healthy Derrick Rose with two, two-way wings, skilled bigs in Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, a much improved Taj Gibson, a steady Kirk Hinrich and the outside shooting of Mike Dunleavy had Rose thinking this was the best team he’s been on. “I think we’re going to be a way better team than the previous years,” he said. On partnering with Butler in the backcourt, Rose said “I think we can give teams hell out there on the court.”
No one could envision Rose going down for the season again and Deng’s trade seem to catch everyone by surprise. What that move did was firmly thrust Butler into an even more prominent role, taking on Deng’s workload on defense and having to have deliver offensively.
“I feel like that’s what I wanted, though. My teammates trust me to do so; the coaching staff,” Butler said on taking over for Deng. “I have to be ready for it on both ends of the floor; that’s to play extremely hard every possession.”
Deng missed the final six games during last postseason due to complications from a spinal tap and Butler went on to average 13.3 points on .435 percent shooting, including shooting 40 percent from three, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals in 40 minutes.
So far this season, Butler has been unable to regain the touch he displayed towards the end of last season and during that postseason. He’s shooting 37 percent from the floor and shooting just 28 percent from three.
Rose also offered this take on Butler during training camp; “ “I think his biggest adjustment is going to be just feeling comfortable, knowing that he can take shots and make decisions.” He hasn’t seemed all too comfortable just yet, but he contends that he will eventually shoot himself out of the slump and given the work he puts in on his shot, it’s hard to question him.
Not helping is the fact that the right turf toe injury that forced him to miss 11 games earlier in the season seems like it will be something he has to manage throughout the rest of the year as his foot is always bandaged with ice after most games.
Wednesday’s game marks the midpoint of the season for Butler and the Bulls and there is ample time for him to get into some semblance of an offensive flow as the team pushes towards a playoff berth in the disappointing Eastern Conference.
His continued development this season will go along way in helping shape what the organization hopes will be years of being able to contend for titles.
On the most important takeaway he got from Deng, Butler said; “More than anything, how you have to take care of your body. Maintaining your body with weights, eating right, keeping hydrated and more than anything, being mentally strong; to know that whenever you’re tired, you can’t be tired. Your team needs you to play however many minutes it may be. I think Lu played a million and something minutes and he took care of his body the way you’re supposed to and I’m starting to do the same.
“Lu taught me a lot. I feel like there will be a lot of smiles out there on the court along with business.”
In the case of Butler and Deng, just as in life, the past often helps shape the future.