Could Butler be a cure for the Bulls' woes?

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Could Butler be a cure for the Bulls' woes?

HOUSTON In the 13 minutes per game hes played thus far this season, Jimmy Butler has averaged a modest 4.7 points per game, nothing that would suggest that the second-year swingman is capable of dramatically changing the Bulls fortunes, for better or worse.

However, the stated objectives that he brings to the court in that scant playing time defense, energy and when hes open, taking and making shots says otherwise.

It would be a stretch to say that Butler is the caliber of reserve that can rescue the Bulls if they dig themselves a hole on a given night, but his athleticism his high-flying finishes, whether in transition or a follow-up dunk in traffic, have been arguably the most exciting Bulls plays of this Derrick Rose-less season and commitment to defense are, at minimum, a welcome change of pace.

Still, while the country-music aficionado has managed to carve out a small niche for himself, it appears that for the time being, hell have to be content with the action he receives.

Well see how it unfolds. A lot of it is going to be based on matchups, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said about his rotation, before moving on to Butler specifically. Depending on what the game needs. If its energy, then well maybe look that Butlers way, but theres a lot of things that our bench guys have to do better, too.

Indeed, it isnt as if late-first round picks who are nailed to the bench on veteran teams in their rookie seasons-- without the benefit of training camp -- are perfect, nor are they expected to be. But Thibodeau, for every Omer Asik (who the Bulls face for the first time as an opponent Wednesday), a young player who has gradually earned his trust and playing time, theres a Marco Belinelli, a veteran who struggles out of the gates, but the coach isnt willing to give up on just yet.

Its understandable to a point, as the Bulls desperately need outside shooting and Belinelli, even when hes not making an impact, at least provides a threat to stretch the defense. After the free-agent acquisitions miserable preseason, hes actually made 9-of-23 attempts from behind the three-point arc for a 39.1-percent mark second on the team to fellow backup guard Nate Robinsons 40-percent shooting from deep, on 12 makes out of 30 shots and Thibodeau knows that by sticking with him, if not now, then later in the season, keeping Belinellis confidence up will pay major dividends.

But while hes made some progress defensively, more often than not in Belinellis nearly 17 minutes a night, the shooting guard still struggles with his matchups and unlike second-unit predecessor Kyle Korver, he doesnt make up for it with savvy team defense, hustle plays or other intangibles, let alone elite marksmanship. On those evenings, similar to when Thibodeau gives starting power forward Carlos Boozer an earlier hook in favor of the more defensive-minded Taj Gibson, but on a smaller scale, its worth giving Butler a shot.

Stuck behind ironman starter Luol Deng, the reigning and current league leader in minutes per game at 40.1 a night teammate Joakim Noah is fourth, at 38.8 an outing Butler must wait until Deng plays his typical 18 consecutive minutes at the outset of each game before entering the lineup. Sometimes, such as in last weeks overtime win in Phoenix, where he notched six points and two steals to turn the tide before halftime to begin the Circus Trip, he makes an immediate, obvious impact.

On other occasions, whether he simply doesnt have it going right away or the situation calls for him to more subtly blend in, such as in the Bulls most recent loss Sunday in Portland, where he was just part of a unit that played improved defense and attempted an ultimately-failed comeback against the Trail Blazers, Butlers worth isnt as clear to the naked eye.

The Lone Star State native, who will play his first professional game in Houston, the NBA city closest to his hometown of Tomball, Tex., Wednesday, was penciled in to be a replacement for Ronnie Brewer currently a Knicks starter, Brewer either put significant work into his outside-shooting ability or now has the freedom and confidence to showcase it more in New York and while he has many similarities to one of his mentors, Butlers lack of experience puts him at a disadvantage.

Given his hard-luck background Butlers story has been well-chronicled and the recent history of success stories from his alma mater, Marquette, perhaps his relative youth should be disregarded because of a track record that reflects upon him favorably. Without discounting the likes of Knicks sharpshooter Steve Novak, journeyman point guard Travis Diener and of course, Chicago native Dwyane Wade, all of whom played collegiately during current Indiana University coach Tom Creans tenure, the likes of undrafted rookie-turned-NBA starter Wesley Matthews of the Trail Blazers, Butlers mentor upon arrival on campus, and rookie Jae Crowder, a second-round pick getting rotation minutes in Dallas, illustrate that with enough talent, the requisite toughness needed to play for Buzz Williams program in Milwaukee can translate to, at the least, being a hard-nosed NBA regular.

Well, he followed me around everywhere I went, so somethings supposed to rub off, Matthews joked about Butler to CSNChicago.com, adding a playful, competitive and semi-profane jab at his fellow Golden Eagle, before turning serious. He works hard, hes talented and he wants to get better. Thats his best thing going for him.

I think the skys the limit for him. With opportunity, he can show that he can play, continued the Portland swingman, who burned the Bulls for 21 points Sunday and threw in a late-game block on Butler, for good measure. He can defend. I think he showed that already. Hes got a nice mid-range game. Just with confidence and opportunity, hell be all right.

Hopefully Thibodeau sees it that way because as opposed to 19-year-old rookie Marquis Teague, this was not slated to be a developmental season for Butler, who toiled away at the Berto Center all offseason and excelled at the NBAs summer league in Las Vegas. For a team that could use energy when upon hitting its ever more-frequent lulls, a dose of athleticism and strong individual defense against some of the games elite wing scorers, let alone stealing a minute or two of rest for Deng when things are going well, Butler would seem to be the cure to ensure the Bulls, a .500 squad at the moment, dont enter an early-season malaise.

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

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Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”