The Chicago Bulls’ starting lineup features two ball-dominant players in Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, and both have an interest in leading the offense.
Butler led the Bulls in total assists and assist per game in the 2015-2016 season. When putting both players on equal volume and measuring their assists per 100 possessions, it’s Rose who holds a slight lead over Butler at 7.4 to 6.5.
Vantage player tracking allows us to also analyze whom each player dishes his assists to and what type of passes he uses to record assists. Both Rose and Butler recorded the majority of their assists on passes to Pau Gasol.
Rose holds the advantage in recording assists in transition, while Butler has the edge in creating assists in the halfcourt.
The Chicago Bulls’ lineup features two ball-dominant, max-salaried players in Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. The two have had little on-court time over the years to mesh their games due to Rose’s injury problems. The season left Bulls personnel and fans with many lingering questions. One thing was clear, however; both players want the ball in their hands and want to be responsible for initiating the offense.
The debate over who should be responsible for this task contains superfluous arguments in favor of both candidates, but this isn’t an examination of who’s the better leader, who sells more jerseys, or whose health is more reliable. This is a simple comparison of both players’ passing numbers and a look at the effect of their passing on the team’s performance.
On the season as a whole, Butler narrowly edged out Rose to lead the Bulls with 321 assists, 10 more than Rose. Butler took the lead in assists after recording 21 assists in the last two games of the season, games Rose sat out after the Bulls were officially eliminated from the playoffs. Before the final game of the season, both Butler and Rose had played in 66 games on the season and recorded 311 assists. Butler’s triple-double, in just 25 minutes, against the 76ers in the final game of the season pushed his per-game assist numbers to 4.8, once again narrowly edging out Rose who finished at 4.7.
Per 100 Possessions
While their games played were close to even, the minutes played during these games were not. Rose played 5.1 minutes less per game than Butler, over the course of the season, and with Butler’s one more additional game, that comes out to 377 fewer minutes on the season than Butler. With Butler averaging 36.9 minutes per contest, this equals just over 10 additional games for Butler on the season. With that much playing time separating the two players, a more balanced metric should be used to compare their numbers.
When looking at assists per 100 possessions, Rose gains the edge over Butler with 7.4 assists to 6.5. While Butler and Rose lead the team in total assists and assist per game, if we put everyone on an even plane of 100 possessions, the two rank only third and fourth on the team behind Joakim Noah (8.7) and Aaron Brooks (8.1).
Vantage Sports captures over 16,000 relevant data points in each game, including a number of which are related to passing such as True Facilitation and Assist+ per 100 Chances. True Facilitation is a measure of the number of passes to open or guarded shot attempts per 100 offensive chances while the player is on the court. Rose once again ranks ahead of Butler in this metric, posting a True Facilitation of 2.59 to Butler’s 1.98.
Assist+ combines assists, passes to missed open shots, passes to shooting fouls, and crucial passes. When ranking this combination of metrics per 100 chances, Rose once again tops Butler 8.43 to 6.31.
Once we even out the time frame in which we measure both players’ assists, it’s Rose who comes out ahead of Butler, whose main advantage in leading an offense may be his ability to be on the court. We’ve looked at each player’s assists numbers, but to whom are they making these passes, what play types are these assists occurring on, and what is each player's assist-to-pass ratio?
Whom They Pass To
Both Rose and Butler recorded the majority of their assists with Pau Gasol. A third of Rose’s assists were to Gasol, while only a quarter of Butler’s were. With Gasol unlikely to return next season, it’s important to look at who developed a strong chemistry with the players who will still be on the roster.
Butler recorded 40 or more assists with 4 separate players, whereas Rose only managed to dish out 40+ assists to two players, Gasol and Butler. Spreading the ball around and keeping everyone involved is a major responsibility for the initiator of a team’s offense. When it comes to spreading the wealth, Butler finds a better balance in his passing.
Having a diverse arsenal of passes you can complete is also important for the player initiating the offense. Threading the needle to a cutter, feeding the post, initiating an inside-out offense, or creating open looks off a drive-and-kick/dish are all important skills to have in one’s toolbox. When breaking down the pass types that Rose and Butler record their assist on, we see each player excels in a different area of the game.
Rose holds a strong advantage in the open court, recording a higher percentage of his assists in transition, while Butler excels in creating open looks in the halfcourt off drive-and-kicks and inside-out pass types. The split in skill set would suggest some opportunity for sharing the responsibility with Rose leading the charge in transition while Butler initiates the offense in the halfcourt sets.
Butler’s advantage in games and minutes played helped him gain more overall assists than Rose, but it’s Rose who holds the advantage in total number of passes with 3,631 to Butler’s 3,009. This gives Butler a clear advantage in assist-to-pass percentage, and indeed Butler’s 10.7% assist to pass percentage beats Rose’s 8.6%.
Leading an offense isn’t all about assists. In an ideal world, the player possessing the ball will also be one who limits his turnovers. Rose led the Bulls in turnovers with 175, 43 more than Butler’s 132. As we learned early, total figures don’t always tell the most accurate story. When looking at Turnovers per 100 Touches, allowing us to view each player on an equal level, Rose does still lead in turnovers with 4.79 to Butler’s 4.19.
An easy way to generate open looks for other players is to draw the attention to yourself. Butler drew 29 intentional double-teams in isolation throughout the season, while Rose drew only 5. These double-teams, if identified early by the player with the ball, can lead to easy scoring opportunities as one of your teammates will inevitably be left open.
So who should lead the offense? While Butler had the better overall numbers, when put on an equal volume, Rose leaped ahead in his passing performance. Butler distributes his assists better among a greater number of teammates, and both players hold an advantage on one another when completing different pass types.
The decision may be unnecessary if Butler and Rose are able to develop a greater chemistry and familiarity with one another on the court. If not, the decision may come down to staggering their minutes. Butler is in 7 of the Bulls top 10 +/- lineups on the season, only 2 of which also feature Rose. Rose is involved in 3 of the Bulls top 10 +/- lineups on the season, only one without Jimmy Butler.