(Reuters) - Jimmy Butler has stood up for the Chicago Bulls this season and has helped the franchise transition out of their dependence on the injury-ravaged Derrick Rose.
Butler scored a team-high 23 points on Friday as the Bulls routed the New York Knicks 108-81 despite the absence of Rose, who missed a second straight game due to a right hamstring problem.
It is a familiar story for Rose, the 2010-2011 league MVP, who has seen his career decline due to a rash of major injuries.
But as the face of their franchise has faded, Chicago have been propped up by the emergence of a new star.
Butler, 26, enjoyed his breakout during the 2014-15 campaign when he was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player and earned his first All Star Game appearance.
This season, though, he has left his mark on the team in entirely new ways. Butler, the Bulls’ top scorer and defender, has also become their emboldened vocal leader.
Following a loss against the Knicks on Dec. 19, Butler called out Bulls first-year coach Fred Hoiberg saying he needed to coach the team harder and hold them more accountable.
Butler was criticized for the statements at the time, though it has clearly lit a spark under the Bulls who have won their last three games. Chicago are squarely in the Eastern Conference mix despite finding a new identity under Hoiberg.
Rose continues to try to get back into form and complete his first season free of major injury in five years. But the fate of the Bulls may no longer rest on Rose’s shoulders with Butler now doing the heavy lifting.
Writing by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; editing by Sudipto Ganguly