As Jimmy Butler Sizzles, Bulls Struggle to Play .500 Ball

CHICAGO — As is his normal postgame ritual, Jimmy Butler peered into his tidy locker stall and methodically finished dressing as a half-circle of reporters and television cameras, at least six deep, impatiently pressed up behind him.

Butler, the 6-foot-7 All-Star swingman for the Chicago Bulls, played coy as he attended to every fashionable detail. He inserted a sparkling diamond stud into each earlobe and fastened a pair of gold chains around his neck. After slipping into a jacket, Butler turned and immediately stepped back from the outstretched microphones and digital recorders that invaded his personal space and kept nearby teammates from reaching theirs.

On this night, like others, the 27-year-old Butler, who is in his sixth N.B.A. season, is the center of attention inside a Bulls locker room that is a little lighter on star power than it used to be.

Derrick Rose, once a hometown hero, was dealt last summer to the Knicks, with whom he is now encountering a good deal of adversity. Center Joakim Noah, who played nearly a decade in Chicago, is also a Knick these days and is not having an easy time of it, either, as he hears criticism that he looks washed up at 31.

The Bulls also said goodbye to Pau Gasol, who went to the San Antonio Spurs via free agency.

In their place, the Bulls signed the 12-time All-Star and Chicago native Dwyane Wade to a two-year, $47.5 million deal and added the veteran point guard Rajon Rondo for two years and $29 million, creating what Rondo, at least, proclaimed to be a new Big Three in Chicago.

Well, not quite. As the 2016-17 campaign approaches the midway point, the Bulls (19-20) are in danger, for now, of not making the playoffs for a second straight season.

Under their second-year coach, Fred Hoiberg, they are much closer to the Knicks, who entered Wednesday night 17-21, than they are to the teams at the top of the Eastern Conference. And when the two clubs meet on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, it will be a full-scale meeting of the barely mediocre. Both have plenty of problems, and both teams’ players, with the exception of Butler, are making the wrong kind of headlines these days.

Rondo, for instance, played on Tuesday for the first time since Dec. 30, logging 27 minutes in a 101-99 loss to the Wizards in Washington. That appearance came after he had been unceremoniously benched by Hoiberg for five games.

The enigmatic Rondo, who told reporters on Tuesday that a team official had informed him he had been held out to save him from himself, was once a star in Boston. But he has had all sorts of problems in his N.B.A. career, and in December, the Bulls suspended him for one game after an altercation with an assistant coach.

Wade, at 34, has been rested for the second half of back-to-back games, a situation that echoes the concern the Knicks now have with the ability of the 32-year-old Carmelo Anthony to deal with games on consecutive days.

Butler, in contrast, is in his prime and can deal with a heavy workload. Even when he was struck by flu symptoms at the start of the week, he tried to play through them. But in a home game against Oklahoma City on Monday, he went 0 for 6 from the field and scored just 1 point in 29 futile minutes. Not surprisingly, without their star to lean on, the Bulls were blown out.

The disappointing game for Butler — who also sat out Tuesday against the Wizards and will not play against the Knicks, either — came after a standout week in which he averaged 38 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in leading the Bulls to consecutive wins over Charlotte, Cleveland and Toronto.

Butler scored 52 points in the game against the Hornets and finished the week with a 42-point performance against the Raptors.

All of this came against the distraction of a Bleacher Report story that suggested the Bulls could be shopping Butler, who avoided the off-season housecleaning.

“My job’s not to worry about what the media is writing, what’s going on in the outside world,” said Butler, who is averaging a career-best 25 points and 6.7 rebounds this season. “My job is to come in here and work and try to help this team win games. I tell everybody — just like they tell me — we’re all we got in here. Good, bad, indifferent. We can always lean on each other. With all of the hippity-hoopla that’s going around, you just keep being you and keep working.”

Wade, who spent 13 seasons in Miami and won three championships there, has quickly become a Butler fan.

“He’s just not at home kicking his feet up because he had a 52-point game or a 40-point game,” said Wade, who, like Butler, played his college ball at Marquette. “He’s still working. The guy wants to be great.”

But whether Butler will receive the support he needs to at least get the Bulls to the playoffs remains a question mark. Wade is the team’s next-best offensive threat, but his numbers, not surprisingly, are slipping. He is averaging 30.4 minutes per game — not bad, but a career nadir — and 18.7 points, his lowest figure since he was a rookie in 2003-4.

By contrast, Butler is hearing “M.V.P.” chants from crowds at United Center. Pretty good for someone who was the 30th pick in the 2011 draft. But Butler has been around long enough to know that such acclaim tends to ring hollow unless the Bulls have some success, too.

At the moment, it is not clear that they will. But if they can beat the Knicks, even without Butler, the Bulls will at least be back at .500.