Jimmy Butler was never supposed to be a star, let alone the cornerstone of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises.
It was hometown kid Derrick Rose, not adopted son Butler, who was expected to bridge the gap in Chicago from the Michael Jordan glory days. Rose, after all, was named the league’s MVP in 2011 just one month before Butler was even drafted – and that too with the last pick of the first round.
More than five years later, it’s Butler who the Bulls have hitched their wagon to and chosen to build around. His unexpected rise not only in Chicago, but as one of the best two-way players in the NBA, is only continuing to trend upward.
Butler, more than anyone, is setting the bar high. Not only for himself, but for the organisation. His desire to win and bring a championship back to a franchise that is searching for its first in nearly two decades, is palpable.
And yet, while he plays under the retired No23 hanging in the rafters in the United Center and is a Jordan Brand ambassador, Butler isn’t chasing ‘His Airness’. Speaking with international media on a conference call, the Bulls swingman stated his hunger to leave his own mark on the Windy City.
“I think I want to lead my own legacy. I want to be known for me winning games, not just being in the same organisation as Scottie Pippen, as Michael Jordan, as Dennis Rodman, as all those guys,” said the 27-year-old.
“I have my own legacy and story that I’m trying to write. The goal, the reason you play this game is to win. So obviously, I would like to do that. But I’m not living in the MJ shadow. I’m trying to be the best version of myself that I can be.”
This season, Butler has transformed into the best version of himself we’ve seen yet. He’s scoring a career-high 24.4 points and the statistic backs up what your eyes tell you: Butler is assertive as he’s ever been.
The reasons for his most recent leap are likely multiple. For one, the Bulls’ roster has changed since last season. Gone are Rose, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, having taken with them their contributions on the court and established presence. In their stead are accomplished veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, who as newcomers have both cushioned Butler as he navigates a more pronounced leadership role, while also allowing him to grab the reins.
But something other than roster deconstruction and building happened this past summer. For the first time in his career, Butler was part of the United States men’s national basketball team, representing his country at the Rio Olympics.
That experience entailed getting an education from coach Mike Krzyzewski, watching and learning every day from team-mates like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, and facing the best international competition the rest of the world has to offer.
“I think the Olympics was a great experience. Just being around so many great guys and looking and watching the way they went about the game, their routines, how hard they worked when they weren’t playing in the actual basketball game and just getting to know them personally, it was huge,” Butler said. “It really taught me a lot.”
Aside from adding to his game and sharpening his skills on the court, Butler had the opportunity to see how fellow stars lead.
The word ‘leadership’ has been thrown around a lot over the past year regarding Butler, who hasn’t been shy about vocalising his frustration with team-mates and even coach Fred Hoiberg, who he called a “laid-back guy” and accused of not being hard enough on the players last season.
So far this season, he claimed the team didn’t look like they were “out there competing” just six games in and this past week called the Bulls’ play “unacceptable”.
He may show a softer side when singing along to Taylor Swift and Vanessa Carlton, hanging with good friend Mark Wahlberg or appearing in the new movie ‘Office Christmas Party’, but when he feels his team is underperforming, Butler isn’t holding back.
“I think we’re all grown men within this locker room, so you know, if you criticise somebody, hopefully they take it for the right way. I don’t think the entire time it’s great to tell the media, but I mean at times, you know, things happen in the heat of the moment.
“But I just think everybody wants to do well. I’m never saying that they’re doing anything maliciously, but I just think, you know at times, you got to play better. You got to do your job. You got to play your role, myself included and if you’re not doing that, somebody needs to tell you because if nobody does, you don’t know that you’re doing anything wrong. You think everything’s fine and dandy when it’s not and I think that’s my job.
“So what if your feelings get hurt? You’re a grown man. Nobody feels sorry for you, so we all got to go out there and do our job.”
The Bulls at the moment sit at an even 14-14, good for sixth in the cramped middle tier of the Eastern Conference. They’ve had more than a fair share of Jekyll and Hyde moments, beating teams like Cleveland, San Antonio, Utah and Boston, but losing to struggling squads like Dallas and Minnesota.
For all the talent they boast in the backcourt, the trio of Butler, Wade and Rondo features overlapping skills and weaknesses – particularly a lack of consistent outside shooting. And yet, Rondo, Butler and Wade have been the Bulls’ three best shooters from beyond the arc this season (averaging at least one attempt) at 34.9, 33.7 and 32.9 per cent, respectively. That speaks to how much shooting and spacing are missing from the entire roster as Chicago are essentially going against the emerging style of play around the league, ranking last in 3-point attempts (19.5), makes (6.0) and percentage (30.7).
Butler, however, doesn’t believe that deficiency has or will hold the Bulls back this year. “As far as 3-pointers go, man, I don’t pay attention to the statistics. I’ve never been one to key in on any of that,” he said.
“If you guard, put the ball in the basket, you know, twos, threes, whatever it may be, still win the game. We’ve proven that we can win games while making one 3-pointer throughout the entire game.
“If we guard the way that we guard on the premier teams like you said earlier, I don’t think we’ll have a problem beating anybody.”
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