Butler successfully bucking the modern day NBA trends

Sam Smith on Butler's throwback basketball style

By Sam Smith

Joe Dumars thought maybe Mitch Richmond or a bit of Latrell Sprewell. Phil Jackson mentioned World B. Free and Andrew Toney. Neil Funk also named Toney. Stacey King thought perhaps Sarunas Marciulionis. Isiah Thomas also mentioned Richmond. I’ve been asking around after watching this fabulous run from Jimmy Butler that Monday got him named NBA Player of the Week along with New Orleans’ Anthony Davis.

Who’s ever played like this 6-7, 240-pound rock of a man who sheds defenders like they are annoying little interruptions? You see parts of many guys, like Carmelo Anthony, Glenn Robinson, Joe Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Mark Aguirre, the power and poise the great scorers share. Though with Butler it is a rare sledge hammer effect, the relentless pounding until the target is reached.

Butler on the Bulls road trip is averaging 27.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists, culminating in Sunday’s 40-point battering ram unleashed on the Los Angeles Lakers in a 118-110 victory.

There’s not a lot of those guys in the league (who play like Butler),” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Look at his free throw attempts per game and the strength. Jimmy did an unbelievable job (Sunday) getting himself to the basket, getting to the free throw line, making plays for his teammates; it was a very impressive overall game.”

It’s been a very impressive overall season for Butler, who has led the Bulls in scoring in their 9-5 start and 3-1 on this road trip. The Bulls play in Denver Tuesday.

Butler this season is averaging 25.1 points per game, easily a career high and 12th in the NBA. He is averaging 9.5 free throw attempts per game, sixth in the NBA. He is among four players with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook to be averaging at least 25 points, six assists and four rebounds. Heady company, indeed, but perhaps even more so in the historic comparisons.

There have been many players with those averages, but few who have played the game like Butler, even less so today, with a physical force that almost transcends the game. When I asked him after the Lakers game Sunday whom he compared himself with or patterned himself after, he mentioned Antonio Brown, the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver. When I interjected that he was not a basketball player, Butler said he was comfortable with that comparison.

“He’s physical,” said Butler. “So I want to be like Antonio.”

Butler has taken to carrying around a football to Bulls practices and had it with him throughout the summer Olympics with USA Basketball on the gold medal winning team. Butler often takes to tossing it around with teammates, and seems to brighten most when the informal football games are mentioned. Even after the uplifting win over the Lakers Sunday, the locker room was business like until someone mentioned about the NFL results and their favorite teams. Then the players became animated, shouting back and forth in that trash talking humor about their teams and who was succeeding.

In some ways, that’s the identity this Bulls team is reestablishing, one with a compelling physical mentality behind players like Butler, Dwyane Wade, Taj Gibson, Rajon Rondo and Robin Lopez.

“I think we’ve been playing like that all year (with the aggressive nature). It’s here; hopefully, it’s here to stay. We keep buying into rebounding and guarding and attacking we’ll be OK.”

Jimmy Butler

“We started off with a great three game win streak; then we got punched in the mouth and we were questioning ourselves,” added Gibson of the season thus far. “A lot of people in Chicago were questioning us. We stuck together, went back to the basics, jumped out on people. D. Wade and Rondo and Jimmy are leading the way, the bigs are doing their jobs as far as rebounding and finishing; we kept it simple.”

Butler keeps it even simpler with a throwback sort of game that likely has the legends of the game quietly cheering.

Butler is doing it without three-point shooting, averaging two three-point attempts per game. He was zero for one on threes Sunday with 40 points. That’s the stat they never show: Forty point games without a three. It’s a sense of quiet pride and tribute to the roots of the game.

It’s not going to be a return to the game as it was anymore. But two of the top scorers in this video game, three-point shooting era are Butler and DeMar Derozan, the latter third in the league in scoring by three-tenths of a point and, like Butler, primarily relying on a mid range game, strength, good footwork and fundamentals, intelligent play.

“I'm a very rebellious person," DeRozan told Toronto reporters recently. "When somebody tells me I can't do something, I'm going to do it to show you it can be done. The cool thing I find is when I see people say (now) 'The midrange game is not dead.' That's the cool thing for me because I never let nobody tell me how I should play basketball. If I can get it done, if anybody can get it done any type of style, that's all that matters."

It’s a mantra and a motto of sorts for Butler, whose physical, contact game renews mention of players like Robertson, Dick Van Arsdale, Dennis Johnson, Toney, Richmond, Bernard King, Elgin Baylor, Maurice Stokes, tough ABA scorers like Warren Jabali Mack Calvin, Wendell Ladner and John Brisker. These players were different, some better shooters, some more erratic, though all with an unusual physical component to their game that made them seem even more driven than their most committed teammates. Butler is like that with impressive overall abilities that have him being considered an all-NBA player for the first time. And even MVP-type player as he has scored more than 35 points in three of the last seven games.

Sometimes it seems like a cartoon, especially Sunday against the more finesse Lakers’ defenders, watching players bounce off Butler as he charges and churns to the basket. Sometimes he’ll probe with a drive, collide, spin and collide with someone else, finishing on the left side of the basket. He’s reminiscent of Wade in his commercial from a decade ago about hitting the floor seven times getting up eight, though I never could quite calculate that arithmetic. Still, you got the point. It’s difficult to imagine anyone in the game today taking as many falls, and as many hard falls as Butler and getting up without seemingly much effect.

He really does confront basketball with a football mentality, though with a much higher skill level and much less body armor.

“I think I’m pretty strong. I work on my body enough to withstand the contact, trying to finish. I don’t want to say I enjoy the contact, but I’m not soft by any means; let’s get that out of the way. It’s part of the game.”

Jimmy Butler

It’s really not a big part of the game anymore.

The NBA has slowly legislated much of the contact out of the game. Not to say it’s produced a delicate brand of player. But with the three-point video shooting gallery, limited contact on the perimeter and acting awards for flopping that often goes on, Butler is emerging as sort of the anti-hero of the modern game, an uncompromising tough, grinding, workmanlike player who is merging work with skill in a classic way that has even the game’s purists taking notice.

The comparisons to LeBron James are perhaps too exalted even if Butler mirrors a version of James’ runaway freight train game. Though Butler lacks quite that size and skill.

LeBron was a prodigy, everyone’s number one pick since he was in eighth grade.

Not so Butler, who was a surprise even as the last pick in the first round, rarely used for two years with the Bulls and only then in an emergency. When he’s asked about being a dominant player, he refers back to Tomball High School in the Houston suburbs. He wasn’t even the star at Marquette, which didn’t have stars. He got himself into NBA games because of his defense, basically playing harder than the next guy without any particular notice.

He isn’t a great shooter, nor passer, nor ball handler. He’s good at each, can finish a lob, rebound. You wouldn’t watch him play at the park and pick him first. Or second.

Which perhaps is more to his credit. He lacked the natural gifts that teams so anxiously pine for. He’s compensated with a manic work ethic and focused determination.

“When you put the work in and sacrifice in the summer good things are going to happen. People categorize players all the time; it’s up to the player. The player works and he plays great.”

Taj Gibson

Sounds simple. It is a simple game, and Jimmy Butler plays it that way, straight ahead, ignoring the obstacles, doing it the way it has long been taught, with strength of conviction, style and manner. It’s a beautiful tribute to the game as well.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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