Seen as sleepers leading up to the 2011 NBA Draft, both budding stars are driven to be among the very best in the league
POSTED: Dec 1, 2015 4:09 PM ET
The next time Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler might duel could be at February's All-Star Game.
CHICAGO — It almost didn't seem right. Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler have worked so hard, done so much right, shouldered increasingly hefty loads for their respective teams in San Antonio and Chicago and plumbed the depths of their potential in four-plus NBA seasons, only to end up guarded by Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler.
Reward? Hardly. Respect, most definitely.
Leonard and Butler are self-made successes, a couple of the NBA's most impressive and diligent two-way players and shining examples for the young guys on their teams' rosters such as Kyle Anderson and Tony Snell. They came into the league as sleepers, convinced their coaches with every successful step they took to throw more at them and, for 40 of the 48 minutes Monday night at United Center, locked into a tenacious duel at both ends of the floor.
Yeah, they're examples of guys that just put a lot of time into their games and how it pays off.
– Bulls' coach Fred Hoiberg on Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard
When it was over, Butler's edge in Chicago's 92-89 victory was as thin as Leonard's missed 3-pointer from the right wing with 4.9 seconds left. The Spurs' young wing was tremendous, scoring 25 points with eight rebounds. He logged a plus-14, which means San Antonio was minus-17 in the eight minutes Leonard rested.
Butler was on the opposite end, going minus-11 while scoring 14 points on 5-for-9 shooting. Playing for 10 days on a sore heel he'd been reticent to blame, the Bulls guard/forward got to the line a below-average four times but sank two free throws late for Chicago's final points.
Both players managed a few highlight plays -- Leonard knocking the ball off Butler out of bounds, Butler throwing an alley-oop for Pau Gasol, Leonard getting behind Butler for a baseline dunk -- but at the end, it was Butler's static-cling contesting of Leonard's last shot that sealed the outcome (and Derrick Rose recovering to get a piece of Tony Parker's final attempt).
"I just couldn't get a shot up," Leonard said afterward.
"Stayed down, didn't go for the pump fake, he missed the shot," Butler said. "I knew they were going to him, I didn't know where."
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Not exactly scintillating stuff, but it's the walks they've walked, not the talk they've talked that separate Leonard and Butler from the pack. Both entered the NBA in 2011 as sleepers: Leonard was drafted No. 15 out of San Diego State and traded that night by Indiana for Spurs guard George Hill. Butler was the final pick of the first round, No. 30, after a solid but low-profile stint at Marquette.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich knew what he potentially had, identifying Leonard for the Pacers trade on a night when his team picked at No. 29. He and San Antonio GM R.C. Buford then used that pick on Cory Joseph, right before the Bulls grabbed Butler, who checked some of the same "potential" boxes for Tom Thibodeau, Gar Forman and the Bulls.
But only the two players knew, ultimately, whether their sweat and toil would sync up with their opportunities.
"[They] just put in a lot of hard work," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said of the pair. "Play with a chip on your shoulder and continue to add to their games. Kawhi has been great for them. ... Yeah, they're examples of guys that just put a lot of time into their games and how it pays off."
Through Monday, Butler had played two more games than Leonard (271-269), 261 more minutes despite 75 fewer starts. Leonard has the edge in most categories, including career scoring (12.9 to 12.2), rebounding (7.7 to 5.2), PER (19.4 to 16.8) and regular-season victories (205 to 168).
The playoffs, of course, have been a Leonard blowout, his development coming within San Antonio's culture of excellence to help keep the Spurs afloat. Butler has taken on an ever-bigger role just trying to get Chicago back to that level. So Leonard has a championship ring and the 2014 Finals MVP Award, though Butler beat his counterpart to the All-Star Game, earning an East roster spot last February.
Individual awards were a push in 2014-15, Leonard snagging the Defensive Player of the Year award while Butler was named the NBA's Most Improved Player. Their rewards over the summer were nearly identical -- five-year deals in restricted free agency, Butler signing on July 9 for $95 million, Leonard getting $94 million one week later -- after the agents, accountants and taxmen take their cuts.
Some of the same praised heaped on one could apply to the other, swapping out teammates' names. For example, David West, the former Pacers forward now with San Antonio, had kept an eye on Leonard as an Indiana gem who possibly had gotten away. He likes Leonard better as a teammate than as a foe.
"He's one of them guys, he wants to be great," West said. "He doesn't take any shortcuts. He's constantly working on his craft. He wants to improve every day. He takes seriously both sides of the ball."
There's a little looping to Leonard's and Butler's worlds, in that the former grew up in Los Angeles but works now in Texas while the latter grew up in Texas -- Tomball, on the outskirts of Houston -- but is infatuated with L.A.. Butler has show-biz friends such as actor Mark Wahlberg and rented a luxurious home in San Diego over the summer.
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The Bulls' guy, with his love of country-western music and unabashed willingness to sing along, is more of an extrovert, certainly relative to the quiet guy the Spurs play alongside (and Leonard can be Sphinx-like to media folks).
"He's a quiet person, for sure," Spurs veteran Manu Ginobili said, "but the way he is playing is translating to make him more confident and to communicate a little more. The type of player he's developed into is incredible. The things he provides us -- not just his scoring touch or rebounding abilities. Everything. Steals, rebounds, playing hard at both ends."
Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have enabled Leonard's progress, yielding more of the rope with every fistful Leonard is able to grab. It's not too much of a stretch to say his Spurs teammates raised him to become the player he is.
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"They've been great in realizing that he had some skills and each year he's shown more and more," Popovich said Monday. "They've created an environment where they enjoy him improving. It takes a load off of them actually. Scoring-wise, defensively, they've welcomed and cheered him on. So he's felt very comfortable in getting more touches and me calling his number. Some of the things we used to do for Manu, we do for him now."
Butler and Leonard aren't the gushing types when it comes to lavishing praise on an opponent, given another decade or so of butting heads and chasing what each other wants. So what was there Monday about the matchup, grudging or not, will have to suffice.
"I mean it's always fun to play against a great player," Leonard said. "You always look forward to those matchups. I try to do my best whoever I'm guarding, every night. It's the NBA -- anybody can score 30 points on you."
He's one of them guys, he wants to be great.
– Spurs' David West on Kawhi Leonard
Said Butler, 26, a whole 21 months older than Leonard: "The kid can play. A lot of guys on that team can. When you've got vets like that who know how to win with young guys who can really play and a coach like they have, you see the success that they have. He's going to be one of the greats in this league, I think."
We get to watch. Both in future Spurs-Bulls clashes -- they don't play again this season until March 10 -- and quite possibly when they get up in each other's grill in Toronto in February at the 2016 All-Star Game.
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