When the Bulls open the 2013-14 NBA season in just a couple months, the backcourt will have a far different look than last year when Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton got the nod on Opening Night.
First, there will be the long awaited and much anticipated return of Derrick Rose, giving Chicago an immeasurable boost and allowing Hinrich to lead the second unit. While there was never a doubt Rose would reclaim the job at point guard, there was a little more uncertainty about who would take over at shooting guard under a scenario in which Hamilton and Marco Belinelli were no longer with the team.
There is no question about it today, though, as Jimmy Butler embraced a greater role last year and this offseason, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has said on more than one occasion that he will begin the 2013-14 season as the starter alongside Rose.
But Butler’s approach hasn’t changed a bit. He is determined to attack his offseason workouts with the same intensity he did a year ago, when he put on an impressive display at NBA Summer League. Always confident he could contribute, Butler’s role increased throughout the regular season and when injuries led to his first start as a pro on Jan. 19, he made the most of that opportunity and hasn’t looked back. Still, he’s practically in denial about being among the starting five.
“I feel like I’m not a starter yet,” said Butler following a workout at the Berto Center last week. “The season isn’t here yet and I still need to work my tail off for the rest of the offseason, go into training camp, play hard and do what I’m supposed to do. Coach Thibs and the management will do whatever they think it takes to help us win. Whether that means me as a starter or coming off the bench, whatever it may be, I’m comfortable with it. I just want to win games.”
"With everybody back, if we can stay healthy, the Bulls are going to go for a run," said Butler. "Our guys are always working. I like our chances."
Along with his play down the stretch and in the postseason, it is that kind of mentality that has made Butler a fan favorite. It has also allowed him some new opportunities within the game.
In July, he went on an NBA trip to China where he made appearances in Beijing and Shanghai with Yao Ming among others. Aside from trips to Canada to face the Raptors, it was Butler’s first time out of the country.
“Obviously it was really, really different, but fun,” said Butler. “I got to see firsthand that no matter the culture of the people, their race or color, whether they are tall or short, they all have love for the round ball. People over there all know the NBA’s players from the starters to the sixth man. It is pretty remarkable to have fans like that all over the world.”
“It shows you that it is a privilege to have the job that we have,” added Butler. “But since I do have it, I want to give back and show that I’m more than just a basketball player.”
Not long after his return to the United States, Butler was in Los Angeles to attend the ESPYs, where he enjoyed being among so many athletes and celebrities whom he admires and respects. What he didn’t expect is to be recognized by so many as one of their own, moments like when Hollywood A-lister Jamie Foxx casually walked up for a quick conversation: “What’s up, Jimmy?”
“I was like, wow, Jamie Foxx knows my name,” said Butler. “It was pretty shocking for someone who I know from TV and movies to come up and call me by my name. That was an incredible feeling because whether it was him or someone else, it means they respect me for what I do. They know me even though I’m a small town kid from Tomball [Texas]. That’s pretty cool.”
It was also another sign that Butler’s efforts are paying off. Aside from China and quick trips here and there, Butler has spent most of the summer in Chicago or home with his family in Tomball. He has a passion for music, attending a variety of concerts ranging from Lollapalooza this past weekend to Pitchfork Music Festival just a couple blocks from the United Center, Jason Aldean at Wrigley Field, and the B96 Summer Bash where he got a chance to meet Miley Cyrus.
At the end of the day, though, he can sum up his offseason in two words: basketball and family. And on this particular day at the Berto Center, he was able to combine the two, working out with his brother and a cousin.
While he’s focusing on his mid-range game, perimeter shooting and, of course, his defense, Butler emphatically states he is trying to improve in all areas.
“I’m working on everything,” said Butler. “My game’s not perfect in any area, so why stop working on one over another? I’m definitely spending time on my three-point shot, because with Derrick back, teams are going to double team him. So we’ve got to be able to open the floor for him. I’m working on some mid-post work, for when I’m going up against a smaller two guard or small forward. You’ve got to be able to score from every point on the floor. And a lot of ball handing, so I can be the secondary ball handler. That’s also important.”
Butler’s typical day when he is in Chicago begins well before he arrives at the Berto Center. He runs first thing in the morning, but is considering getting into biking because it is easier on his knees and legs.
"I want to be that guy, a key piece, because we’re going to be a special team this year," said Butler.
Following breakfast, he heads to the Berto Center to work out on the court, usually with an assistant coach and in the weight room. Occasionally at night he’ll watch film in an ongoing effort to learn the game and correct mistakes. It is not one particular game or series that he watches, rather a variety of footage provided by Daisuke Yoshimoto, the team’s video coordinator, who Butler has called as late as 11 p.m. for assistance.
Butler’s work ethic is typical of this Bulls team. It is a group that never quits, as it has proved time and time again.
Butler is quick to answer when asked what he took away from last season, one in which the Bulls played into the second round of the postseason without Rose and while dealing with injuries to key players.
“That we’re an extremely tough team,” said Butler. “You can’t sleep on anybody in this league,even if their star player or a few star players are down. Everyone is a pro and everyone is here for a reason. You’ve got to bring it each and every night—regular season, playoffs, whatever it may be. You try to win as many games as possible. Last season definitely showed that the Chicago Bulls are one tough, hard fighting team.”
It is an identity that isn’t likely to change any time soon, as the Bulls’ new additions seem to fall right in line with the culture created in Chicago. Throughout the summer, Butler has been in the gym on numerous occasions with the team’s rookies, Tony Snell and Erik Murphy, and he likes what he has seen out of them thus far.
“They’ve been in non-stop and that’s huge,” said Butler of Snell and Murphy. “From Day 1 you start out letting Thibs and the management know that you want to be here and do whatever it takes to help this team win. It begins right when they call your name [on draft night] and once you’re here for summer league, you start working your tail off. I like those guys though, they’re young and humble. They’re coming from winning programs, but they know they have to start all over at this level.”
A player who is well beyond that point is Rose. Though this will be Butler’s third season as a teammate of the former NBA MVP’s, he played sparingly his rookie year, thus his minutes on the floor with Rose were limited.
“This is more or less my first year to be able to play with him, so I’m very excited about that,” said Butler. “But I don’t think our mentality as a team changes at all. It will be even fiercer, if anything. Derrick is back and he’ll be himself, a guy that wants to win. He’s a winner and that’s what he’s known for doing. It’s huge to have him back and I think we’re going to do something special.”
“Everyone in this league is playing for one goal and that’s to win a championship,” added Butler. “I really think we can do it. The pieces we have, the guys that we have and the fact we’re close knitted, plus the new additions, we know we’re going to compete and fight in practice. We’ll be ready come game time and I like our chances. We want it. We want another one of those banners with all of our names on it.”