Jimmy Butler didn’t quite articulate it as such when he met reporters Friday afternoon at the All-Star weekend annual media session. But he seemed to provide something of a road map to the team’s season of potholes.
And no one is to blame, even if it seems like it’s a flat tire without a spare.
It’s the irresistible force and the immovable object; it’s the pull and tug of like minded goals and varied methods, the sturm and drang of individuality and subjectivity.
It’s Jimmy believing his scoring is vital to the Bulls’ success and trying to do so the best way he knows how with team success his primary goal, and the organization committed to the evolution in the NBA to the spacing, shooting, movement and flow that is both the future and the Celtics of the 60s and Knicks of the 70s. Again, with team success above all.
Can they find compromise and concomitant results somewhere is perhaps the largest question facing everyone.
Butler, who is not playing in Sunday’s All-Star game because of a knee injury, talked about the pressure and responsibility he feels with having signed a $95 million maximum salary contract with the Bulls last summer.
“I’m not going to say I’m the focal point of the offense,” Butler said when asked about his more prominent place with the team. “I can put the ball in the basket a little bit, create for others. That’s not a focal point; that’s playing the role I have to play on this team. I just signed a contract. I think that is what you are supposed to do. They don’t give anybody a max deal for anything. I have to be better, I have to help this team win a lot more games.
“It’s hard whenever people look at you to do something every single night,” Butler admitted. “Before I had the (contract) deal it was, ‘Jimmy’s OK, Jimmy can have off games.’ But it’s now you can’t. I like it. If I play bad, I beat myself up about it because I want to play well every night, do the most I can to help my team win. So when I play bad I go home and (pout) on my coach. ‘I let my team down.’ When we win I’m happy. That was the biggest learning curve, knowing that you have to bring it every night for sure. You’ve go to produce every night.”
That’s the pressure of stardom, and Butler is taking it seriously.
After all, greatness is not 50-point games. It’s getting that 20 or 25 every game because everyone is counting upon it. That’s work. Especially when that never was a part of who you were before.
Butler wants to be successful and make the Bulls a winner. But he also believes the best way to do that is for him to score like he has, at least 20 points per game with his defense and rebounding. However, Butler has only played as a pro in an isolation, play-call heavy offense without much movement. It’s where he learned his pro game and how he knows to play, how he had the success that led to that once unimaginable contract.
It has nothing personally to do with coach Fred Hoiberg, about whom Butler earlier this season questioned, yet with whom he retains a good relationship.
“It’s different (with a new coach),” Butler said. “It’s a learning curve for me, for everybody. You have to learn on the fly. We’ve been doing a great job of that. I think I can be better, he can be better, we can be better. I think that’s coming the second half of the season.”
But the Bulls knew they had to change, which was perhaps the major reason for recruiting a coach like Hoiberg, who was on the must see lists of basically every NBA team seeking a new coach. The Steve Kerr comparison is fair to the extent of resume and a belief in a style of ball movement, passing and not a lot of play calls.
No two people retain the same personalities.
The Bulls also knew they didn’t have the big men who were inside, power post players to pound down the ball. The future of the league is in the model of speed and shooting, a little more offense and less defense. Which is OK since the important statistic is not only wins, but the difference between points scored and allowed. Not just points allowed.
So the Bulls with Hoiberg have endorsed the philosophy of more offense not necessarily at the expense of defense, and the first 40 games the Bulls were in the top five in field goal shooting defense.
But was that enough?
Not so much for Butler, who retains that defense-first priority.
So Butler, the team’s leading scorer and perhaps key figure who feels the daily demands to keep up his end, interprets winning in a more physical way.
“I think we rely too much on offense,” Butler said when asked (again) about the team’s inconsistencies. “Don’t get me wrong, you have to be tough to play offense, but you have to be hella-tough to play defense. You’ve got to want to do it, win your matchup, stop your guy from scoring. Whenever you see that look in guys’ eyes, ‘I’m gonna guard my man, I’m gonna take this charge,’ I think then you’ll see everything turn around.
“I think when people go up against us they used to think ‘We’ve got to go up against Chicago!’ I think right now the way we are playing as a team people might be glad or happy or excited to play against us. It was never like that,” Butler said.
“We’ve got a great group of guys and they all buy in,” insisted Butler. “If we can get back to guarding the way we are capable of we’ll win games. We just lost our toughness; that’s what defense is. If you want to do it you can do it; if you want to try to outscore people you can do that, also. Obviously, we’re not very good at that because we lose a lot of games when we try to outscore people. You’ve got to have that grit. I don’t think we have that right now. I think we’re very capable of having it, getting it back. But until we do I don’t think we’re going to be very good. We have to be a tougher team every night.
“That’s not coaching,” Butler added. “You have that or you don’t. People in this league smell blood, they’re coming after you. It’s all about playing basketball at the right time. We turn it around here coming out of All-Star break, you all are not going to say anything about what happened in January; y’all be saying about how we just won how many games in a row. It’s all about playing basketball at the right time.”
Of course, there’s the complication as well of what time—and day, or month—Butler will be playing.
No matter the differing philosophies, there’s no turnaround coming without him.
Last week, the Bulls projected three to four weeks out for Butler after his knee strain last week. Butler Friday spoke for the first time since the injury and admitted he initially was concerned for his career.
“I was scared, ‘Please don’t let anything be wrong.’ I was asking, ‘Do I have to have surgery? How long do I have to be out? ‘Can I play in the All-Star game? Things like that because I didn’t want it to be over with,” Butler recalled. “I was scared. Obviously knowing the history with the knees, please don’t let it be something too serious.
“Yeah (I heard a pop),” he said. “Something did, but luckily, they said it was the capsule around my knee. I don’t know (what that means). I’m not the doctor.”
But it didn’t sound like Butler is close to returning as he said he hasn’t even been cleared to ride an exercise bicycle yet.
“A lot of stim, icing, the contrast with the hot and cold, lots of stretching, massage, just making sure my knee can move,” Butler said about his current regimen. “I don’t want it to get stiff. Hopefully I can start biking and doing something to get my wind back. I don’t know (how long I’ll be out). I’ve got to listen to my body and be smart about it. Of course, I want to be on the floor. I want to be out there so I can help.
“I want to play as soon as possible and if I can I will,” said Butler. “But I have to make sure I’m right. I don’t want to reinjure anything. I have to make sure my whole body is holding up, which I am sure it will be. T-nak (Jeff Tanaka) and Armando (Rivas, trainers) do a great job of making sure I’m rehabbing the correct way and doing everything right. I’m going to play the way I always play, give it all on both ends of the floor and go from there. I’m not worried about reinjuring myself. I don’t think it is going to happen. I take pride in it.”
But Butler also will be cautious as he admits after he sat out the Sacramento game Feb. 3 with a sore knee from banging knees the game before, Tanaka told him he might not be ready to go in Denver. But that’s what game time decision is about. Butler tried it out, felt good and everything with his knee seemed strong, he said.
“I sat out the game before; I wanted to play, obviously,” said Butler. “T-nak was, ‘I don’t know if your leg is ready right now.’ I was, ‘No, I’m good, I’m good.’ I went out there and played. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I felt good when I warmed up; I was fine. It was a freak accident; things happen. I’m hitting knees all the time. Eventually it is going to happen.
“If I can play, I’m going to play,” said Butler. “I think that’s what the fans come to see. That’s what my teammates and organization expect from me. If I can go out there and play I’m going to definitely play.”
Though the question as they all move forward is how and who is going to give and how much and what is necessary and how much is required. It seems clear everyone has the same goals and the relationships are good. There are good Democrats and good Republicans. They often just can’t seem to agree how to on the best way to get there.
Butler also had some other observations during his mandatory 30-minute session with international media that produced such gems as his preference for playing dominoes instead of video games; his likelihood of partying Friday night with Drake; his favorite Wahlberg movie, Shooter.
He declined to elaborate on his investments to a Wall Street Journal reporter and got a break as the guy asking everyone to name five famous Canadians (trick question?) skipped him. Jimmy did say hello to fans for Philippine TV and accused everyone of “hatin’ on my Broncos.”
He also reported in answer to the only question about anyone in his family that, ”Fish are good. I like my fish.”
— On the trade deadline: “It’s not my job to worry about trading and all that stuff. I have nothing to do with that. My job is to get healthy and get back on the floor.”
— On advice to kids: “Dreaming is not a stretch; it can become reality if you work hard enough. This was always a dream for me. I’m not the most talented guy, I’m not the tallest, the fastest, not the best shooter. I just work hard. When you work hard you don’t listen to anyone tell you that you can’t do anything. You can do it. I’m from Tomball, Texas and I’m here talking on All Star weekend; if that doesn’t prove I don’t know what does.”
— On teammate Pau Gasol: “I love Pau. I think Pau gives me a lot of easy baskets. A lot of easy baskets now that I think about it. So I like playing with Pau. I don’t pay attention to any of that trade stuff. So I don’t know what is going on.”
— On being at Kobe Bryant’s final All-Star game: “Kobe is an icon in this game. Around the world what he’s done for this game everybody wants to be Kobe. He’s someone I looked up to playing the game. He set the bar so high if you can get up there you are on a level of greatness.” Butler said his Kobe highlight was watching the 81-point game.
“Obviously, I want to win for the Bulls,” said Butler. “I think we will; I know that we will. But you have to cherish these moments and be thankful for what you did and I’m going to enjoy it. Every time I step on the court is a blessing. I’m extremely fortunate to be an All-Star.”