“One can have a dream, baby,
Two can make a dream so real;
One can wish upon a star,
Two can make a wish come true.
One can stand alone in the dark
Two can make a light shine through.
It takes two, baby
It takes two,
Me and you
You know it takes two.”
– Marvin Gaye; Songwriters Sylvia Moy and Williams Stevenson
It generally takes two, two stars to compete for an NBA championship.
Michael didn’t do it without Scottie. Shaq couldn’t do it without Kobe and then Kobe needed Pau. Kareem needed Oscar and David needed Tim.
The Bulls tried for LeBron with Derrick Rose and then Carmelo Anthony. The team’s offseason narrative this year was no personnel changes and only the coaching switch to Fred Hoiberg.
But maybe the Bulls simply have grown their second star, Jimmy Butler.
“He’s been really impressive,” forward Doug McDermott said Thursday when asked about Butler. “He’s hands down the best player on the floor every time . Yesterday, he actually was guarding me. So that was really frustrating because he was everywhere. He’s talking. Talking crap to all of us; it didn’t feel like he was on our team for a second. That’s just kind of the way he is. He has a completely different mindset this year. He really wants to win. It’s been really obvious the first few days of practice. He’s worth the money, that’s for sure.”
The media story of Bulls training camp was Derrick Rose’s comments Monday on media day and Rose’s orbital fracture in the first practice Tuesday and the subsequent surgery and recovery time period. The team’s story has been the almost complete domination of practices and scrimmages by Butler.
“I knew Jimmy was good,” marveled Hoiberg. “But he’s been awesome. He’s so strong right now. He’s in great shape, another guy where the amount of work he put in in the summer is paying off. He’s probably in the best shape of anybody out here. He’s all over the floor, offensively, defensively. There aren’t a lot of two-way players in this league, but Jimmy is definitely one of them. Jimmy was phenomenal. All the hard work he put in this offseason you can tell. He added new elements to his game. He was terrific.”
It’s often said in the NBA that players only improve between seasons. Is it possible that Butler, who had his breakout season in 2014-15 in leading the team in scoring and becoming an All-Star, has expanded his game ever farther? Now to the point he and Rose, who still was the Bulls principal offensive option in last season’s playoffs, fulfill the two-star formula for ultimate success?
Could the Bulls have found a superstar in the most unlikely place, at the bottom of the first round of the NBA draft and in their own locker room?
Butler’s story is becoming one of the most unique in the history of the NBA.
Forget the dysfunctional and bewildering childhood that had him virtually out on the streets. Rarely in the history of the NBA have star players emerged from so far down in the draft, and certainly not players who can qualify as 1 or 1a for a championship contending team.
The consensus always has been a title team needs two high lottery picks. And though the Bulls now have Pau Gasol, who was No. 3 overall, he is nearing the end of his career at 35 years old despite still being a high level player. Joakim Noah was a top 10 pick, but he is going on 31 and having had knee surgery. So the Bulls had to be bold, like chasing James or Anthony. You don’t grow a superstar.
The Bulls may have.
Butler barely played as a rookie after four years in college, averaging 2.6 points. No one inside or outside the Bulls saw him even as a starter. Getting some starts for injured Luol Deng in his second season, Butler averaged 8.6 points. With a four-year collegian, the consensus has been you are who you are in your third season, when Butler averaged a solid 13.1 points and shot 28 percent on threes. Not bad, but not stardom.
Then Butler led the team in scoring last season at 20 per game, though tailing off some in the second half. Still, it was 15th in the NBA. Butler did win the league’s Most Improved Player award. Nice, but that goes to Kevin Johnson and not Magic Johnson, Jermaine O’Neal and not Shaquille O’Neal. Butler is a committed worker, and it seemed his efforts were rewarded last season. He became an All-Star. But now after yet another intense summer of workouts–during which McDermott said he took part in two weeks of Butler’s 5 a.m. starts–could it be that Butler is on the precipice of becoming one of the top 10 players in the NBA?
If he can, then there may have to be some adjustments about the Bulls’ potential.
After all, few had Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson ranked that highly before last season.
“I really do just want to help us win,” said Butler, whose relentless efforts have been driving the scrimmages. “I really don’t put numbers on anything else. Because if I say a number and [fall short], you’re probably going to say I suck. I just try and focus on winning. Stats and stuff, that will come within the flow as I get comfortable in this new offense and with this new coaching staff. And then just playing with everybody again.
“That was my goal the entire summer,” Butler said about showing he isn’t just a one hit wonder. “Just continue to get better and take another leap forward. Me and my trainer talk about it every day: Go out there and try and be the best whenever I’m on the floor. That’s the mentality I have to have. I just play like I’m one of the best players in this league, like I belong. So my goal is to go out here and play like I know I’m capable of playing. We’ll see what else happens.’
“I think it all started with 5 a.m. wakeups,” said Butler of his summers. “We work out in the morning, lift and run. And work out again at night. It was a lot of basketball, a lot of training, a lot of film, just to prepare myself for this upcoming season and give us the best chance I can help us with about winning. Probably put a lot more emphasis on defense (this season), to tell you the truth. But at the end of the day, just do whatever it takes to help this team win, whether it be on the offensive end or the defensive end; just be the best player I can be.”
Those around the team have noticed both a brash confidence with Butler this season, along with an intensity, joking with reporters more frequently while also being demanding and aggressive in practice. Some obviously follows from his five-year contract extension signed in the summer, finally bestowing security on a most insecure life. It’s even led to perhaps the inevitable question about whether Jimmy, a man in the way he’s lived his life, has become “the Man.”
At media day Monday to opening training camp, Butler was asked if the Bulls now are his team.
Obviously, that misses the point about how to win a championship, which Butler understands. It’s easy to misunderstand being in Chicago and living through the era with Michael Jordan, one of the most unique players in the game’s history. Only LeBron James now resembles that sort of influence on the game.
Players understand best the discussion about team ownership is only divisive and ultimately destructive.
Shaq and Kobe learned as their internal internecine struggle probably cost both championships. Whose team was the 70’s Knicks? Frazier? Reed? Whose team was the 60s Celtics? Perhaps Russell, though he wasn’t high scorer. Was it Magic’s Lakers or Kareem’s? Garnett’s Celtics? Pierce’s?
“Do I agree (It’s my team)?” Nah,” Butler said. “I don’t. I think it’s all of our team. I can’t do it all by myself. He (Rose) can’t, either. If we work together as a team we just want one goal, and that’s to win a championship. Everybody would be a winner then, not one person more than another. I don’t think it’s any one person’s team. It’s everybody’s team.”
With the Bulls, Noah generally has been acknowledged as the team leader given his evident enthusiasm and routine team wide encouragement. Leadership is an ephemeral concept in sports. It’s not developed but generally organic. Very few have natural leadership abilities. Basically no one among the Bulls does but Noah. Rose has been pushed into that role by his excellence. But it’s difficult for him as he prefers to lead by example with his play. Similarly with Butler as, like Rose, he is quieter, tending toward the noise coming from his headphones instead of his vocal chords.
But Butler seems to be making more of an outward effort this season.
“I know going into this camp he really talked a lot about that, about being a very good leader,” said Hoiberg. “With the amount of veteran guys we have we should be able to lead by committee with this group. That’s something he wanted to do going into this camp. In talking to him, he wants to add to his game. Every offseason, he’s in here working on step backs, one footers, runners. His three -ball looks great. He’s such a well rounded player. And when you have a guy who has that type of drive and desire and work ethic, he’ll continue to get better every year.”
That much better?
“Yes it is changing, on the leadership aspect of it,” Butler said of his continuing development. “I have to be more vocal, I have to do more. Off the floor, on the floor. I don’t know if it’s easy, but I have to do it. Derrick is the quiet one; Jo is the emotional one. Somebody has to be that guy to be calm and still lead while still producing and still doing what he is supposed to be doing on the floor at both ends. Easy? Probably not, but somebody has to do it. I have to produce. Leadership is going to be the biggest thing for me this season. Everybody is excited, but I think excited because we get to play the game we love for a living and compete with each other, and soon against others.”
Like the favorite, at least in the Eastern Conference?
“My mindset’s the same as everybody else’s on the team, and that’s to win as many games as possible whether it’s against LeBron (or anyone else),” said Butler. “He’s a helluva player; he has a helluva team. You’re going to have to go through LeBron and the Cavs to get to the Finals and have a chance at winning the Finals. We’ve got to get working on the Chicago Bulls, focus on ourselves before we can focus on anyone else.”
To make a dream come true, it takes two.