Jimmy Butler assuming bigger leadership role for Bulls

It was a woeful, oh-no-here-we-go-again first half for Doug McDermott Tuesday in the Bulls preseason opener. McDermott was zero for five and scoreless, missing all his three pointers. Could it be that he only could play against summer league talent?

McDermott wasn’t losing faith quite yet, but they’d all seen his shoulders sag too often. Jimmy Butler wasn’t having any of that.

“That’s what you do!” Butler commanded McDermott forcefully at halftime. “You put the ball in the basket. Don’t be scared. Keep shooting!”

“He did that,” Butler would relate after a 105-95 Bulls victory. “You saw the outcome.”

The outcome was a McDermott second half with 23 points and five of eight three pointers to help the Bulls pull away to the victory as they head for Colorado Springs to play the Nuggets Thursday. McDermott, though it was previously planned, will start for Tony Snell in that game.

Meanwhile, on a micro scale it was a step for McDermott, whose confidence had been shaken after not playing much his rookie season.

But in the larger and longer view, it was an important leap for Butler and the Bulls as Butler has begun to assert himself more with teammates, taking a vital leadership and mentoring role now as one of the veteran players on the team.

“We’ve got guys who can score, guys who can facilitate, guys who can rebound, guys who can shoot, guys who can drive. We need a guy who is going to step in and be that vocal guy in this locker room, on the practice court, in the game. And I think that’s what I’m going to have to be,” said Butler. “I’m growing in this league. I’m here four years now. I have to take another leap forward. I think that’s going to be on the leadership side. Not just on the court.

“We have a couple of guys quiet by nature,” added Butler, who until this season has been one of those guys, mostly deferential and to himself. “There’s nothing wrong with that. Guys lead with their emotions if it’s Jo (Noah), with their play if it’s Derrick (Rose), Pau (Gasol). He’s been around winning teams. You need a guy who’s going hard every night and backs up what he is talking about. I definitely think it is going to be me.”

It’s a bold step for Butler and welcomed by coach Fred Hoiberg, who said any team could or should want multiple leaders. In fact, the best teams are player coached, in a sense. Not to say the coach isn’t a leader or is negated. But teams that have players who can both get along well and then settle their disputes internally and motivate themselves are the stuff of champions.

Leadership in sports, in many respects, is misunderstood.

It was simple in Chicago in the 1990s because of Michel Jordan’s legendary greatness. But that is rare. Good teams generally have multiple leaders who perform in varying ways.

The most outspoken leader for the champion Golden State Warriors last season, for example, was Draymond Green. Stephen Curry was probably the third “leader” behind also Andre Iguodala. But the team prospered because so many players assumed various roles and were able to demand of one another without negative reaction or fallout.

Which Butler seemed to understand as well rather than suggest it was “his team,” or that he needed to stand above others in influence and authority.

“I think we need a locker room full of leaders,” said Butler. “No (one) more than anyone else. When times get tough, we’re down, not making stops, somebody, I have to be that guy to get us together and make sure we are supposed to be doing what we are supposed to be doing.”

This became a discussion after the game when Butler was asked about comments he made earlier to NBA.com that there has been a leadership void with the Bulls in previous seasons.

Some suggested this was criticism of Rose or Noah since Rose has been the name star, though not so much the last few seasons because of injuries, and Noah was considered in the community the leadership spirit of the team given his impassioned play.

If there was a void, however, it was shared as Butler admitted he, too, hasn’t been very vocal.

“I’ve never been in this position in my life. It doesn’t (feel natural),” said Butler of being an outspoken voice with teammates. “I just played hard and tried to get by. I never wanted to step on anybody’s toes how many years I’ve been here. But now I’m one of the older players (with a new contract); they’re looking at me to lead. I have no choice, but I do want to lead.”

It really is an encouraging progression for Butler, who as late as the playoffs last season was deferring and disappearing after games. Though uncomfortable, it’s always been the role of the best players and leaders to face the media after tough losses. Rose, Noah and Gasol basically handled it last season. Butler demurred.

But Butler has done what the truly great players have done, which is make himself better each offseason. His improvement from a 30th draft pick to an All-Star has been one of the most impressive in the NBA and earned him an overwhelming vote as the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season. Could he win it twice in a row? But Butler also understood being great isn’t just the numbers in the box score. There are intangibles, and his life has been about improving and doing the unexpected. Already this season, he has been more open, convivial and accommodating with the media than anytime in his pro career.

Butler is known as a committed worker. The 6-7 guard has made himself better each season, and it seems clear he’s about to do it again by taking on leadership responsibilities.

Though what gets lost in that debate is the internecine aspect of it when it devolves into a debate about whose team it is, like with the early 2000 Lakers. The Shaq/Kobe My Team debate broke up the team and likely cost it multiple championships.

The best teams have multiple players who lead in a variety of ways, like with their play, their demands, their commitment. Can anyone identify the notable leader on the baseball Chicago Cubs? Sometimes it’s the best player. Though more often it’s a compendium of talent, various players bringing disparate skills and abilities to the team.

It’s the team that can accommodate them all without the individual egos standing out that has the best chance to succeed, like the San Antonio Spurs. Is Tim Duncan the leader? He’s quiet. Tony Parker was a Finals MVP. So was Kawhi Leonard, who barely speaks to anyone. You don’t have to be vocal to lead. Or score the most points. Or lead the most cheers.

But bring what you do, play your role, encourage your teammates, accept criticism if it’s necessary and be a model for others. Butler admits he hasn’t always been that guy, but it’s another step in his growth as an NBA star as he turned 26 last month. Should he succeed, the Bulls can only benefit.

“My main thing is trying to get my teammates involved as much as possible,” Butler said Tuesday even as he had to lead the scoring early when his teammates were faltering with Rose, Gasol, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich out. “We missed a lot of open shots. We guarded a little bit and that’s what kept us in the game, so I’m happy about this one.

“You have to realize the game isn’t always about scoring,” said Butler, who also had 23 points Tuesday and was team’s leading scorer last season. “It’s not all about you. You have to be able to find the open guy because we have a hell of lot of shooters on this team. Whether it’s Niko (Mirotic), Doug; Joakim wants to shoot threes now. We have a lot of guys who can put the ball in the basket. So it’s going to be my job to get them the ball where they are comfortable.”

Butler did that with McDermott, who is a vital player for the Bulls this season, especially with Dunleavy expected to miss at least two months after back surgery. With Hoiberg’s offensive philosophy based on more three-point shooting. McDermott should be as good as anyone the Bulls have shooting threes. But he seems to have been pressing to please. Butler’s encouragement was not unusual. Bulls players routinely talk about how teammates constantly urge them to take the shots and not hesitate. Butler probably wouldn’t have done so with McDermott before. But Butler is impressive the way he adds to his game every year, and this is just another element, if equally vital for the team.

“It’s all about confidence,” said Butler. “If Doug is confident he’s going to be a (big shot) in this league because he can really shoot the hell out of the ball. If he just doesn’t get down if he misses his first three shots. The main thing for him is confidence. He’s going to have a game he shoots zero for 15. It doesn’t matter; it’s part of the game. You can’t let that stop you. If you’re shooting zero for 15 you may as well try to go for one for 16. Don’t stop shooting.”

This season it seems Butler is shooting from the lip as well. It can only help the Bulls continue to score important points.