This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on December 25, 2016
Jimmy Butler is not interested in small talk. Which, depending on whom you speak with, makes him either the most difficult person to interview, or the most interesting. What he definitely is not, though, is boring; much like his 2016-’17 season.
The six-year veteran two-time All-Star forward will be playing in his sixth Christmas Day game when he leads Chicago Bulls against Kawhi Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs, who, ironically, have been struggling at home.
It is not far-fetched to compare the two mid to late first round picks in 2011, who came into the league with the ceiling of being effective role players at best. The two forwards, however, had other plans, becoming two-way threats (both at the offensive and defensive ends) and legitimate stars in the league.
“He’s (Leonard) a great player overall.” said Butler who made himself available to global media in the build up to the Christmas Day matchup. “He plays both sides of the ball extremely well and I just think that the amount of work that we both put into it in the summer and every single day, is the reason our careers have taken off the way that they have.”
While Butler’s resumé is not as colourful as Leonard’s, he will have none of the comparisons that fans and experts thrust upon the two stars. “I don’t compare myself to anybody else,” he clarified, “I have to play well and do whatever it takes for my team to win. It’s not who’s better than who…it’s all about the team winning the game.”
No beating around the bush
That team, the Chicago Bulls, came into the 2016-‘17 season with no one being able to make sense of their offseason moves. The Bulls faced much scepticism, most notably when trading away All-Star point guard and Chicago favourite, Derrick Rose. The No. 1 pick in the 2008 season and the 2011 Most Valuable Player carried the hopes of the Windy City for eight seasons.
Those hopes stood on shaky ground for four of those seasons (2012-‘2016) after Rose tore his ACL (anterior Cruciate Ligament) in the 2012 playoffs, never quite recovering to full health until last season. Sensing that his value could only drop, the Bulls pulled the trigger on a trade that saw five players and one draft pick change hands.
“I can’t say that I was surprised,” said the straight talking Butler, who often walks the fine line between the truth and diplomacy, “but I knew that it had to be one of us to tell you the truth.”
With Rose gone, the responsibility that ought to have shifted to Butler, the 2015 NBA Most Improved Player, who was coming off career highs in points (20.9), assists (4.8) and field goals made/attempted (7.0/15.4), was marginally threatened when three-time NBA Champion and 12-time NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade shockingly decided to bring “his talents” back to his hometown Chicago.
Any doubts, however, about whose team it was were immediately addressed by Wade in his introductory press conference.“This is Jimmy’s team,” Wade said. “It won’t be a tug and pull whose team it is.”
“He’s been amazing. He’s been great.” Butler remarked about his teammate and fellow Marquette alma mater, Dwyane Wade. “He knows what it takes to win a championship. The young guys and me, we are paying attention how he takes care of his body, because that’s how you get to play as many years as he’s played. Everybody knows him for the person and the basketball player that he is, but off the floor, with his family and his community, he gives so much love to everybody, just a great human being. He can then flip a switch and be a fierce competitor on the court. That’s what makes Dwayne Wade Dwayne Wade.”
Even 2008 NBA Champion Rajon Rondo, brought in to address the gaping hole at point guard left by the departure of Derrick Rose, echoed Wade’s sentiments when asked who the leader of the Bulls was.
Which brings us back to Butler, who is touching career highs in nearly every statistical category this season, some of those highs leading all Bulls players. Already an elite defender, Butler continues to grow as a scoring threat, scoring 24.4 points per game (10th in the NBA), trailing only Durant (25.9) among players who average 17 or fewer field goal attempts (shots) in a game.
The work he’s put in, though, has not reaped favourable results for the team just yet. Chicago have been lurking in the middle of the Eastern Conference and at the time of writing this, are ninth behind the equally mediocre Indiana Pacers. “Some games, we come out flat.” said Butler about the team’s struggles. He’s optimistic though. “We’ve proven that we can win games even with just one 3-pointer in the whole game. For us, it’s all about on the defensive end. If we guard the way that we guard on the premier teams. I don’t think we’ll have a problem beating anybody.”
Creating his own legacy
His rumoured feud with coach Fred Hoiberg last season aside, Butler also does not mince his words when asked why how he feels about calling out his team that has faltered against younger, faster opponents this season.
“I think we’re all grown men within this locker room, so you know, if you criticise somebody, hopefully they take it for the right way. You got to do your job and play your role, but if you’re not doing that, somebody needs to tell you because if nobody does, you don’t know that you’re doing anything wrong. You’re a grown man. Nobody feels sorry for you, so we all got to go out there and do our job.”
And what about the responsibility that has fallen squarely upon Butler’s shoulders; the responsibility that the de facto leader of the Chicago Bulls has to give the city its first NBA Championship since a certain Michael Jordan brought home the trophy in 1998?
Butler stopped us right there. “I damned sure would never compare myself to Michael Jordan. I want to win a championship here for this city and we’re very capable of doing so, but I want to have my own legacy and write my own story. I want to be known for me winning games, not just being in the same organisation as Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, and Dennis Rodman. I’m trying to be the best version of myself that I can be.”
And in true Jimmy Butler style, he reminds us, “I’m not living in the MJ shadow.”