Jimmy Butler is exactly what the Bulls need

by Ian Levy

Early in the first quarter of their game against the Detroit Pistons, Jimmy Butler found himself isolated on the wing against Tobias Harris. Butler is in the midst of a career year, firmly asserting himself as one of the best perimeter scorers in the league and the offensive focal point of the Chicago Bulls. Matched up against Harris, a frontcourt player not known for his perimeter defense, should have been an opportunity for Butler to go to work, especially with all four of his teammates having retreated to the opposite side of the court.

Instead, Butler called for Taj Gibson to come down from the top of the key and take Marcus Morris to the low block. Butler waited for Gibson to set up, then dropped in a rainbow entry pass and faded out of the play to let Gibson work his way into a baseline spin and a soft right hook that dropped in for two points.

It was a quiet play but one steeped in significance for Butler. It was the calculation that Gibson’s mismatch was likely to lead to a better outcome than his own, the unselfishness to forgo a very good scoring opportunity to create one for a teammate, the patience to allow a molasses-slow set to ooze to its conclusion. It was all that and more.

*****

The evolution of Jimmy Butler has been fascinating to watch. Taken with the last pick of the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler began his career firmly slotted into the wing defender niche, tagged with the optimistic hope that he might someday be able to make enough 3-pointers to be considered a 3-and-D player. In his second season, that 3-point shot materialized and Butler became a full member of the Bulls’ rotation.

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His third season was an increase in opportunity, and a dramatic decrease in efficiency, a blip as he worked out the transition from low to high-usage offensive responsibilities. The past two seasons Butler established himself as one of the best two-way wings in the league. This season, he has entered the MVP discussion, moved himself onto a tier where qualifying his excellence with directionality is no longer a necessity. He is just a star, plain and simple.

Of course, being a star for the Chicago Bulls is not really simple. The statue of Michael Jordan in front of the United Center is just 12-feet tall, but it somehow casts a shadow across the entire building. You can not be a part of the Bulls and avoid interacting with the legacy of Jordan.

For nearly two decades, every young athletic wing has been measured against the template of the GOAT, had their Jordan-ness assessed and mused on. That’s what happens if you’re a 6-foot-6ish scorer with some hops. With his limited pre-draft projections, Butler has always largely been able to sidestep that aspect of the Jordan legacy. He is not in the Jordan mold aesthetically and, as near as I can tell, no one has ever felt compelled to hold that against him.

Butler has probably been the best player on the Bulls for at least the two seasons prior to this but it feels different now that that Derrick Rose has been traded, finally relinquishing any existential claim Rose had to that title. Through 21 games Butler is having arguably the best season by any Bulls’ player since Jordan retired. Being an MVP candidate, an ascendent star, for the Bulls brings interaction with the Jordan legacy in a different way.

 

Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

For most of the post-Jordan era, the identity of the Bulls has been variations on a theme. Some good teams, some bad. The good ones were mostly better on defense than they were on offense, gritty teams full of hard-working, blue-collar players with bruised knees and skinned elbows, clawing their way into the playoff picture with effort and energy, no matter how overmatched they were in talent. Rose looked like he might have been able to set the team on a different metaphysical path, until his physical being basically gave out. Watching Rose flounder since his body got right also emphasizes all the old criticisms about his big numbers which were short on team value, and the old questions about whether he was really a star or just doing a good impression of one.

In a lot of ways since Jordan left, the Bulls have just been a cycle of what would have been perfect supporting casts for Jordan and Scottie Pippen — plus defenders with well-defined if narrow offensive roles, an evolutionary parade of Steve Kerrs, Ron Harpers, Luc Longleys, and Horace Grants. What they have lacked for most of this era is the binding agent, the star power to turn pieces into a puzzle. Butler appears to be that sort of player and that is now the challenge ahead of him.

Butler’s aesthetics haven’t moved as far as his production. Sure, he has a little more smoothness and confidence on his jumper but his drives are as much about bullish strength as they ever were. He still has the role player’s ability to fade into the background of a game, not so much in production but in visual pop. His defense can be invisible in that way that good defense can be — creating the absence of things that can be counted. His offensive ratio of highlights to points scored is comparatively low. He is tremendous, but quiet, the kind of player who can get an easy two points for his team by standing in the corner and calling a less-talented teammate over to get the ball in the low post against a smaller defender.

In many ways, Butler is the perfect standard-bearer for what the Bulls have come to represent in the past two decades. He is grit and effort, quiet defense and floor burns. A team-first role-player who also just happens be good enough to put that team on his back.

Jimmy Butler is a star, we are long past the point of arguing that, and he is a star for the Bulls, something that there really hasn’t been since Jordan. In a place where all roads lead to the base of a 12-foot statue, Butler is nothing like the player who defined what it meant to be a great in Chicago. However, by wrapping himself in all the associated values of the Jordan era, the black granite pedestal from which a bronze Jordan leaps for eternity, Butler seems to be the perfect man for the moment.

Ian Levy is creative editorial director for FanSided.com and manager of the NBA verticals The Step Black and Nylon Calculus. He has previously written for FiveThirtyEight, VICE Sports, Sporting News, and The Cauldron at Sports Illustrated.