Jimmy Butler, In Between

Jimmy Butler is playing like a star, and being used like a Disposable Basketball Unit. How long can this work?
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Illustration by Rebecca Levitan.

When Jimmy Butler entered the NBA in 2011, his Chicago Bulls teammate Luol Deng showed him his future. This was the second season of Tom Thibodeau’s run as head coach in Chicago, a lockout-shortened year of cramped scheduling and back-to-back-to-backs, and Thibodeau played Deng for nearly forty minutes a night, the highest average in the league.

This was Thibodeau doing what Tom Thibodeau does, and Deng doing what Luol Deng does. Deng guarded LeBron James in Miami and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. When Derrick Rose missed time with nagging injuries, Deng shouldered an increased scoring burden; when the reigning MVP returned, Deng cut neatly and set sturdy screens. He sustained a wrist injury in late January—just one in a career of overuse—but returned in a hurry, postponing surgery until the offseason.

Deng was the chief agent of a defense that allowed fewer than ninety points a contest, the lowest mark in the league, and his omnipresence helped the Bulls win 50 of their 66 regular season games. He bore his heavy minutes without complaint, though his red road jersey, come fourth quarters, was so soaked that it darkened to the tint of blood. Deng worked, and the Bulls won, until Rose’s ACL tore in the playoffs’ first minutes and the 76ers sent them off to a summer of ice baths and anesthesia.

Last year, in the middle of a second straight campaign played mostly without Rose, the Bulls dealt Deng to Cleveland, to Thibodeau’s mammoth chagrin. Butler, who had been starting next to his prototype, now fully assumed the role. He had been averaging 32 minutes a game to that point in the season; he averaged 41 for the rest of the year. He played 49 minutes in an overtime win against the Lakers in January, and 46 in a fifteen-point loss to the Warriors in February. During one stretch in March, Butler went four straight games without getting more than three minutes’ rest. Earlier that month, he had received a ten-second blow in a win against the Heat.

Pressed into expanded duty, Butler provided the Bulls with a passable Deng facsimile. Springy and strong at 6’7”, he interrupted opposing wings’ dribbles and eclipsed their jumpers. On offense, he ran down to the lane, emerged, and cut again, catching passes from Joakim Noah or stationing himself for an offensive rebound. During pauses in play, Butler took his breathers communing with his coach at the sideline, sweat coming off his chin in a rivulet as Thibodeau held throatily forth on the tenets of pick-and-roll defense.

This year, though, Butler has shown marked improvement. He leads Chicago in minutes per game, of course—averaging 39 after missing the first couple contests with a sprained thumb, which is four more than the second-hardest-working Bull—but also, for the first time in his young career, in scoring. His jumper is quieter, his handle more assured.  His game boasts a new variation and self-sufficiency. In short, Butler looks increasingly like the sort of young player that teams generally take great care to preserve.

Thibodeau and the Bulls now face the question of whether their young swingman is precious or functional, jewel or vault. And Butler, for his part, is at the precipice of the professional athlete’s defining chasm: that between team success and individual interest.

***

This is what Butler has always been able to do: It is the third quarter of an October preseason game against the Washington Wizards, one that received an introductory jolt when new Wizard Paul Pierce, early in the first half, sent an arm across Butler’s throat to prevent a Chicago fast break. There were words and shoves, some old guys in suits wedged between young guys in jerseys.

So this exhibition has an added edge that sustains into the second half’s early stages, and now Washington’s young shooting guard Bradley Beal tests Butler. Beal dribbles hard at Butler’s right shoulder and steps back, but Butler stays close, his feet landing in the spots Beal’s just left. Beal pump-fakes; Butler doesn’t bite. Beal decides that he has space enough to loft a last-ditch fadeaway, but Butler rises simultaneously and smothers the shot, sending the ball trickling over the sideline. It is the type of play that needs no stakes to be worth something, a defensive ass-kicking so entire that Beal cannot even muster an appeal for a foul call.

This is what is new: It is the first quarter of a November game against the Indiana Pacers, and Butler takes a handoff from Noah at the top of the key. Noah screens Butler’s man, and Indiana’s Luis Scola sags off to contest a drive, so Butler jumps off one foot, floating forward, and knocks down an eighteen-footer, easy as anything. The move presents a tidy blueprint for the night. In the absence of Rose, Butler will work regularly in the pick-and-roll, driving to the basket with his familiar strong-shouldered gumption but also stepping coolly into every jumper he’s offered. By the evening’s end, when Butler has compiled a career-high 32 points, Bulls announcer Stacey King will be speaking “Jimmy” with paternal pride.

Butler has proven an early-season salve for the hobbled Bulls, leading them to an 11-6 record despite periodic absences from Rose, Noah, Gasol, and Taj Gibson. He pairs his expanded repertoire with the best qualities from his tutelage as a grunt. Watching him over the course of a game, one is struck most by the regularity with which he insinuates himself into the action: a tipped pass or prompt rotation, a spot-up three and a baseline back-cut, offensive rebound, drawn charge, drive-and-kick, step-back. More than anything, the new Jimmy Butler is relentlessly present.

***

The only professional teams Butler has known have been the in-between Bulls, those squads either disappointed or doomed from the start by their superstar’s ailments. In place of contention, they cultivated over the past few seasons a kind of ethic-as-aesthetic, a stubborn commitment to doing their best even when their best would obviously not be enough to position them for a championship. The nobility was in the futility.

This approach lent some hint of deep meaning to otherwise ordinary midseason matchups and made some of their players, notably 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Noah, cult favorites. But this season’s objectives are more conventional. Rose, when active, has shown flashes of his old form. Gasol has made for a nice secondary scorer. Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Nikola Mirotic have turned three-point shooting, long a Chicago weakness, into a steady source of points.

These Bulls want to contend, and a contending Bulls team—one at full strength—would likely feature Butler in a secondary role. He would be the defensive yeoman and offensive opportunist, the worker. His joints would ache so that his teammates’ might rest.

He is, by now, overqualified for such a task, but title teams are made of such overqualified players. If Butler can spell his more famous teammates during the season and support them during the playoffs, he could be an essential ingredient in the Bulls’ first trip to the Finals since the Jordan Administration. The truer assessment of Butler’s worth, though, may come this summer, when he is a restricted free agent. He is a rare up-and-coming shooting guard in a league presently bereft of young talent on the wings, a player some team is likely to approach with promises of a lightened load and more glamorous job description. In Chicago or elsewhere, Jimmy Butler is about to make a lot of money, and earn it.

For now, though, Butler exists in a kind of basketball adolescence, a star some nights and a staffer others. His coach adores him for his self-sacrifice, prognosticators for his promise. Though the injury report may ultimately decide the success of the Bulls’ season, Butler will be worth watching no matter what. His ascent is both key to and tempered by his team’s hopes. As he has every moment as a pro, Jimmy Butler works for the Bulls. He will find out soon enough what all that work is worth.


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