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Jimmy Butler Won’t Say It, But He’s a Star

Bulls guard Jimmy Butler insists that he’s a role player rather than a star, but his play says otherwise.

Alex Kennedy

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“Thank God for Jimmy Butler.”

That’s what Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said following his team’s recent victory over the New York Knicks in which Butler had 35 points, seven assists, five rebounds, four steals and one block. The following night, Butler contributed 31 points, 10 rebounds and two steals in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies. He followed up that game with a 27-point, 11-rebound, five-block, four-steal performance to lift the Bulls over the Toronto Raptors.

Put simply, Butler has emerged as a star for Chicago in his fourth season. He has been one of the best two-way players in the league during the 2014-15 campaign, averaging 22.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 48.9 percent from the field. He ranks fifth in the NBA in win shares (4.9) behind only James Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. He also ranks seventh in offensive rating (126.1) and eighth in value over replacement player (5.4).

Thibodeau loves having Butler on the floor, as evidenced by his NBA-leading 40.1 minutes per game (the next highest, Trevor Ariza, is averaging just 38.3 minutes). Even though he’s playing so many minutes and at times carrying the Bulls on both ends of the floor, he continues to deliver these monster performances that drop jaws. At this point, he seems like the early frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award and he has easily become one of the Bulls’ most important players.

“Jimmy is very versatile,” Thibodeau said recently, according to Bulls.com. “He’s a power guard; you can go off the dribble with him, post him, pick and roll with him, catch and shoot with him. He’s real smart. You can run the offense with him. He can handle the ball. There’s not much he can’t do, and defensively he is great. He’s as good as it gets in this league. [Did] I leave anything out?”

The Bulls are currently 19-9, which is the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. They’ve had a lot of success despite missing players like Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott for significant stretches, and Butler is a big reason for that.

“Jimmy has been unreal for us this year,” Noah told Bulls.com. “I don’t even know what to say.”

“You can’t say enough about it him,” Thibodeau added. “He takes big shots, plays defense, gets to the line. He makes plays, plays unselfishly, plays hard and doesn’t take any possessions off. He’s just having a phenomenal year. My thing to him is why put a lid on it? Where can it go? I don’t know. All I know is [his ceiling] keeps going up. That is how I want him to approach it. He brings great concentration and great effort every day. You bring those things and couple that with his talent, great things are going to happen and he’s showing that. The best leadership you can have is by doing all the right things. You can’t put any more in than he’s putting into it now. When you look at our season with Joakim being out for a good chunk of it, Taj being out for a good chunk of it, Derrick being out for a good chunk of it, thankfully he’s played that way. That’s really carried us.”

Chicago has won four straight games and has defeated quality teams like the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers in the last two weeks. During the team’s current winning streak, Butler is averaging an exceptional 26 points, 8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.5 blocks.

Prior this season, Butler was basically just a role player for the Bulls. He was selected with the 30th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, meaning that he was repeatedly passed over by teams before Chicago finally decided to pick him with the last pick in the first round. During the first three years of his NBA career, he was a significant contributor but never would have been described as a star or focal point. He played excellent defense and was pretty solid all around, but his numbers didn’t jump off of the page and there were clearly some areas of his game that needed work.

Now, he has exceeded all expectations and seems poised to be an All-Star in the East. But even though he has produced at a star-caliber level and received a lot more attention due to his strong play, he balks at the idea of being labeled a star. The 25-year-old still sees himself as a team-first role player, so it’s easy to see why Thibodeau and Bulls fans have fallen in love with him.

“I don’t want to be a star,” Butler told Bulls.com. “I just want to be a decent role player on a really good team. [I’ll do] whatever my team needs. If that’s scoring, rebounding, passing the ball or just playing defense, that’s my job on this team. Those guys are always looking for me to be successful. Whenever you have teammates like that who have confidence in you, it’s very easy to have confidence in yourself.

“I’ve never been the best player on my team, probably never will be. But I’ve always been a hard worker, a guy who doesn’t give up on himself, who has the most confidence in himself.”

Despite that confidence in himself, he insists that he’ll never classify himself as anything other than a role player. His coaches and teammates say that they view him as a star, as do opposing players and coaches. These days, Jimmy Butler may be the only person who still sees Jimmy Butler as a role player.

“I’m not a star; I’m a good role player on a really, really good team, a really, really deep team,” he told the Chicago Sun Times last month. “I like being a role player. Star has never been next to Jimmy Butler’s name. It never will be. I’ll always be an under-the-radar [underdog].’’

Regardless of how one describes his role on the Bulls, there’s no questioning that he’s been dominant in many facets of the game. One of the most impressive aspects of Butler’s improvement has been his shooting. Last year, he really struggled with his shot, hitting just 39.7 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from three-point range. This year, he’s shooting 48.6 percent of his field goals and 34.7 percent from three.

“I worked on it a lot over the summer, and continue to work on it every night and before practice,” Butler said of his shooting. “Whenever I’m open, I have to take the shot. Sometimes I don’t. I realize how open I am, but I still don’t take it because I want to pass more than I want to shoot it.”

Several of Butler’s teammates agreed with this assessment – that he’s too unselfish. Lately, it seems that he has been more assertive as his confidence increases, which is a great sign for the Bulls.

While Chicago is obviously thrilled that Butler is playing this well, they also realize that it’s likely going to cost them a lot of money since Butler will be a restricted free agent in July. The two sides discussed a potential contract extension before the Oct. 31 deadline, but Butler decided to turn down a four-year offer that would’ve paid him $11 million per season because he believed he was poised for a career-year.

That looks like an excellent decision today, and he has earned himself a ton of money with his recent play. It wouldn’t be a shock to see a rival team extend a max offer sheet to Butler in an attempt to pry him away from the Bulls. The offer sheet would likely be strategically structured (similar to the one Chandler Parsons signed with the Dallas Mavericks last summer) to make the decision to match as difficult as possible for Chicago. It seems likely that the Bulls will match and hold onto Butler no matter what kind of offer he receives, but restricted free agency can be an unpredictable process so nothing is guaranteed. The good news for the Bulls is that Butler seems to love Chicago and really wants to stay with the team long-term.

With nearly 30 games in the books, it’s clear that the Bulls have the potential to be a very scary team. They have one of the league’s best coaches in Thibodeau, an up-and-coming star who’s dominating on both ends in Butler, three additional stars in Rose, Noah and Gasol (who have a combined nine All-Star appearances between them) and impressive depth. They have shown that their balanced attack can hurt teams on both ends, as they have the NBA’s eighth-best offense and 10th-best defense. If this team can stay healthy and play to their full potential, they’ll have a legitimate shot at winning the wide open East.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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2018 NBA All-Star Sunday Recap

Michael Petrower recaps the All-Star Game from Sunday in Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2018 NBA All Star Game had some added appeal this year, with Captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry selecting playground style from the pool of All-Stars. Although it was not televised, it drew a lot of interest to say the least.

Team Lebron was headlined by Kevin Durant (the alleged first pick), Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving. Sadly, Team Lebron suffered big losses with John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Kristaps Porzingis going down with injuries. Team Stephen was led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid and Demar DeRozan.

NBA fans were ready to indulge on the highlight real of plays to commence…That was, until the NBA inflicted a marathon-like performance that seemed a bit unnecessary, to say the least. Kevin Hart was at the center of theatrics that had NBA fans scratching their heads questioning what was on their television screen. Fergie topped off the saga with what was one of the more questionable national anthems we’ve seen in recent years. However, if you stuck around long enough, the game started at 8:40 PM EST and the flashy plays that we hoped for, began.

Joel Embiid made his first A;l-Star game appearance and kicked off the scoring festivities for Team Stephen with a ferocious and-one dunk. Team Stephen led all of the first quarter and won the quarter 42-31. Karl Anthony Towns led the first quarter scoring with 11 points. Team LeBron, however would storm back and cut the lead to two, 78-76 at half. LeBron came into his 14th straight All-Star game and lead his team at the half with 15 points. Klay Thompson also lead Team Stephen with 15 points at half.

The second half ensued and after some back and forth between the two teams, Team Stephen was leading by three going into the fourth quarter, 112-109. Team Stephen grew their lead to 11 while LeBron and KD got some rest. But after the two came back in, the 11-point deficit was erased after a LeBron three and the teams were now tied at 144 with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter.

DeRozan would make a free throw to put Team Stephen up one point, but Lebron followed with a strong two-pointer to put his team up one. DeRozan tried to answer, but threw away a pass which resulted in an easy two points for Russell Westbrook to ice the game. Team LeBron was the 2018 All Star Game winner with a score of 148-145.

LeBron James went on to win his third All Star MVP after finishing with 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds, eigh assists and a steal on 12-17 shooting. DeRozan and Damian Lillard lead Team Stephen with 21 points each.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform, he clearly has his eyes open. On Silver’s watch, the league also eliminated the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, and it’s become clear that he simply gets it. Silver isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in order to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

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