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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 Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks

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Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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How The NBA Became The Most Betting-Friendly League In American Sports

Basketball Insiders

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The NBA has become synonymous with betting conversations during the Adam Silver era, with the league frequently being at the forefront of those discussions. Compared to the other professional sports leagues in the United States, the NBA has not only appeared to be the most progressive with regard to the topic, but it has also looked like the league that is the most likely to get further involved in the industry.

Of course, the league has placed a focus on sports betting, given that they have a vested interest in the continued legalization of that. They have mentioned that they would like a cut of NBA wagers placed, with the industry’s growth in the United States being something that the league could see improving the bottom-line.

Whether or not the NBA gets a piece of the action from a financial perspective, it is still surprising to see a major professional sports league in the United States willing to entertain the conversation at all. By comparison, the NFL has been largely afraid to discuss sports betting, while Major League Baseball has banned its all-time leading hitter for life for gambling-related offenses.

And it isn’t as if the NBA is only interested in gambling in the context of betting on NBA games. The league has relationships in the daily fantasy sports industry as well, with visibility for brands in that space seen in NBA arenas as well. And the NBA-subsidized WNBA is also a part of this betting-friendly basketball landscape, most notably in the form of a team named after a casino.

The Connecticut Sun is that team, as they play in the home of a popular casino in their area. Both the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury play in a venue named after a casino as well. And it is the casino industry that the NBA may conceivably expand into as their relationships in the betting industry appear to be growing in both quality and quantity. With the growth of online casinos, it isn’t impossible to envision the NBA encouraging its fans to compare the best casino bonuses to increase its market share in this growing industry.

Of course, with the betting renaissance that is going on in the United States at this time, the league is making sure that everyone knows that its integrity is not to be questioned. The league has made clear that they are going to ramp up the enforcement of its betting policies, to make sure that players aren’t compromising the game’s integrity. That move by the league is a smart one, as it makes sure that fans know that there is no reason to question the sport even if the league embraces betting.

The NBA is seeing progress across the sport, from its on-court evolution that prioritizes ball movement and long-range shooting, to its off-court stances on betting. Unlike the other major American sports, that willingness to evolve is part of what has caused the popularity of the NBA to skyrocket in recent years.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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