“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.
Results-Based Mental Performance: Plan B
Jake Rauchbach breaks down how players can improve their on-court games with off-court tools during this hiatus
For players looking to remain sharp, getting in on-court work right now can prove to be a challenge. Considering the social distancing and lockdown currently in effect, players and teams alike may be forced to look outside the box to employ other sorts of ways to maintain an edge.
Integrated player development tools that touch upon the deeper level of the mind could provide the answer.
With limited skill development time, mental tools that aim to maintain and refine player’s instincts, habits and routines could hold the key to producing improvement during this on-court hiatus.
In this column, we are going to highlight four different ways to train the mind (And Game) to remain sharp.
Science has shown that there is a direct connection between thoughts, emotions and the body. This means when players are relegated to primarily off-court activities, there could be no better way to train, than visualization.
Players that I have worked with in the past who have employed visualization, have often produced mirror-like on-court results.
For instance, during my time at Temple University, there was a player who pictured himself stealing the ball in the full court and then going down to dunk the ball. Before visualizing this, he had not completed this play during the game. After doing so, he began to repeatedly complete this play during the games. This is just one example, of how powerful visualization can be, and there are many more. This type of phenomenon has become the new normal for the community of MindRight Pro community players. What we are finding, is there is a direct connection between internal picturing and external outcomes.
This is one of the reasons why, visualization is such a beneficial tool to use, especially when players are not able to get-in adequate court-time. At this point, making this apart of the player’s daily routine should be a no brainer.
Affirmations have long been used as a way to affirm mindset. For players, whose seasons have abruptly come to an end, and where on-court time has been limited, training mindset to stay sharp is VITAL.
Consistent use of affirmations helps players hone their very own personal mission statement. If players can stay on a mission now, they can perceivably do so through any future experience.
Regular check-ins help to keep players on a mission, and headed in the right direction.
Leveraging breath as a way to increase awareness and performance is a pillar of virtually every type of self-help and high-performance modality.
Being aware of one’s breath is very powerful. Breathwork has also long been used as a vehicle to bring people into the present moment. The present moment is where high-performance lives. For players, there may be nothing more important for their game than this.
This is a big-time opportunity for athletes to train on-court performance via present moment awareness. We are talking about training breath as a proxy for improvement.
Ultimately, on-court performance all boils down to present moment awareness. Without a strong handle on this aspect of consciousness, players will hold themselves back from the best version of themselves. For players, training this aspect now could reap big-time rewards when basketball resumes.
Of course, we can provide this list without talking about meditation. Meditation is like the anchor for all other mind-based methods. With the increasing number of options for meditation, players should have no problem finding resources in this regard.
This being said, there are a ton of different types of meditation. It does not matter which one a player chooses, the most important thing is that he/she is consistent.
Consistency moves the dial, and that is super important right now. Players who consistently train the mind during their time off the court; Give themselves an edge once they’re cleared to be back on the court in the full.
Check out Jake Rauchbach’s High-Performance Mindfulness podcast here.
NBA Daily: The Hot Seat – Western Conference
Matt John takes a look at head coaches and general managers in the Western Conference whose jobs might be on the line.
Back on Monday, Basketball Insiders took a look at which personnel from the Eastern Conference could be in danger of losing their jobs. In case you missed it, check it out here.
Previously, we discussed the notion that there’s always one guy you’d never suspect to lose his job to get hit by the Hot Seat – Kenny Atkinson’s mutual parting a few weeks back was just that.
Before we dive into the jobs on the line in the Western Conference, there’s something else that must be pointed out about the Hot Seat. It’s true that when it comes to job performance in the NBA, most of what determines your fate stems from the question: “What have you done for me lately?”
Joe Dumars’ time as the general manager of the Detroit Pistons is a good example of this. Outside of infamously drafting Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in 2003, Dumars had a near-perfect track record after taking over from 2000 to 2006. Following the departure of franchise icon Grant Hill, Dumars did the following:
– Acquire Ben Wallace in a sign-and-trade with Orlando for Hill. Wallace then went on to become one of the best rim protectors of his era and all-time
– Brought in Chauncey Billups on a cheap deal just before Billups became Mr. Big Shot
– Traded Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton, who became a perfect complement next to Billups in the frontcourt
– Drafted Mehmet Okur, Tayshaun Prince, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell, all productive players that were taken after the lottery
– Replaced Rick Carlisle with Larry Brown
– Basically stole Rasheed Wallace mid-season
Naturally, this created a great era of basketball for Detroit. They won a championship, went to two consecutive finals, and went to six consecutive conference finals from 2003-08. Not many can say they were able to win a championship after losing a superstar and failing to draft one when they had the chance, but Dumars can.
But then came the fall of 2008: That bred the awful Billups-for-Iverson deal. Paying top dollar for the ill-fated Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva contracts. Putting together a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. If Dumars didn’t have an incredible run earlier as general manager, how long would he have lasted after putting the team in mediocrity?
Given the massive amount of franchise success to his name, he kept his job long after things nosedived for Detroit. It’s that same sort of success that guarantees leaders like Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle will keep their job for as long as they want, even if they are sitting at home when the playoffs start.
The following people are on the hot seat not because they haven’t necessarily experienced success with their team — but because they haven’t had enough to keep their job should they fail in the situation they find themselves in now.
“Figure It Out… And Quickly Now”
Mike D’Antoni — Houston Rockets
D’Antoni has a lot of success both with the Rockets and as an NBA head coach in general. So much so that if he retired right here and now, he’d make a case for the best coach to never win a championship. Even so, the pressure on him to get Houston over the hump is stronger than it’s ever been.
Obviously, going to the small-ball lineup is something D’Antoni has no issue deploying. In fact, he embraces that gameplan. But even this may be too tall of a task for him. In the past, he used perimeter guys to soak up minutes at the power forward and center spots, but he usually had at least one pure big in his rotation. Now he doesn’t.
With Robert Covington and Clint Capela out, the Rockets don’t have any rotation players taller than 6-foot-8. In fact, the only one who’s actually measured at that height is Jeff Green, who was not only cut from Utah mid-season but spent most of the year riding the pine before Houston inquired about his services. Can you really call it small-ball if you have no bigs to begin with?
D’Antoni wouldn’t be here if this experiment was definitively working — they’re in the mix, but certainly not full-on contenders at this moment. For a while there, it looked like it was. Houston won seven of its first eight games, coming with notable wins coming against the Lakers, Boston (twice) and Utah. They then followed it up with a four-game losing streak with losses at the hands of New York, Charlotte and Orlando.
A record of 8-5 honestly isn’t too bad with such a drastic mid-season change, in retrospect. Russell Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball of his career, while James Harden was a little more off than usual. Still, the mixed results were scary given what the Rockets have ahead of them if the playoffs eventually come.
If Houston doesn’t get to the championship round or, at the very least, go further than they did last season, D’Antoni might get the lion’s share of the blame. Either way, D’Antoni’s contract extension talks with owner Tilman Fertitta didn’t go… smoothly either. As bad as that all may sound, with his reputation, he wouldn’t have much trouble finding another job.
“We Cannot Lose Another Franchise Player… We Just Can’t”
Ryan Saunders/Scott Layden – Minnesota Timberwolves
First, some props are due for both Saunders and Layden. In Layden’s case, he should get the credit for stealing Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez away from the Denver Nuggets. Then as a follow-up, he acquired D’Angelo Russell to appease Karl-Anthony Towns and give him the best scoring guard he’s ever had.
For Saunders, he’s integrated them pretty well mid-season. Beasley and Hernangomez are both playing excellent basketball right now for the Timberwolves. Russell is doing his usual thing. Appearances, finally, are on the rise for the talented squad.
Has that changed Minnesota’s fortunes one bit? Nope! Since the Timberwolves made their mid-season roster shakeup, they’ve gone 3-10, which puts them at 19-45, good for second-worst and only ahead of the injury-decimated Golden State Warriors.
It’s numbers like those that make the Wolves’ promising start back in October feel like an eternity ago. It wouldn’t matter if the season resumed or not, the Timberwolves weren’t making the playoffs. Worse, Towns was not happy with the team’s lack of success for most of the season. What Minnesota has to ask themselves is how long will he be willing to put up with such a lack of progress.
Bringing Russell aboard was the smart, obvious, and let’s face it, inevitable move. Pairing your franchise player with his friend has brought his spirits up, but the continued losing might not indefinitely postpone these feelings forever.
The real pressure on Layden and Saunders doesn’t come from only how the Timberwolves do, but how they fare against their competition next year. Excluding the conference’s top seven, their younger competitors — New Orleans, Memphis, Sacramento, Phoenix — are further along in developing their team than Minnesota. Worse, Golden State and Portland are also going to be much healthier next season. Making the playoffs in the Western Conference is going to be quite the mountain to climb, especially for Minnesota.
If they can’t get over that hump, Minnesota will have to do something to keep Towns happy. That might start with getting rid of Layden and Saunders.
This list may be short, but that’s because it’s hard to see other coaches and general managers being put on the hot seat right now. Ether because their seasons have gone well, their seasons have gone badly for reasons that were out of control, or there’s too much loyalty there for anyone to get fired.
The one coach who might eventually be on the hot seat is Quin Snyder. He’s done an excellent job for Utah over these past several years, so his one hiccup shouldn’t be enough to put his job in jeopardy. That’s more of a wait-and-see situation. Even if it doesn’t get better, it took several years for Toronto to dismiss Dwane Casey because he did so much for that organization.
Oklahoma City’s season has gone so surprisingly and enjoyably well that Billy Donovan’s job should be just fine. Some will blame Neil Olshey for what happened to Portland this season, but with all that happened with Jusuf Nurkic and their other injuries, what were his options?
Alvin Gentry would have made this list, but it wasn’t his fault that Zion Williamson missed most of the season. Now that the generational prospect is back, New Orleans has most definitely turned a corner and went 11-8 since his debut. It might be too late both due to the injury bug and COVID-19, but their improvement over the last few months should make Gentry’s job safe for now.
Luke Walton or Vlade Divac would also be prime candidates for this list, but who knows what’s going on in Sacramento’s collective head?
Right now, it looks like a lot more jobs in the Western Conference are safe than not at the moment. That can all change in a short amount of time, but we don’t know anything, really. Here’s to hoping that no one will lose their job in this league – especially at a time like this.
NBA Daily: Under The Radar – Western Conference
David Yapkowitz takes a look at players from the Western Conference that deserve their due for stepping up this season despite receiving less attention.
NBA basketball is on an indefinite hiatus for the foreseeable future, but here at Basketball Insiders, we’ve still got some content to keep you entertained.
We kicked off last week with a look at some of the top upcoming free agents around the league, started this week with coaches and executives who could be on the hot seat, and we’re transitioning into looking at players who may have been flying under the radar this season.
There are various reasons why a player could be flying under the radar. Playing in a small market, not being on a playoff team, etc. Whatever the reason may be, here’s a look at some of the players in the Western Conference who have been under the radar this season.
Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder
With all the attention Chris Paul has gotten throughout his career, it’s funny to think of him being on an under the radar list. But he really hasn’t gotten his proper due for this season he’s putting together. At the start of the season, the Thunder looked like a fringe playoff team at the absolute best. Thanks to Paul’s leadership, they were in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and surely would have given anyone a tough opening series.
In his 15th season, Paul’s numbers are right around his career averages. He was putting up 17.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals. His 48.9 percent shooting from the field is the third-highest mark in his career. As of publishing, the Thunder were actually ahead of the Houston Rockets in the standings; the team that traded Paul last summer.
Torrey Craig – Denver Nuggets
Craig is in third NBA season, all with the Nuggets. He went to a small NCAA Division 1 school (University of South Carolina Upstate) and spent the early portion of his career overseas in Australia and New Zealand. He originally began his NBA career on a two-way contract, earning a standard contract after his first year and now becoming a mainstay in the Nuggets rotation.
His numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the NBA. This season he was shooting career-bests 46.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. What has really stood out about him, however, is his defensive ability. He’s quietly become one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. On a team full of offensive firepower like the Nuggets, his skill-set is a much-needed asset.
Ben McLemore – Houston Rockets
There was a time when McLemore was a lottery pick and supposed to be one of the future building blocks for the Sacramento Kings. That didn’t end up panning out and when he joined the Rockets on a non-guaranteed contract this past offseason, it was widely seen as his last shot to prove himself as an NBA rotation player.
He has certainly answered the call this season. He emerged as an invaluable member of the Rockets rotation. He established himself as a legitimate 3&D player. Early in the season when his shot wasn’t falling, he was still contributing on the defensive end. As of now, he’s shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. He’s been a starter for Houston and he’s come off the bench. He’s certainly done enough to earn himself another contract in the offseason.
De’Anthony Melton – Memphis Grizzlies
Melton played in a total of 50 games last season as a rookie for the Phoenix Suns. This season, he was on pace to surpass that. In his second year in the league, he’s become a key piece for a Grizzlies team that was hanging on to the eighth spot in the West. He has a versatile skill set and he can play multiple positions.
Melton was putting up 8.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He’s a legit combo guard. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and running the offense. He is also a strong defensive player. There is a lot of young talent on the Grizzlies and Melton is perhaps the most underrated one.
Landry Shamet – Los Angeles Clippers
Shamet had an immediate impact as a rookie last season, especially in the Clippers entertaining first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Last season, he started 23 of the 25 games with the Clippers after the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He began this season as a starter, but has since transitioned into a bench role.
His numbers and minutes have dropped off since the arrival of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, but he still is a valuable part of the team. He’s averaging 9.7 points per game and shooting 39.2 percent from the three-point line. He can play both on and off-ball. He is especially adept at moving without the ball to get open.
Georges Niang – Utah Jazz
Niang started his time with the Utah Jazz on a two-way contract and has gradually worked his way into the Jazz rotation. When Utah waived Jeff Green back in December, Niang was the beneficiary of increased playing time. He has fit in well as a small-ball four-man who can space the floor.
He’s shooting a career-best 41.6 percent from the three-point line and earlier this year was among the top three-point shooters percentage-wise in the league. He comes into the game, plays his role and doesn’t try to do too much. A key utility guy who does what is asked of him and can contribute to winning.