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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.

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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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