CHICAGO – Jimmy Butler got a lot of mileage, and an even bigger pile of moolah, from gambling on himself last season with the Chicago Bulls.
From this point forward – from the moment he signs that five-year, $95 million contract he reportedly accepted Wednesday when NBA free agency began – it’s the Bulls and their fans who are gambling on Butler.
So he might as well stop now with the “basketball’s just a day job” statement he tosses around a couple times in a RollingStone.com interview posted Thursday. And he needs to get a whole lot more convincing that the relationship between Bulls backcourt mate Derrick Rose and himself is solid enough, professional enough, to get Chicago’s NBA entry where it wants to go.
Butler’s most pertinent comments were what he said about published reports that he and Rose were at odds last season in what some felt was a battle over pecking order within the team.
Here’s what Butler, in the interview conducted after the Bulls’ postseason but before his free agency, told RollingStone.com:
“I don’t think we have any issues. I think we’re fine. I think we’re two basketball players that want to win games. That’s where I’ll leave it at. I think we just wanna win, bring a championship the city, to the organization. I think that’s our job. And I think we’re gonna do whatever it takes to make that happen. I have a lot of respect for the guy.”
Before we parse that, some context: Rose still is the darling of many Chicagoans, a native of the city’s South Side who established himself soon after he arrived in 2008 as the Bulls’ best player since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen by becoming the youngest MVP in league history in 2011. Three knee surgeries and 185 missed games over the past three seasons allowed Butler to develop into the team’s most impactful player.
Rose’s rehabs and Butler’s own injuries have limited their time together on the court – they have teamed in only 53 games, with the Bulls going 33-20. Butler had a breakout 2014-15, earning an All-Star selection and Kia Most Improved Player Award honors while Rose played inconsistently and missed 31 games.
In Chicago’s two rounds against Milwaukee and Cleveland, Butler averaged 22.9 points on 17.8 field-goal attempts while Rose averaged 20.3 on 19.6. In their Game 6 elimination by the Cavaliers in May, a noticeably passive Rose took only four shots after halftime and scored two points in 17 minutes compared to Butler’s 12 shots and eight points in almost 22 minutes.
The reports of friction surfaced soon thereafter. General manager Gar Forman addressed them on Draft night (“I’ve read about the friction. I haven’t seen it”) without quelling any.
So what should people make of Butler’s “I don’t think we have any issues. I think we’re fine” comment? Or his “I think we’re two basketball players that want to win games. That’s where I’ll leave it at” remark? While he also said he never read the reports – healthy enough, given what passes for media these days – he stopped well short of a full-throated condemnation, not to mention expressions of camaraderie with Rose.
Was it an indication that Butler doesn’t enjoy playing alongside Rose? Was it a hint that whatever chafing might exist is coming from Rose’s direction rather than his own? There’s not enough there to work with and, frankly, any sweeping pronouncements now might ring hollow until all concerned step on the Advocate Center practice court.
But the bottom line for Chicago’s NBA fans is, there’s no time and even less tolerance for any high-school stuff. If the Bulls’ window as an Eastern Conference contender is still open at all, it’s an opening that’s narrowing. Rookie coach Fred Hoiberg is going to have plenty to do without coddling Butler and Rose into playing nice together. If Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe could manage to mesh their way to a Knicks title back in the day, if Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook find enough basketball to get all the way to The Finals, Rose and Butler can.
Butler’s emergence is what the Bulls have been hoping for – and what Rose long has needed: a backcourt sidekick with game and ability to lessen his load offensively and handle defensively perimeter players Rose can’t. Butler, meanwhile, has spent four seasons doing terrific work, yet almost everything he’s achieved has felt like a bonus. Now those things and more are expected – and they’re being paid for at top dollar.
So toying with a music-and-culture journalists about hanging with Mark Wahlberg, wanting to impress Taylor Swift with his singing voice and portraying himself only as a basketball player by day is fine in July. Butler is known within the Bulls as a fun-loving cut-up and he seems playful in the interview overall. After his hard-knocks upbringing in Tomball, Texas, and No. 30 selection out of Marquette as the final first-round pick in 2011, he has earned the right to walk through a few new doors opened to him.
But focusing on the untapped promise not just of himself but the Bulls overall, and building the chemistry with Rose (vice versa) needed for them to function nightly as one of the NBA’s elite backcourts has to be a 24/7 commitment. It need not wait till training camp, either.
The Bulls gambled on Rose to the tune of five years and $94.3 million right after his MVP season, and largely have lost on that deal. It’s on Butler to see that it doesn’t happen again, especially for some silly reasons.