Asterisks abounded Thursday night, when Jimmy Butler went vintage-Derrick Rose – or one-off-Michael Jordan – down the stretch against the Atlanta Hawks.
* Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau had starters, including Butler, on the floor late in the Bulls’ mostly dismal performance.
* His Atlanta counterpart, Mike Budenholzer, was rolling with third-string Hawks.
* Rose, the Bulls player who would normally be called upon at such a point, was on the bench (prompting some predictable hand-wringing from critics who aren’t happy when the point guard plays a lot or when he plays a little).
* It still was the preseason.
* And Butler is in the midst of a salary drive, his performances this month potentially out of character, with the real impact of deal-or-no-deal in his contract extension talks to be determined later.
Still, the Bulls shooting guard did score 29 points – one more than his career high in three NBA seasons – in his team’s scramble back from 21 points to win. Butler got 20 of those in the final 5:11, an explosive stretch that might have been aided by the various asterisks but explosive nonetheless.
He did it, too, in ways that made the worriers feel a little better about Butler’s offense – no one questions his defensive effort or effectiveness – at a position where Chicago needs more oomph. Butler, who shot 39.7 percent from the floor (28.3 percent on 3-pointers), dramatically beat the buzzer from 26 feet in good form. He wound up shooting 8-for-14 and 12-for-16 from the line (9-for-11 in the fourth), and got some big love from teammates.
“We always tell him to take more [shots], but it’s going to be up to him to break that seal,” Rose said. “Thank God that he’s catching his rhythm right now and he’s building his confidence. He’s another threat offensively.”
Not last year, he wasn’t. But Thibodeau played Butler long minutes anyway, for his defense, out of need and in spite of distractions coming at the wing player from Marquette. Butler battled injuries early, played only eight games with Rose before the point guard went down again, then had his role tweaked after the Bulls traded veteran small forward Luol Deng in January.
“Jimmy has grown,” Thibodeau said Thursday night. “He’s more a scorer than to characterize him as a straight shooter. He’s an all-around scorer. He’ll find ways to put the ball in the basket.”
Butler, though you’d wonder where it came from, is said to have arrived at camp 10 pounds lighter. He looks more athletic and clearly has been more aggressive, leading Chicago after five October games with 18.6 points, 60.4 field-goal shooting, 43 free throw attempts and 144 total minutes.
“All summer I worked on my game. The biggest thing is confidence, taking shots I know I can make,” he said.
So, salary drive? Butler has two weeks left to land, per NBA rookie-scale rules, the contract extension available to players heading into their fourth seasons. Two years ago, Bulls forward Taj Gibson felt preseason pressure while his talks played out, and though he got his deal (four years, $33 million), the episode seemed to bleed into a subpar season. Butler has some folks wondering if he might go the other way if he gets paid – throttling back – or be adversely affected if he doesn’t get the extension done.
He said Thursday it hasn’t been a distraction. “Nope. Not at all,” Butler said. “I just try to play the game the right way. The whole contract situation is up to my agent (Happy Walters) and the Bulls organization. I just want to win games. Then the contract will take care of itself, whenever.”
And however much. The market for Butler figures to be as hot as it is fluid. Chicago reportedly would like to sign him now for what’s becoming called “Taj money,” close to Gibson’s 2012 extension. Butler might be anchored more by the three-year, $30 million, take-it-or-leave-it offer the Bulls put in front of Deng before trading him.
Then there’s the unpredictable marketplace of free agency, even with restrictions, should Butler get that far. Gordon Hayward landed his four-year, $63 million max deal that way – offer sheet from Charlotte, matched by Utah – and Chandler Parsons scored a three-year, $46 million contract with Dallas. And if Butler, who will make $2 million this season, were to play this out twice on a year-by-year basis, he would hit the unrestricted marked in 2016 as the new bonanza of TV rights cash officially kicks in.
Bulls VP of basketball John Paxson and GM Gar Forman, who will already have $50 million committed to four players next season (Rose, Gibson, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol), won’t have Thibodeau at the bargaining table, that’s for sure. The coach who has leaned hard on Butler for two years will look to him even more.
Chicago added shooters over the summer but after Rose, Butler is the best choice to put real pressure on opponents, getting to the rim, getting to the line, throwing himself around to wreak havoc and create energy on nights when there’s none, like Thursday. With Deng’s departure, he is the defender who will draw the toughest assignments, the only one Thibodeau trusts to check other guys’ most potent scorers.
Butler was drafted last in the first round in 2011 and still sounds like an absolute underdog. “I’m from Tomball, [Texas],” he said earlier this week. “I’m not even supposed to be in the NBA, let alone be a star player. I just want to be wanted. I just want to play hard. I just want to help [us] win. End of story. Star player, role player, bench player, whatever it takes. Just let me win.”
Oh, Butler definitely is going to win, either with the Bulls or someone else. In this case, the victory will be noted not by a ‘W’ or an * but by a bunch of $’s.