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Jimmy Butler’s ascent continues into superstardom

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Jimmy Butler was in Milwaukee and hundreds of miles from his home of Tomball, Texas. He was trying to fit in with his new Marquette teammates, most of whom he had never met before. He had to change his playing style as he transitioned up a level.

And then it snowed.

“Unbelievable to me,” Butler said. “I don’t know if I was happy or pissed off that it was snowing. I had never seen snow before. I was incredibly cold.

“That was the biggest culture shock of everything. It was hard. But we got through it. We always do.”

He always does.

The Bulls wing called going from junior college to the Big East the most difficult step in his basketball journey. What he’s doing this year, it’s not easy. But Butler has overcome numerous other challenges.

A rough childhood, getting overlooked in recruiting, rising from junior college to top-shelf college basketball, climbing draft boards as a relatively unheralded prospect, carving out a role in the NBA, working his way into stardom.

Now, Butler – the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2015 – is pushing himself into the NBA’s elite. He’s averaging 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds an 4.1 assists per game. He ranks third in real plus-minus, sixth in PER and fourth in win shares.

MVP? Another MIP?

Butler dismisses the “individual s—” with a grimace, but he’s taking to his elevated stature.

“I figured, ‘Why can’t I be up there with the best of them?'” Butler said. “And I continue to think that way.”

Butler didn’t always carry such confidence, and he doesn’t have to think far back to remember the days he lacked it. Jerel McNeal, Wesley Mathews, Lazar Hayward, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder overshadowed him at Marquette. Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer once dwarfed his presence on the Bulls.

“I wasn’t always a really good player,” Butler said. “I just worked harder than everybody. I just played harder than everybody.”

Butler developed his skills. He gained fame and fortune.

He just never lost his work ethic.

As he continue to practice and study, he learned how far that could take him. Butler has made the last two All-Star games and last three All-Defensive second teams. Now, he’s recognizing his own potential.

“Your confidence comes from your work,” Butler said.

That confidence is spreading.

Say whatever you want about how he has handled his rise into stardom, Butler continues to rise. He deserves more credit for his jump from star to superstar, maybe one of the most difficult leaps in sports. But his continued evolution has warped expectations.

Bulls teammate Dwyane Wade first noticed Butler at Marquette, their shared alma mater. Could Wade envision then Butler turning into an NBA player?

“That was hard to see,” Wade said.

What about once Butler got into the league? Did his star potential show?

“No, didn’t see that,” Wade said.

Then Butler’s leap to superstardom surely must have also caught Wade off guard, right?

“I won’t say surprise,” Wade said. “He’s playing with the talent he has.

“He’s not doing nothing overcomplicated. He’s not crossing people, making them fall. He’s not jumping over tall people. He’s playing his game. He’s getting to the basket, hitting the mid-range pullup, doing things like that.”

Unfortunately for Butler’s MVP chances, he’s doing it in a year so many other players are posting unworldly numbers. His combination of 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds an 4.1 assists per game has been matched over a full season just 56 times in the NBA’s 70-year history. Do that in the right year – especially with Butler’s efficiency: shooting 47.2% from the field, 35.1% on 3-pointers and 88.9% on free throws – and Butler walks away with MVP.

But this season, four players – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Butler – are on pace to hit that scoring/rebounding/passing combination, which would be a record. To win MVP, Butler must fend off those other three and Chris Paul and Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James and…

Still, Butler has a more realistic chance of making history given his humble entry into the NBA. The No. 30 pick in the 2011 draft, he could o become the highest finisher in MVP voting in his lifetime who was drafted so low. The current bar is seventh in MVP voting, done by both No. 35 pick Draymond Green and undrafted Ben Wallace.

Butler could also break records with his sustained improvement.

Several Most Improved Players – Ryan Anderson, Kevin Love, Monta Ellis,* Bobby Simmons, Zach Randolph, Gilbert Arenas, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady and Rony Seikaly – received votes for the award after winning it. But none seriously contended for a repeat. The closest was 1990 winner Seikaly, who finished 12th in 1997 – with a single vote.

*Ellis received is the only player to receive MIP votes in multiple seasons after winning it. He won the award in 2007 and then made his way onto the ballot in 2008 and 2010.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as a strong frontrunner for 2017 Most Improved player, but Butler belongs in the mix.

To cherry-pick one measure among the many that showcases Butler’s improvement, his PER has risen from 21.3 each of the last two season to 27.8 this year. Only Terry Rozier and Giannis Antetokounmpo have made bigger jumps from their previous career-high PER to a new career high this season (minimum: 200 minutes each season):

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Butler’s ascension has invited greater leadership responsibilities, an area that drew immense scrutiny last season.

Chicago traded Rose and watched Noah walk over the summer. Newcomers Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo declared the Bulls to be Butler’s team.

The pressure was on, and Butler appears to be delivering.

Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg, who drew public criticism from Butler last year, called him a “great leader.” Butler again asked Hoiberg to coach him harder before this season, and his teammates have noticed.

“Is he hard on himself? Is he hard on guys when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to? Yes. He’s supposed to be hard on them,” Wade said. “But I think he’s as advertised.”

That’s because Butler continues to show his genuineness.

“He has a little different personality,” Wade said. “You come in, and everybody talk about it. He’s in the locker room singing country music and all these songs that most people ain’t used to listening to.”

That’s Butler from Tomball, Texas.

He’s now on an effectively max contract, in commercials and headed toward an even higher level of stardom on the court.

Yet, he remains relentless in his approach.

“I’m about right now,” Butler said. “Every single day, what can I do right now to get better for tomorrow – and that’s not even promised. What can I do right now to finish out the day right?”

Damian Lillard talks about his “no pressure” pitch to Carmelo Anthony, selling Portland

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Self-made, over-achieving players in the NBA tend not to be the recruiters. They worked hard and made it to where they are more on their own, and their world-view follows that path. Think Derrick Rose in Chicago.

Damian Lillard was one of those guys, but he has done a little recruiting of late — he reached out to Carmelo Anthony last week. Lillard told Chris Mannix of NBC Radio (who is filling in for Dan Patrick for the day on his national radio show) that it wasn’t really the John Calipari hard-sell.

“It wasn’t really a pitch, I just reached out to him and let him know the interest just wasn’t from our front office, if there was a possibility there was definitely interest from the players as well, and I didn’t want that to be confused,” Lillard said on the radio show. “I didn’t put no pressure on him or ask him a bunch of questions, I just said what it was from our end.”

That is nice, but Anthony reportedly has focused in on Houston, and might settle for Cleveland (if there was a deal to be had). Would ‘Melo waive his no-trade clause to head to Portland?

“I didn’t get a sense that he wouldn’t,” Lillard said in a tepid response. “What we have here is a good situation for him and that’s just kind of where it went. I let him know what I thought he could do for our team and what our team could do with his presence. And that was it. We didn’t go over no details or talk about a no trade clause or nothing like that. He’s gonna make his own decision to do that or not, I just want to make sure we had some kind of a conversation.”

It’s a start. It’s likely not enough. Anthony wants to go somewhere and chase a ring, and despite what C.J. McCollum thinks, Portland with ‘Melo isn’t a contender. Even with Anthony, I would have them sixth in the West, maybe fifth at best (Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, and probably Minnesota are better still). And this is assuming Portland can find a team to take on Myers Leonard’s contract to make a deal work.

What Lillard wanted to get across was that Portland is a great place to be an NBA player.

“I think people talk about what it would be like in Portland or to play in Portland, but actually having lived here, I live here year-round, so I know it’s a great place to live,” Lillard said. “Some of the best food in the United States. You talk about loving the game of basketball, our team and the soccer team are all the city has, so we get a lot of support and our fans really back our team and are really passionate about our team. That type of environment, and that type of love and support around the city, what NBA player wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”

Jimmer Fredette re-signing in China

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Jimmer Fredette played well in China last year, and buzz even emerged about him re-joining the NBA after the Chinese season ended in March. Never happened.

Even in the offseason, when every NBA team had open roster spots, nobody stateside has signed Fredette.

So, he’s returning to the Shanghai Sharks.

Fredette:

Fredette retains a cult following in America, but not the talent of an NBA player. He can score plenty in a lesser league, but his game doesn’t fit with better players on the floor.

Perhaps, he could’ve gotten a training-camp invite, maybe even with a small guarantee. But would’ve faced an uphill battle sticking into the regular season. Better for him to lock into a bigger salary in China now.

Rumor: Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder ‘officially circling each other’

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Carmelo Anthony prefers to be traded to the Rockets. He might soon be traded to the Rockets.

Are the Thunder trying to interject themselves before it’s too late?

Bill Simmons of The Ringer:

Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver was an assistant coach at Syracuse when Anthony played there. Weaver is also well-connected in the Washington area (D.C./Maryland/Virginia). I’m not sure how much that means to Anthony, who grew up in Baltimore – in many ways, a different world from the DMV (which includes only parts of Maryland and Virginia closer to D.C.). Still, Weaver and Anthony at least share their Syracuse connection.

The problem: An Oklahoma City trade for Anthony would almost have to include Steven Adams (way more valuable than Anthony) and/or Enes Kanter (way less valuable than Anthony). There’s no easy way to bridge either gap, especially considering how much the Thunder need Adams’ interior presence.

Here’s my best stab at a workable framework for a trade, via ESPN’s trade machine:

screenshot-www.espn.com-2017-07-24-12-26-16

The Clippers would get a more-skilled backup center while just shuffling bad contracts (at least that’s how it seems they view Wesley Johnson‘s deal). The Thunder would still need to send the Knicks more assets (Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant and/or draft picks). The Knicks would get a veteran point guard in Austin Rivers while Frank Ntilikina develops and, more importantly, additional young assets. It’s just a matter of determining whether there’s an overlap in the picks Oklahoma City would trade and New York would receive. That window might be tight – or not exist.

Adding Paul George and Anthony to a team led by Russell Westbrook would be exciting. I’m just not sure it’s realistic.

Rumor: Knicks likely to trade Carmelo Anthony to Rockets this week

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After numerous starts and stops and starts and stops, maybe the Knicks will actually trade Carmelo Anthony to the Rockets soon?

Tarek Fattal of the Los Angeles Daily News:

So, they found a third team to take Ryan Anderson or a fourth team to take Meyers Leonard?

If true, that’d please at least Anthony.

There’s room for a trade to work. New York is clearly ready to move on from Anthony, and Houston wants him to join James Harden and Chris Paul. The Rockets can add sweeteners to convince another team – or maybe even the Knicks – to take a bad contract in the trade.

But this has dragged on so long, I need more evidence the deal is actually close before I believe it.