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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?”

PBT Extra Player of the Week: Anthony Davis

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The New Orleans Pelicans look every bit the playoff team right now — at 23-20 they are the farthest they have been over .500 and fivethirtyeight.com lists them with an 82 percent chance to make the playoffs.

They wouldn’t be there without Anthony Davis, who has been brilliant all season but has turned it up in the past week, and that got him the NBC ProBasketballTalk Player of the Week award. In his last three games, Davis has averaged 43 points on 56.3% shooting, plus 14 rebounds a game, and the team. More importantly, the Pelicans have won every game, including knocking off Boston behind his 45 points a couple of days after he dropped 48 at Madison Square Garden.

Just to be clear on one other thing, the Pelicans are not trading Davis anytime soon. Because they’re not stupid.

Paul Pierce says he told Celtics not to show Isaiah Thomas tribute video

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Isaiah Thomas announced he was withdrawing his request for the Celtics to play a tribute for him Feb. 11, the same night Boston will retire Paul Pierce’s number.

That was a nice gesture that ended a dispute started by Pierce, who said he preferred not to share his night with Thomas. It made Thomas look magnanimous, and it prevented Pierce – even if he had a fair point – from continuing an unbecoming campaign that made him look petty.

Except, before Thomas’ announcement, Pierce revealed just how far he went to stop Thomas’ video.

Pierce, via Jackie MacMullan and Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

“Danny and I talked about it for 40 minutes,” Pierce explained to ESPN early Tuesday afternoon. “He told me, ‘This is what we have planned,’ and at the end of the conversation, he said, ‘If you don’t want us to do Isaiah, we won’t.’ So I told him, ‘I really don’t.’ So that was it.

“That’s how we left it.”

“(Thomas) had a shot to be honored,” Pierce said. “You came to Boston. Whether you are playing or not, you should have had your tribute then. I just don’t see how, if someone is having a jersey retirement, they’re going to be running other tributes for other players.

“Danny tried to sell me on it, but I told him, ‘He had a shot, Danny, and he punked you on it. He pretty much dictated everything.’ They let it happen because they felt sorry how (the trade to Cleveland) went down. It’s guilt. That’s what it is.”

Ainge said Tuesday night that Thomas intended all along to bow out of the video tribute once he learned of Pierce’s reservations.

If only Pierce kept quiet publicly a little longer, he could have avoided looking even pettier. Yet, he revealed his conversation with Celtics president Danny Ainge, so he we are.

That probably won’t matter to those close to Pierce, though. Though Rajon Rondo was most blunt, he wasn’t the only member of the Celtics’ 2008 title team to take Pierce’s side.

Tony Allen, via Jay King of MassLive:

“Yeah, I’m with Pierce, man. He didn’t put in more work than Pierce. Anybody disagree? OK. Paul Pierce put in big work, man. Why would they honor him on that same day, man?”

Kevin Garnett, as relayed by Pierce to ESPN:

“Everyone understood where I was coming from,” Pierce said. “KG was like, ‘Isaiah who? Hell no, you’re damn right you’re not sharing your night with him.'”

Was there nobody to in Pierce’s life to tell him just to let Thomas have his short video during pregame introductions?

Pierce got his wish. He just looks even pettier as a result.

Tension between players, referees about communication more than calls

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Tensions between NBA players and referees are at a higher level than seen in decades.

Players are frustrated — they feel the calls are inconsistent, and if they try to talk to a referee about it they get a technical fast. And technicals have come fast — D’Angelo Russell got one for applauding a call from the bench the other night. LeBron James was ejected for the first time ever this season. Draymond Green already has 11 technicals this season, not to mention getting fined for complaining about the officiating and saying it’s personal (something Chris Paul and DeMarcus Cousins have echoed). A referee even headbutted a player this season.

However, this is a two-way street — players seem to complain about virtually every call. Watch a game, and on how many drives to the basket does the shooter or defender throw their arms in the air and say something to the ref about the call/no call. How do you expect the referees to react? Officials feel players are disrespectful, and they are just trying to keep control of the game.

Sam Amick of the USA Today did a great job talking to representatives of both sides for a story.

“The No. 1 issue on their minds is officiating. And it’s only gotten worse over the years, (and) probably now is about as hot as it has been,” Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA Players Association since 2014, told USA TODAY Sports….

“Players are intense and frustrated, and that’s to be expected,” Mark Denesuk, spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association, told USA TODAY Sports. “I think the referees expect a certain amount of it, but I think there’s just been a decline in civility, a decline in respect, an increase in aggression.”

“I just really think that to the extent that there are officials who adopt that absolute ‘I’m not going to comment (with players during game action)’ rule, they should reconsider that,” Roberts said. “That drives my members fairly batty, too, because guys don’t think talking to the ref is necessarily going to change the call but they want to be able to say, ‘Ref, hey maybe you didn’t see it, but he hit me here, or he touched me there.’”

The players want to be able to lobby for future calls. They want an open line of communication. Carmelo Anthony said as much recently.

“The game has changed a lot since I came in 15 years ago, the players and the officials had that dialogue, whether it was good or whether it was bad, there was always a point where they would let you get a little steam off, and then would come to you and say that’s enough, let’s move on. And now, the trigger is too quick. You look at somebody wrong, you get a technical foul. You say one wrong thing, you get a technical foul. So I think that’s the difference from when I came in, the dialogue and communication and the relationship the players and officials [had] when I first came in and from now is a lot different.”

Those lines of communication need to be opened up again. Referees have to listen to players, and players need to be more respectful and less demonstrative when talking to an official.

It’s also easy to say that writing a story, or from the NBA offices in Manhattan, but when the players are emotional during a game (as they should be) calm conversations are harder to come by.

Hopefully, some of this can be worked out when the representatives of the players’ union and referee’s union sit down All-Star Weekend to talk. The NBA promoted long-time official Monty McCutchen — one of the better communicators among officials — to help move the league in this direction.

Hopefully, all this works, because the tensions are really starting to impact the game.

Jimmy Butler okay with last loss, “We need to humble our damn selves”

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The Minnesota Timberwolves had won five in a row, climbed up to third in the Western Conference (and third in our power rankings), and they had become everybody’s darlings. Jimmy Butler has pushed his way into the MVP conversation, and Karl-Anthony Towns is finally defending well. This is the team on the rise that we expected.

Then Minnesota lost to the Orlando Magic Tuesday night. Orlando is arguably the worst team in the NBA and Minnesota had no answer for Evan Fournier, who dropped 32.

Butler is okay with that. Sort of. He doesn’t like losing but told ESPN the Timberwolves needed to be brought back down to earth.

“We need to humble our damn selves,” Butler told reporters after the Timberwolves fell to the Orlando Magic 108-102 on Tuesday night. “I’m glad we lost. Came in here on our high horse, thinking we’re a really good team, and we haven’t done anything yet. Good for us, man.”

That’s a good lesson for a good young team. As Minnesota gets better and better there will be a target on their back nightly — it’s not an easy burden to carry. Ask the Warriors, Cavaliers or other elite teams past and present — you get the best shot of the other team every night, and that requires a level of focus to keep on winning. Minnesota was reminded of that Tuesday night.

This is all still a learning experience for the Timberwolves — as the playoffs will be. The franchise hasn’t been to the postseason since 2004, Towns and Andrew Wiggins have never been in a playoff game, and there will be adjustments. But if Minnesota has next as the Warriors fade, or if they are going to rise up and challenge Golden State, these are the lessons they need to take to heart.