Jimmy Butler’s improvement may be the key to Bulls’ championship chances

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NEW YORK — Before the season began, there were plenty of reasons that made it easy to pencil in the Bulls as legitimate title contenders, with a healthy former MVP in Derrick Rose, a reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah, and a newly-acquired four-time All-Star and two-time champion in Pau Gasol all near the top of that list.

But it may be the emergence of another player that makes Chicago the primary favorites.

Jimmy Butler turned down a contract extension from the Bulls before the season began, and chose to bet on himself instead. The improvement he’s shown to this point in the season has him in the All-Star conversation, and in line for a huge payday in the offseason should he continue to showcase his skills by putting together such a stellar set of performances.

After averaging 13.1 points on 39.7 percent shooting a season ago, Butler’s numbers have jumped to 21.9 points on 49.8 percent shooting through the first 15 games of this year. He’s become so unstoppable on the offensive end of the floor that he’s averaging 8.8 free throw attempts per game — behind only Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and James Harden for most in the league.

His play has been so consistent that it’s getting to the point where his teammates and head coach are relying on it on a nightly basis.

“Yeah,” Tom Thibodeau said three times after Sunday’s win over the Nets, when asked if Butler’s high level of play is now being expected. “He’s embraced that role. He’s prepared himself well. He continues to work at it. He’s playing with great intensity. He’s studying. He’s preparing. He practices hard. So I’m not surprised. When you practice well you play well; it’s really that simple.”

“Each year that he’s been in the league, he’s made big jumps,” Thibodeau said. “I think he’s a very bright guy. Obviously, he’s talented, you can’t do what he’s doing without great talent. But it’s all the other things that go along with it — his intelligence, his drive, the way he can analyze how he’s playing and what he wants to work on to improve. Getting in great shape was huge for him, being lighter is big. And just day after day, he gives you everything he has. Those type of guys always improve.”

His teammates have similar expectations, and couldn’t be happier to see Butler flourishing within the confines of Chicago’s system.

“We hold him accountable,” said Derrick Rose “We know how hard he works. He wants to play that way. However he wants to do it — whether it’s jump shots, or driving into the lane, or however he wants to get into the post, we’re going to find a way [to get him the ball].

“Jimmy’s been huge for us,” said Joakim Noah. “If we can just keep him right, he makes our team so dangerous.”

“I know how bad he wants it,” Noah said. “He plays for the right reasons, too. It’s never any forced shots, it’s always within the system, and he plays for his guys.”

Butler’s known as one of the league’s better defenders, and he had that part of his game on full display in Brooklyn on Sunday. He completely shut down Joe Johnson, holding him to just three points on 1-of-7 shooting, while holding his position well as Johnson attempted to back him down, often times getting deep paint position.

But it’s the strides he’s made on the offensive end of the floor that have everyone taking notice.

“I think I have [improved], but my teammates also have a lot to do with it,” Butler said. “I can’t get the ball by myself. They’re always looking for me, and when I have a mismatch, they’re always looking to give me the ball.”

We’re only a month into the season, and thanks to some off and on injury issues with guys like Rose and Taj Gibson, the Bulls find themselves with a record of 11-6 — good for just third in the East. But it’s already evident that this is a tight team whose chemistry is coming together, and Butler’s vastly improved overall game may ultimately prove to be the final piece of the Bulls’ championship puzzle.

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