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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Report: Celtics reach out to former assistant Larranaga about joining Mazzulla’s staff

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The Boston Celtics are reportedly looking for a veteran assistant to put on the bench next to 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla, the man thrust into the head coach’s chair for a title contender in the wake of Ime Udoka’s suspension.

Who better than a guy who spent nine years on the Celtics’ bench? Boston reached out to Jay Larranaga, currently on the Clippers bench, about returning to the East Coast, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Clippers had no turnover on Tyronn Lue’s staff heading into this season. Mazzulla has become a trusted member of the Clippers staff, working a lot with the big me on the roster. However, if the Celtics back up the Brink’s Truck, the Clippers will not stand in his way if he wants to leave. It’s a question of comfort level, lifestyle, and of course money for Larranaga.

The Celtics made Mazzulla their interim head coach after an investigation found a “volume of violations” of team policy by Udoka, who had an improper relationship with a team staff member. So far the Celtics and Udoka have been able to keep the details of what happened under wraps, but league sources described the situation to NBC Sports as “ugly” and “messy,” especially if/when those details do find their way to the public.

For Celtics players, just getting back on the court, practicing Tuesday and focusing on basketball — not the turmoil around the franchise — was a good thing.

“Once we got out on the court, it was just nice to get back out the court and review our defense and to talk about offense and doing what we do,” Al Horford told the Associated Press. “It’s a good thing to just play basketball. That’s what we’re here for. It’s important to just start this thing back up again.”

Getting another coach on the bench will be important for the Celtics as well.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.

Deandre Ayton says he hasn’t spoken to coach Williams since Game 7

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four
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In a Game 7 against the Mavericks last May, Suns coach Monty Williams benched center Deandre Ayton, who ended up playing just 17 minutes in an ugly, blowout loss for Phoenix. When asked about it after the game Williams said, “It’s internal.”

Ayton and Williams have not spoken since then, according to Ayton.

Yikes. Remember that includes a summer where the Suns would not offer Ayton a max contract extension so he went out and got one from the Pacers, then the Suns instantly matched it. Ayton did not sound thrilled to be back in Phoenix on Media Day, and he was rather matter-of-fact about dealing with his coach.

It’s what every fan wants to hear — “this is just my job.”

Reporters asked Williams about this and he played it off, saying he hasn’t spoken with a lot of players yet.

It’s just day one of training camp, but there are a lot of red flags around the Suns: owner Robert Sarver being suspended and selling the team, Jae Crowder not in camp waiting to be traded, and now not a lot of communication between the team’s star center and its coach.

Maybe it all amounts to nothing. Maybe the Suns get on the court, Chris Paul looks rejuvenated, Devin Booker looks like Devin Booker, and none of this matters. But what had looked like a stable situation not that long ago now has a lot of red flags flying heading into the season, and that has to concern Suns fans.