LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler is an All-Star. The coaches voted the Bulls swingman in as a reserve, a huge honor for the fourth-year player (who just happens to be in a contract year).
But you know Jimmy, they don’t play defense in the All-Star Game.
“They might not, but I do,” Butler said with a smile Thursday night in Los Angeles. “So if you see me diving on the floor and people say ‘what is he doing?’ I can’t help but be the player that I am.”
That player is the guy seemingly on his way to the Most Improved Player award, the guy having a career year, and the guy who next summer will land a max (or near max) contract. Last summer the Bulls put a reported four-year, $44 million offer on the table and Butler decided to “bet on himself” to become a restricted free agent this summer. That move is going to get the man paid.
All of this started last summer in Houston, where Butler worked with trainer Chris Johnson to shed a little weight while improving his shot. It was Johnson who first suggested to Butler he could be an All-Star this season.
“My trainer Chris, he put it in my head over the summer, he said ‘that’s the first step, you want to be an All-Star.’ So I started thinking about it way earlier than a few weeks ago or the start of the season. Coach Johnson did so much for my confidence on the floor.”
That confidence has Butler averaging 20.4 points and six rebounds a game, plus being the Bulls best perimeter defender. But more than that in what has been an up-and-down season for Chicago — including a sloppy 2OT loss to the Kobe-less Lakers Thursday night — he has been the one steady guy, bringing energy every night. He led the Bulls with 35 points in that ugly Lakers’ loss.
“I think taking the weight off was critical for him,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I thought he had a great training camp, he hit the ground running. Each year he’s been with us he’s gotten a lot better. His drive, his intelligence, and obviously you can’t do that without being very talented. When you combine all those things I think it’s huge.”
What Butler helps provide the Bulls is versatility — he can score in multiple ways, he can defend multiple positions. It’s a coach’s dream.
“In many ways he’s more similar to Derrick (Rose) in that they are power guards, and so they can score a lot of different ways…” Thibodeau said. “Jimmy is very good running the floor, moving without the ball, driving the ball, getting to the free throw line, you can post him, you can run pick-and-roll with him, and I think he’s gained a lot of confidence in his shooting… He’s starting to see more double teams now, so I think as time goes on, he figures that out, find ways to get things done.”
It took a while for Butler to find his footing in the NBA — he was the 30th pick out of Marquette — but Thibodeau said he liked what he saw from the start.
“He came in in an unusual season, it was the lockout year, so he missed all summer, the Summer League, summer practices, the fall practices,” said Thibodeau, who normally isn’t the most loquacious of guys but will willing to go on-and-on about Butler. “Then you have a condensed schedule, and that’s a tough way to come in when you’re trying to learn the league. He was fortunate to be around Luol (Deng) at that time who really helped him handle getting ready to play in the league. But every time he played he got something done out there.
“Then I think the second year he had the confidence that he could play, and he found a niche for himself. He knew defensively he could bring energy, get in there, play tough, and guard multiple positions, run the floor and score in transition. And then I think it just took off from there, (he) worked hard on his all around game, strong on both sides of the ball, and I think he’ll continue to improve.”
Like his coach, Butler just does not see this latest step forward as his last.
“Just goes to show that I’m confident in my game,” Butler said. “You could say it’s All-Star worthy right now but I have a long way to go to get where I want to… where we want to go as a team, I should say. The work this summer, it’s starting to pay off, but I don’t want it to end just here. There’s another step I want to take.”
He’s going to take that step a much more wealthy man. Not that the money will change Butler, he’s as grounded a guy as you’ll find in the league.