Jimmy Butler even plans to play defense in the All-Star Game

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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.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.