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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?”

Take that for data: NBA preps for expanded betting on games

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Here’s a scenario: LeBron James is four assists and three rebounds shy of a triple-double after three quarters. A bettor, who is watching at home and utilizing a mobile app, decides to gamble that James will get those assists and rebounds in the final 12 minutes. The wager then gets made before play resumes.

The NBA wants that bettor to see the best possible data.

So the league is seeking to get stats out quicker than ever.

Fast isn’t fast enough for the NBA anymore, not when it comes to stats – especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has opened the door for states to allow wagering on games. The league has upgraded its stat systems in the past year to try and get its data out as close to real-time as possible, even aiming to beat the typical lag of 7-15 seconds that it takes for television or streaming services to show whatever happened.

It’s about what the NBA calls official data. The league’s stance is that getting accurate stats to bettors is critical so the player knows what they’re betting on and the casinos will know when to pay out or not. But how much value that data has for casinos – and whether they will pay anything for it – remains unclear.

“My view is we should be compensated for our intellectual property, but we can do that directly, again, with commercial relationships with gaming establishments,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, whose league had hoped this matter would be resolved with federal regulation instead of various policies getting worked on state by state by state.

Silver met with betting officials in Las Vegas earlier this month, and how data should be provided was one of the topics on the agenda. The NBA has said it is seeking a 1 percent “integrity fee” on wagers, which the league said would offset their additional security costs and compensate them for the data they can provide.

The casinos, however, are balking at legislative mandates insisting upon the use of official data. Joe Asher, the CEO of bookmaker William Hill USA, told The New York Times that such a mandate “sets up monopoly pricing power. This whole thing of official league data is like a smoke screen.”

It’s a major issue to work through, especially if in-game betting – people betting on various aspects of games after they’ve already started – catches on in the United States the same way that it has in the United Kingdom.

In-game betting, which is huge in Europe, is still relatively small in this country. Most Nevada bookmakers say in-game options make up no more than 5 percent of their sports-wagering business, although William Hill has said it accounted for nearly 25 percent of its sports business in the U.S. during 2017.

Only a handful of states have legalized sports betting since the Supreme Court decision in May, though several more states are expected to get operations up and running in the next year or so. Bettors now have been largely playing the basics – will Team X beat Team Y by more than six points, will the teams combine to score more than 210 points, that sort of thing.

“There’s a couple things about official data that make it advantageous for sports betting,” said Scott Kaufman-Ross, an NBA vice president who oversees fantasy sports and gaming. “Most is the speed. … That’s important for in-game betting.”

The NBA switched last year to software provided by Genius Sports, a London-based company that collects and distributes official data for dozens of sports federations around the globe and even recently completed a deal to work with the NCAA. The NBA data collected by Genius has been distributed globally by Sportradar, which sends it to media outlets, broadcasters and betting outlets outside the U.S.

Sportradar, the NBA said, is now working on obtaining the ability to send the data to U.S.-based betting entities.

NBA stat crews all generally work the same way: a primary caller uses a code to describe a play as it happens, a primary inputter uses a touch-screen tablet to punch in what he or she hears the caller say into the headsets that the crew share, a secondary inputter cleans up any mistakes, and a secondary caller is in contact with league offices in Secaucus, New Jersey, and reviews any plays that need additional study.

Those various crews, many members of which have received training during the summer league in Las Vegas, are the ones who decide who gets an assist or a rebound.

“The NBA has always been front and center on rapidly deploying statistics, first because of our television partners and then the Internet happened and that was good for the Internet,” said Steve Hellmuth, the NBA’s executive vice president for media operations and technology. “So it’s kind of always been in our DNA.”

Report: Stephen Curry also skipping Team USA minicamp

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In 2015, then-USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo declared a minicamp mandatory for invited players who wanted a chance to join Team USA in the Olympics the following year. (Colangelo didn’t exactly stick with that.)

New USA Basketball chairman Martin Dempsey isn’t bothering to set such a hard line a year before another major competition – the 2019 World Cup.

LeBron James will miss next week’s minicamp, and so will Stephen Curry.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Golden State Warriors All-Star guard Stephen Curry will not be in attendance for Team USA’s minicamp next week in Las Vegas, league sources tell ESPN.

The two-time NBA MVP, according to sources, will be spending time with his family, including his newborn son.

Curry and James will not be eliminated from consideration moving forward.

Curry and LeBron have both played all the way through the NBA Finals the last four years. I don’t blame them for taking time for themselves. They’re also good enough to still get onto Team USA in 2019 if they want to play. They have leverage other players might not.

If Kawhi Leonard is looking for attention-grabbing cover to attend the camp, he won’t get it from the NBA’s two biggest stars. If Leonard participates, he’ll be – by far – the biggest story there.

Are Raptors viable trade destination for Kawhi Leonard?

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The Lakers, Clippers, 76ers and Celtics have dominated Kawhi Leonard trade discussions for most of the summer.

But the Raptors have emerged as a trendy pick for the star’s destination. One betting site even gave Toronto even odds against the field – including the Spurs – as Leonard’s team to begin next season.

Are the Raptors actually a realistic landing spot for Leonard?

Brian Windhorst and Zach Lowe of ESPN discussed on The Lowe Post podcast.

Windhorst:

Toronto Raptors, I think they’re in the driver’s seat for Kawhi. Because I think the Lakers have given up. The Sixers have given up. And with the Nets, Bulls and Hawks spending their cap space, it makes it harder to assemble a multi-team trade. I think the Raptors are in the driver’s seat.

Lowe:

I’ve seen a lot of snark on Twitter that the Raptors stuff is a joke, that the odds went up because of something I said on my podcast and you said on TV. I’ve seen it being dismissed. It may not happen. Most NBA trades don’t happen. But if you think it’s a joke, you should probably recalibrate your expectations.

The Raptors can construct an offer built around:

Because DeRozan and Lowry earn more than Leonard, the Raptors could also take back a costly contract San Antonio wants to dump.

Such a deal would allow the Spurs to remain competitive now while gaining long-term assets under greater team control than Leonard, who can walk in unrestricted free agency next summer.

It’d also give the the Raptors a championship chance they wouldn’t have next season otherwise. The window might not remain open long considering Leonard’s health and contract status, but there’s something to be said for raising the ceiling when it can reach that level – even if it means lowering the floor. Plus, if Leonard left, Toronto could more easily transition into its next phase than if DeRozan and Lowry remained on the books.

This trade framework makes too much sense for the teams not to discuss it. But whether that’d result in an actual deal is another question.

Report: Kawhi Leonard considering participating in Gregg Popovich-led Team USA minicamp

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The Spurs want to repair their relationship with Kawhi Leonard and keep him long-term. Leonard wants to leave San Antonio. Potential trade partners want to know more about his health and mindset.

Something has to give.

Maybe it will next week.

Spurs president/coach Gregg Popovich, taking over Team USA, will direct a minicamp in Las Vegas. Leonard is invited and – in a surprising development after he missed the few months of the season due to a quad injury – might actually play.

Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard is seriously considering participation in the USA Basketball national team’s minicamp in Las Vegas next week, an event for the embattled All-NBA forward to showcase the status of his recovery to prospective trade partners, league sources told ESPN.

Among NBA teams and USA Basketball officials, there is a belief that Leonard wants to participate in the camp, but could be dissuaded based on ancillary concerns.

Leonard holds some enthusiasm for showcasing his revitalized health in the wake of the quad injury that has been at the center of discord between the Spurs and him, sources said. The question being debated, sources said, is whether participating in the Team USA camp will ignite trade talks that deliver him to his preferred destination — the Lakers — or give the Spurs more cause to hold on to Leonard and push him to report to training camp in September.

For what it’s worth, there is conflicting reporting about Leonard’s preferred destination. Some say it’s the Clippers.

This low-intensity camp won’t be a chance for Leonard to prove he’s fully healthy, but he can show enough to ignite trade interest. Maybe that helps propel him out of San Antonio – though if it’s not to Los Angeles, how much would that mean to Leonard?

The camp could also give Leonard and Popovich a chance to reconnect. Depending on whom you believe, maybe some in Leonard’s camp or even Leonard himself don’t want to give the Spurs boss that opportunity.

If Leonard goes to Las Vegas, it’d become a media circus. All his movements and interactions, especially with Popovich, would be closely scrutinized. At one point, I would have figured the reserved Leonard would want no part of that. But I now believe we incorrectly assumed too much about him just because he’s quiet.

So, I’m not entirely sure what he wants – or what direction participating in this camp would send him.

Leonard knows more about the former. It’s on him to evaluate the latter.