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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?”

Markelle Fultz returns to Philadelphia to do shoulder rehab with team

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Markelle Fultz is back with the 76ers.

Not in uniform for games, but he is back from Los Angeles and in Philadelphia working out with the team to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome, according to multiple reports. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story, then Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia confirmed it.

Fultz was in the arena for the Sixers game Saturday against the Thunder on national television (though not suited up to play).

There is no timetable for Fultz’s return, although his agent has said he expects Fultz to be back on the court this season. Whether that would be with the Sixers is another question, teams have called about the availability of the No. 1 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, but the offers have been so lowball that none of them have been seriously considered by Philadelphia.

After consulting with a number of specialists just a few weeks into the season (and just after the Jimmy Butler trade), the 20-year-old Fultz was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a pinching of the nerve through the collarbone area. Since December he has been in Los Angeles is doing physical therapy to relieve the issue.

Fultz has returned to Philadelphia and is continuing that therapy.

 

Report: Rockets trying to trade Carmelo Anthony, likely to waive Nunnally to create roster spot

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To bring in some front line depth in the form of Kenneth Faried Monday, the Houston Rockets first have to clear a roster spot.

That led to a lot of speculation it could be Carmelo Anthony who is let go, he remains on the roster but not with the team, in a kind of limbo while the Rockets and ‘Melo’s agent look for a landing spot. (He reportedly has several options and will choose one before the trade deadline, but if he really liked any of those options he would have already taken them rather than waiting for a better offer.)

The Rockets are “aggressively” trying to trade Anthony and find him a new home before Monday, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported. However, James Nunnally is the most likely guy out, he was just signed to a 10-day contract.

If the Rockets haven’t waived ‘Melo yet, they’re not going to do it now.

Houston GM Daryl Morey is also working the phone lines to find wing depth to add to the Rockets’ roster. While James Harden‘s historic streak has carried the Rockets back into the playoff picture in the West, this is not the same Houston team that was a threat to the Warriors a season ago. Morey’s off-season gambles — including Anthony — have not panned out, and he is now trying to correct them.

Pelicans’ Anthony Davis out 1-2 weeks with sprained finger

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This is bad.

The New Orleans Pelicans are 21-25 and four games back of the eight seed in the West having lost 3-of-4 on the current road trip. When Anthony Davis is not on the court, the Pelicans get outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions.

Davis is not going to be on the court for a week or two due to a sprained finger, the team announced Saturday morning.

Looking ahead at the schedule, Davis is likely to miss between three and seven games.

Davis has played at an MVP level this season, averaging 29.3 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting, plus grabs 13.3 rebounds and dishes out 4.4 assists a night. And that’s just on offense, defensively he is one of the best rim protecting bigs in the league, averaging 2.6 blocks per game. Davis leads the NBA in win shares (8.3) and PER at 30.9. He has been an absolute beast all season long.

Yet he hasn’t been able to lead the Pelicans to a winning record because of the roster around him (and injuries that have sapped what little depth New Orleans had to begin with).

Because of that, the intensely competitive Davis — who has talked about legacy mattering more to him than money — is expected to turn down a $239 million contract extension from the Pelicans next summer. At that point New Orleans will have to consider trading him and 29 teams will be lined up to talk deal (the Celtics and Lakers are expected to be at the front of that line).

Marc Gasol, Mike Conley reportedly meet with Grizzlies owner, what will that mean?

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This summer, Robert Pera maintained ownership of the Memphis Grizzlies and with that meant the status quo remained — the Grizzlies were going to try to ride the duo of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to the playoffs. There would be no rebuild.

After falling to the Celtics Friday night, Memphis is 19-26, has lost 10-of-11, and are 14th in the Western Conference. Around the league, there is a buzz that Memphis may have to look at trading Gasol, who has a player option this summer and could become a free agent.

With that slide as a backdrop, Gasol and Conley met with Pera recently, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Conley and Gasol, who has a player option for next season worth $25.5 million, sat down with Pera in Memphis this week to discuss the direction of the franchise, league sources said. Pera often meets with key team personnel when he visits Memphis over the course of a season.

Does that mean changes are coming? That’s not what Conley told the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

“That’s all there was to it,” Conley said after the Grizzlies’ loss in Boston on Friday night. “There was nothing special that came out of it that’s going to change the world or anything.

“We got to talk to him.”

Pera has resisted any kind of rebuild — and in a smaller market, with a community that has embraced the “grit ‘n grind” mantra, there are economic reasons that has been the smart move. While other teams are circling, so far there is no word out of Memphis that there are trades for stars to be had (Chandler Parsons on the other hand…).

Every GM will say of moving players “better too early than too late.” In Memphis, the franchise may have missed that window.