Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Jimmy Butler’s ascent continues into superstardom

4 Comments

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):

image

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?”

Lakers star LeBron James: #FreeWOJ!!

Adrian Wojnarowski
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley sent out a press release complaining about the NBA’s list of approved social-justice messages for jerseys.

ESPN NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski replied to the email, “F— you.” (Wojnarowski did not censor the first word.)

Wojnarowski apologized. ESPN condemned his behavior and, according to Andrew Marchand of the New York Post, suspended him two weeks.

Several NBA players have publicly supported Wojnarowski:

Lakers star LeBron James:

Clippers guard Lou Williams:

Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray:

Heat big Bam Adebayo:

Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie:

Kings forward Harrison Barnes:

Pacers center Myles Turner:

Grizzlies forward Anthony Tolliver:

Wizards wing Troy Brown Jr.:

Trail Blazers guard Jaylen Adams:

LeBron’s message is particularly notable.

Obviously, he’s the NBA’s biggest star. His words carry weight.

Wojnarowski also has a long history of harshly criticizing LeBron. Here are just a few examples.

But if he can get over The Letter from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, LeBron can probably get past anything written about him.

Report: Brooklyn near deal with Lance Thomas for restart

Lance Thomas Brooklyn
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Still rounding out their roster for the NBA restart in Orlando, the Brooklyn Nets have reached out to bring back veteran forward Lance Thomas.

Thomas, who went through training camp with Brooklyn but was cut right before the season, will sign as a substitute player for Brooklyn, reports Alex Smith with SNY.TV.

Thomas is an eight-year NBA veteran who spent the last four of that with the Knicks. He can play the three or a floor-spacing small four, with New York using him more as a power forward in recent years. He’s averaged 5.2 points per game in his career and is known more as a good player to have in the locker room and guy who can soak up 15-20 minutes a night and not hurt a team. Brooklyn had Thomas in at training camp and liked his fit, but they didn’t have a roster spot for him.

They do now. Three Nets players — Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, and Taurean Prince — tested positive for the coronavirus and will not be at the Orlando restart. Wilson Chandler opted out of playing. All four of them can be replaced by substitute players for the remainder of this season, so the Nets signed Jamal Crawford, Michael Beasley, and Donta Hall. Thomas rounds becomes the fourth member of that group. (Note: The Nets cannot sign players to substitute for Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant because they are out due to injury; substitute players are only for players missing due to coronavirus issues.)

Thomas will be a free agent this offseason.

Lance Thomas and Brooklyn enter the bubble in Orlando as the seven seed in the East.

Like LeBron, Anthony Davis also to wear own last name on jersey in Orlando

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Anthony Davis will wear his own name on the back of his jersey when the Los Angeles Lakers return to action.

Davis confirmed his decision Sunday in a conference call from Orlando, where the Western Conference-leading Lakers are beginning team workouts.

Davis and LeBron James both declined to choose a social justice message to replace their names on the back of their jerseys during the NBA restart.

Davis, a seven-time NBA All-Star, said he was “torn between” choosing from among the 29 approved messages and sticking with his name.

“For me, I think the name ‘Davis’ is something I try to represent every time I step on the floor,” he said. “I just think my last name is something that’s very important to me, and also social justice as well. But (I’m) just holding my family name and representing the name on the back to go through this process … and people who have been with me through my entire career to help me get to this point, while still kind of bringing up things that we can do for social injustice.”

James said he decided to forgo a social justice message because the available options didn’t “resonate” for him or his particular feelings about the movement. James would have liked to choose his own slogan, but wasn’t angry that it wasn’t allowed.

Both James and Davis have been outspoken about social justice causes in the past, although the younger Davis is less vocal than James.

The Lakers open play in Orlando on July 30 against the Clippers.

 

Lakers’ Rajon Rondo fractures thumb, out 6-8 weeks

Rajon Rondo injury
Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Lakers guard depth is getting hit hard. First, Avery Bradley chose to stay home from the NBA restart in Orlando for family reasons. Now this:

Rajon Rondo fractured his thumb during practice on Saturday and will need surgery that will sideline him 6-8 weeks, the team announced.

On the optimistic side, that timeline should have Rondo back for most or all of the conference finals and NBA Finals. Rondo has a history of hand injuries.

The Lakers cannot sign a substitute player to replace Rondo (that is only for players with COVID-19 related absences, or who opted out, but not injuries).

Rondo came off the bench for the Lakers this season, averaging 7.1 points and five assists a game. More importantly, he was the guy running the offense when LeBron James was off the court, something that will be difficult to replace. He is not the defender and player he once was, but he fit with the Lakers.

Alex Caruso and Quinn Cook will get some extra run, plus it opens up room for veterans Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith.

The Rondo injury is not going to put the Lakers in danger in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but if he is not back and 100% in the conference finals (very possibly against a deep Clippers team) and the Finals, this will be a blow to L.A.