CHICAGO — Jimmy Butler envisions the Chicago Bulls contending for a championship next season and he and Derrick Rose forming one of the NBA’s best backcourts.
Now all they have to do is make it happen.
The Bulls took what they believe is a big step, announcing a maximum five-year contract for their All-Star shooting guard on Thursday. They are hoping Butler can build on a breakout season, form a dominant tandem with Rose and help them emerge from the Eastern Conference after they came up short last season.
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Butler’s deal is worth $95.5 million. He can opt out after the fourth season. But he insisted again that Chicago "is where I wanted to be."
That was in question after a lackluster season-ending loss to Cleveland in the conference semifinals in which he and Rose did not appear to be on the same page.
Butler appeared to be in an attack mode, demanding the ball, while Rose seemed to shut down.
There were reports that Butler wanted a shorter contract as a restricted free agent. But the Bulls made it clear they intended to keep him long term when they tendered him a maximum offer on July 1, and it didn’t take long for them to reach an agreement.
"Jimmy’s a guy who’s a winner, which is so important as far as keeping him in the fold moving forward," general manager Gar Forman said. "Jimmy really is everything that we want to be now and in the future, and we’re just thrilled that he’s committed for years now to remain a Chicago Bull."
Butler made his first All-Star team and was selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season after averaging career highs in points (20.0), rebounds (5.8). He emerged as one of the league’s best two-way guards and helped Chicago win 50 games.
But the Bulls never jelled the way they envisioned with the return of Rose and the addition of All-Star Pau Gasol.
They were hit hard by injuries during the regular season, then bowed out to LeBron James and the depleted Cavaliers in the playoffs. Chicago fired coach Tom Thibodeau and replaced him with Fred Hoiberg.
The Bulls are counting on improvement from within. With agreements also in place with guard Aaron Brooks and forward Mike Dunleavy Jr., the roster is returning intact.
"I like our chances like I liked them last year," Butler said. "We just got to go out and get it. We’ve got to go out and prove we are the best team in the league."
That hinges largely on how he meshes with Rose, the former MVP. With Butler in a backup role as a rookie in 2011-12 and Rose sidelined most of the following two seasons because of injuries to each knee, they did not get much time on the court together. Both missed some time this past season, with Rose limited to 51 games and Butler playing 65.
"I think we played well on the court together," Butler said. "With the more time that we’re out there, we will definitely get better at it. Off the floor, he has a son. He has a family that he has to take care of. I’m with my brothers a lot of the time. When we have a chance, we’ll hang around each other. I feel like we spend enough time together on the court. I think when we’re off the court, we go our separate ways a little bit."
The question is how will he and Rose connect next season?
This much is certain: Butler sure has come a long way.
He was kicked out of his house in Tomball, Texas, by his mother when he was 13. His father had been out of his life since he was a baby.
With no money and nowhere to go, Butler spent weeks moving from one friend’s house to another. He eventually settled in with the Lambert family, became a star at Tomball High, went to Tyler Junior College after barely getting recruited and spent three years at Marquette before entering the NBA.
"That guy, along with others, he changed my children’s world," former Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "That’s what gets lost in all this."
Williams recalled Butler committing to Marquette shortly after he was hired even though he hadn’t visited the school. He also mentioned Butler faxing his letter of intent from a McDonald’s. Williams pushed Butler as hard as any coach could. And he’s still doing that today.
He sent Butler a text at 5:11 a.m. Eastern time Thursday before leaving for the news conference.
"Getting my workout in before I leave because I know you’re taking the day off thinking you’ve done something," Williams wrote him. "You thought getting a max deal was the gain. But the gain for real dudes is being one of the top 50 guys ever or being inducted in the Hall of Fame. Those guys wake up hungry to work. Get you some rest, I’ll see you in a little bit."