Bulls' Jimmy Butler is playing himself into max contract territory
Jimmy Butler is a man on a mission.
The Chicago Bulls shooting guard is playing the best basketball of his career, and at a time when his team needs a star to step into the spotlight. While the Derrick Rose drama seemingly becomes more and more bizarre by the day, Butler has been busy earning at night the "Jimmy Buckets" moniker Bulls TV analyst Stacey King pegged him with a few years back.
The latest example of Butler's importance came Monday night when, with Rose once again out of the lineup, Butler scored 22 points, handed out eight assists and grabbed six rebounds and two steals to lead Chicago to a 105-89 victory over the Clippers -- before a very Chicago-sounding Staples Center crowd.
"Jimmy Butler, what can you say?" head coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. "When that game was on the line he made big play after big play. He's playing great basketball."
Just how good has Butler been this season? The soon-to-be free agent leads the Bulls in minutes played (40.3), scoring (21.3), player efficiency rating (22.7) and steals (1.44), and he's second in field-goal percentage (.508) -- all career highs for the fourth-year guard out of Marquette. Most importantly, he's been the Bulls' best defender.
Defense has never been a problem for Butler, though, as Thibodeau came to love the former Golden Eagle because of his vintage, in-your-face style of defense. It's been Butler's offensive production that has been slow to evolve.
But now it has, and the Bulls front office, led by EVP of Basketball Operations John Paxson and GM Gar Forman, might be second-guessing their decision to not sign Butler to a contract extension last month before the deadline for 2011 first-round draft picks. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reported on Oct. 31 that the Bulls and Butler were $2.5 million apart in annual salary, somewhere in the $10-13 million range.
Butler held his ground, with the hope that he'd be able to get his asking price as a restricted free agent next offseason. So far, it looks like a solid decision. The defensive-minded shooting guard finally is actually shooting the ball well, 11.1 percentage points higher than his 2013 average (.397).
What's been different this season for Butler? "Confidence," he said Monday night. "I just worked on my game all summer. My teammates are very confident in me, so that also helps."
Butler now needs his newfound confidence to continue throughout the season, so he can test the RFA waters without any regrets.
"This is where I want to be," Butler told the Chicago Tribune of The Windy City after the deadline expired. "I love my teammates, the fan base, the organization, everybody. I think I still will end up in this city.
"I understand this is a business so I just have to be a great basketball player. I love my odds. I think this team is championship-caliber. I'm going to produce. I'm going to guard. I will take that on myself."
If Butler keeps producing at this level, he might be able to produce a max contract out of thin air. Klay Thompson got the max, four years, $70 million from the Golden State Warriors. Gordon Hayward got the max, four years, nearly $63 million from the Utah Jazz. Why not Butler?
The morning after the Butler-led Bulls sucked the life out of what Clippers fans were in the Staples Center crowd, NBA.com Hall of Fame writer Sam Smith led his column asking the question of "Why can't Jimmy Butler be the MVP of the league?" Smith asks a very valid question, one that most certainly will be debated if the Bulls' winning ways and Butler's resurgence continue in tandem.
One NBA figure who never saw this coming is Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, who is also a former Marquette guard.
WATCH: Doc Rivers on Jimmy Butler ==> http://t.co/hC6LDGSOms— Bear Heiser (@BearHeiser) November 18, 2014
"I loved him. You know, his whole story" Rivers said before Monday's loss to the Bulls. "... I thought he was a tough kid. As the draft was coming, I really liked him, especially where we were picking with the Celtics. I thought he'd be a great Celtic at that time."
So, why did Rivers and the Celtics not take Butler at No. 25 back in 2011? Let's look back at what could have been. The Celtics entered the Draft with the 25th pick; a pick that was traded to New Jersey in exchange for forward/center JaJuan Johnson, along with New Jersey's second-round selection in 2014. New Jersey moved up to snag Marshon Brooks, who now is playing overseas.
Rivers shouldn't feel bad, though, as more than two-thirds of the league passed on Butler.
"(Marquette head coach) Buzz (Williams), I remember calling me and telling me 'This is the guy,'" Rivers recalled. "This is the best guy he's ever had. 'I know you like him as a kid. I'm trying to tell people that he's a good player.' He's maybe one of the few guys ever in the draft that people got lost in how good of a kid he was, and they couldn't see how good of a player he was, which was really strange.
"And I actually thought, in a crazy way, hurt Jimmy. No one saw the talent, and I didn't see it, either. I didn't even know he was going to be this good."
According to Rivers, Butler's draft stock was hurt because he NBA folks got so caught up in how good of a kid he was, because his story, documented here by ESPN's Chad Ford, was so unbelievable, that it took the focus away from actually playing basketball. Well, OK then.
Oh, how the times have changed.
While it's still early in the season, all signs point to unchartered success for the kid whose draft stock was hurt because he of "how good of a kid he was." Every NBA team needs a player like Butler and, in a few months, more than a handful of them will have another chance to secure him.
Will the Bulls find a way to make sure Butler stays in Chicago for another four or five years? Thibodeau loves Butler. But Thibs love Luol Deng, too; a player similar to Butler. And the Bulls traded Deng before last season's deadline after failing to reach a contract extension.
Butler finally appears to have become the player the Bulls needed him to be the past two seasons, when Rose was out. What will the front office do this time around? Butler is a guy who can serve as the brick and the mortar for an NBA team. How much will the Bulls be willing to spend to make sure that Butler continues to be a key piece to the Bulls' foundation? Who knows.
The only thing we do know right now is that Butler is going to get paid a lot of money to play basketball next season, and boy does he deserve it.