DEERFIELD — Knowing how much Tom Thibodeau is a creature of habit, there’s no reason to expect the Bulls head coach to add too many new wrinkles to his squad’s offense, despite getting a chance to soak in even more basketball knowledge than usual this past summer, courtesy of his initial stint as a USA Basketball assistant coach.
But while the traditionally inside-out Bulls shouldn’t be expected to suddenly morph into a run-and-gun, quick-shooting, three-point-happy, backdoor-lob-throwing team in the upcoming campaign, Thibodeau has acknowledged that the return of Derrick Rose and the development of Jimmy Butler brings new possibilities to the table in the backcourt. Arguably the most athletic starting guard duo in the NBA, besides Rose simply regaining his rhythm after missing all of last season, another important aspect of the ongoing training camp has been the former league MVP building chemistry with Butler, his new backcourt partner.
Butler’s emergence in the second half of last season as a premier defender, confident scorer and capable outside shooter is something that even the droll Thibodeau hasn’t been able to downplay.
“With experience, you learn. I think that he has a much better understanding of what we need him to do. I thought he had a terrific year last year. Now the challenge is to build consistency, to be able to do it over a long period of time. I love his attitude and approach. That hasn’t changed from the day he walked in this gym, and I hope it never does. I think when you have those type of characteristics, you’ll continue to improve, so his approach to the game is very, very good,” Thibodeau said after Wednesday’s practice at the Berto Center. “His confidence shooting the ball, I think that’s continued. I think the second half of last season, he shot the three real well for us, and we saw that from practice. Almost right from the start, we felt that way when we drafted him because of the way he shot his free throws. We thought he had the capability of being a very big corner three-point shooter, and I think his confidence has grown from there. He’s put a lot of time into it. The thing about him is he can do a little bit of everything. You can post him up. If it’s a small two, he’ll take him inside. He can catch and shoot, he can spot up, he can put it on the floor, he runs the floor great and his defense, it’s pretty obvious the type of defensive player that he is.”
Rose was even more effusive in his praise for the third-year swingman, who is extremely popular with his teammate and regarded as almost a little brother to Bulls veterans.
“Jimmy is good, man. He improved so much. He came out to L.A. and worked out with me for about a week. He came back here for a couple of weeks, and then when I came back, he’s playing with a lot more confidence. We’re just trying to get him comfortable so that, we’re going to allow him to make mistakes. Just get that chemistry. He deserves to be a starter and he deserved to play through his mistakes, and we’re just trying to get that to him right now where he deserves to play make, do whatever he wants to do, what’s comfortable and it will make us better,” Rose said. “He’s a guy that plays defense all the time. He’s one of the best defensive players in the league, and he’s going to push everybody to be better, especially on the defensive end where he’s giving all of his energy to that side of the court. For us we need him. He rebounds, he can play the four, the three. He’s just a guy who can be all over the court at times.
“He’s been knocking down his shot. He’s been shooting the ball a lot better. He’s coming in, staying afterward, just getting up shots, and I think his timing is going to come back. It’s already there, but just shooting the ball. When he gets to shoot the ball he has to because the way our offense is, if he doesn’t shoot it kind of leaves us stagnant, and we don’t need that for our offense right now.”
[RELATED: Chicago native Rose talks 1-on-1 vs. Jordan]
Though Bulls players and coaches alike have been pleased with Butler’s progress, the swingman isn’t letting their praise go to his head, as the Texas native simply sees his role as a scoring option as a product of how talented his teammates are.
“It’s no different for me. My job is to play hard, guard, hit open shots and be a good teammate. Thibs wants a team full of leaders, so I have to be much more of a leader also. The one thing that’s different is I’m coming out of the starting lineup,” he explained. “I can feel already that a lot of attention goes to Derrick, (Carlos Boozer) and (Joakim Noah). I’m left alone a lot. I can knock down shots. It’s way more fast-paced with (Luol Deng), myself and Derrick pushing it. Everybody is flying up and down. And then knowing we have four or five guys that can guard any position makes it easier.
“I’m moving, getting to the open place, cutting to the basket. It’s the same type of game for me. It just may be a little easier because Derrick is out there. He’s always looking to find that open guy. If he can’t finish at the cup or get a pull-up jumper out of it, he’s going to get it to the right guy,” Butler continued. “It sounds easy. But you still have to knock down shots, put in the time and rep after rep so that when you get into the game, it’s second nature for you.”
The final pick of the first round in the 2011 NBA Draft and an afterthought during his rookie season, Butler has the same mentality he had when he was an overlooked junior-college prospect coming out of Tomball, Texas.
“Keep working. Keep doing what I’ve been doing to get me to this point. Never stop working because if you do, you’ll either stay the same or people will pass you. As long as I stay in the gym, I feel I can keep getting better,” the Marquette product said of his skill development. “I tried to work on my post game, my open J, obviously, defense and ball-handling. It’s all putting it together.”
Butler pointed to his time working out with Rose in California as key to their chemistry, given that the pair barely played together when Rose was last healthy, in the 2011-12 season, when Butler was an NBA novice facing the disadvantage of no summer league and an abbreviated training camp due to the lockout-shortened schedule.
“He knew I was coming. We talked about it when I left the ESPYs my first time out there. I was like, ‘Man, I definitely want to come back and work with you and work on my game and work on it differently than I do here.’ We kept in touch, and we set a date and it worked out,” explained Butler, who said he spent a total of two and a half weeks in L.A. “I think all of that comes with confidence. When I was working out with him, he was constantly helping me. When I make a shot, make the next one. If I turn the ball over in a drill, ‘It’s all right. Get it next time.’ That’s what a great leader and teammate does. That’s Derrick for you. He’s always wanting his teammates to be successful. He wants you to be confident.
“Those workouts are really tiring. I’m not going to lie. We’d just go eat and chill and talk about the season, our goals. Then we’d start right back up the next morning.”
A teammate of Rose’s close friend, Randall Hampton, for a season at Tyler Junior College, Butler also strengthened his relationship with Rose while in Los Angeles, as well as getting a taste of the celebrity life.
“I was having dinner, and Tyson Chandler came up to me and shook my hand. He said, ‘I really respect you and how hard you play and your game.’ That’s like, wow. Dude knows who I am, and I’m from Tomball? Nobody is supposed to know who I am. That’s a really great feeling,” Butler recounted about the former Bulls center, while not the biggest name in the world, recognizing him. “He’s an NBA player. He’s a star. I’ll take that any day.”
Butler did manage to squeeze in some personal time and decompress before the season, though he now feels at home in Chicago.
“Family time, that’s huge because we’re right back at it for the majority of this year,” he said. “This is my second family. I love these guys and this organization. This is where I want to be.”
While not in as much awe of Rose as he was when he was a rookie, Butler is still amazed by the point guard’s unique abilities during the start of the Bulls’ training camp, especially the Chicago native’s explosiveness, leading up to Saturday night’s preseason-opener in Indianapolis against the Central Division rival Pacers.
“It’s been fun. He makes everything so much easier. You get out in the open floor, and he’s putting the ball in the air for highlight plays and he’s finishing himself. It’s crazy because I’ve never really done it before. I’ve just watched. It’s totally different being out there with him,” he said of Rose’s uncanny athleticism. “Put that ball in the air and dunk it. Hang on the rim, scream and all of that good stuff. It’s crazy. He’s super athletic. People may think I’m a little athletic, but seeing the things he does without the ball, he’s like superhuman.
“He’s super excited. Look at the guy. He’s putting in work. He wants to be successful. He wants to be great. He wants the team to be great. He wants to do great things for this city and this organization. With him teaming up with us on Saturday, you’ll see a smile on his face. But you’ll also see one on each and every one of ours.”