During his emergence in the second half of last season, Jimmy Butler was cautioned that when things were going well for him, he would get plenty of praise and his flaws would be overlooked. Conversely, when he inevitably hit a rough patch, he’d begin to get heavy criticism and any positives in his game would be ignored.
The latter scenario is on the verge of taking place.
As well as the Bulls have played in the new calendar year, even in the wake of Luol Deng being traded to Cleveland, Butler has struggled mightily, particularly on offense. The third-year swingman, whose surprisingly proficient outside shooting in last year’s playoffs raised expectations for him to develop into an even more reliable scoring threat, can’t buy a bucket these days.
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Butler is shooting 31.4 percent from the field and an even more dismal 17.6 percent from three-point range in January alone, including the first two games of the month, when his on-court mentor Deng was still with the Bulls. The Texas native has been charged with taking on Deng’s workload as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s workhorse, in terms of minutes, taking on the toughest perimeter defensive assignment and being a versatile offensive focal point on a nightly basis.
To Butler, however, none of those responsibilities—nor injuries; he missed nearly a month of time due to turf toe and has had an assortment of minor ailments, including a thigh injury that kept him out of a Jan. 11 home victory over Charlotte, most recently—should preclude him from making more of a contribution on offense.
“It’s not an excuse. I’m playing terrible. At the end of the day—I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’m not making any shots. I’m not helping the offense. I mean, I’ve got to fix it. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve got to figure it out on my own,” he said after Friday’s 112-95 Bulls’ loss to the Clippers at the United Center, in which he scored nine points on 3-for-15 shooting in 41 minutes of play. “I’m getting great looks. They’re just not falling for me. I don’t know. It’s got to be me. It’s nothing else. The rims are the same, the balls are the same. So it’s all on me to correct it.”
Unfortunately, his outing against the Clippers typifies how he’s been playing lately: Butler is averaging 11.6 points in 41.2 minutes in the 11 games he’s played this month, including a franchise-record 60-minute effort in a triple-overtime win in Orlando and 50 minutes in Monday’s overtime home win over the Lakers. The affable Marquette product has been able to mostly internalize his frustration because of the Bulls’ 9-3 January mark, though it’s clearly starting to get to him, as evidenced by his inability to make layups, triples and everything in between against the Clippers.
But as critical as he is of himself, the man tasked with managing his minutes is confident that he’ll snap out of his funk sooner than later.
“He just has to keep grinding away. I think that Jimmy will be fine. I think he helps his team in a lot of other ways. He can help his team with his defense, with his running of the floor, his tenacity, his will,” Thibodeau insisted. “The thing about his offense, he’s sort of like where Jo was earlier in the year. It’s hard to be in rhythm when you’ve had the injuries that he’s had, so he’s missed a lot of time. He’s playing catch-up. He’ll get there. He’s just got to keep going.”
Butler’s teammates sympathize with his plight and believe that he’ll recover, too. One of them, Taj Gibson, can relate to Butler’s situation, alluding to his own uneven campaign last season, during which he admittedly put additional pressure on himself after receiving a long-term contract extension.
Butler is in line to receive a multi-year deal from the Bulls next fall and without the presence of Deng as a safety blanket to not only guide him, but allow him to face less defensive scrutiny, it’s not unfathomable that his future is looming in the back of his mind, though it’s certainly not manifested in any selfishness on the floor.
“I just tell him, ‘Keep your head up.’ It’s a part of the NBA. Guys are going to go through their little slumps. Everybody goes through slumps. It’s a matter of what you do to get yourself out of it. Some guys can be mad and some guys can stay home, don’t go to the gym and work out, put in extra work,” Gibson told CSNChicago.com. “You really have to deal with a lot and I dealt with it myself last year, and I don’t wish that upon anybody, but it just makes you a stronger person. But it’s tough, especially in the year where you’re worrying about your contract and you look around the league—look at Iman [Shumpert, the Knicks’ third-year swingman]—it’s one of those situations, you’ve got to keep striving for greatness and keep working your way out.”
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At the same time, Gibson acknowledged that Butler has to seize the moment and capitalize on it, viewing it as an opportunity, rather than a burden, the same mindset that helped him thrive a year ago, albeit when he was more under the radar and hadn’t played three consecutive 48-minute games while matched up against the likes of league MVP LeBron James.
“He knows he has to. He knows it’s kind of like last year where he’s that guy now. You’ve got to step in and play with that confidence. You’ve got to learn in this league, if one guy steps down, it’s your time to shine. You’ve got to take advantage of it. Look at Lance [Stephenson, the Pacers’ fourth-year shooting guard]. He took advantage of his time when Danny [Granger, the Indiana veteran small forward] went down,” Gibson explained. “It’s a lot of stories around the league like that. Jimmy’s no stranger to it. I think he’ll be fine. I thought he was playing phenomenal, but it’s different now. Teams are locking in, same way teams are locking in with trying to take my post moves away. You’ve just got to adapt.”
Here’s guessing that in the near future, Butler gets back to being himself, making hustle plays around the rim and in transition, then eventually finding a rhythm when shooting the outside jumper. For whatever weaknesses have been revealed about his game in his more prominent role—and the obvious fatigue that’s come with it—the positive is that he remains a physical wing, dogged defender and tough rebounder for his position, all of the things he’s done since arriving in the NBA, just like he’s continued to listen to country music and wear cowboy boots.
See, Butler’s game, despite his “Jimmy Buckets” nickname, isn’t defined by scoring and those familiar enough with him to be able to nitpick his deficiencies during a tough stretch certainly know that Butler’s experienced a lot more difficult things in his life than a shooting slump. While he desperately wants to be able to hold his own offensively—more for the team’s sake than personal glory—which would satisfy the outsized expectations of his development that came last offseason, this early-career hiccup will ultimately be beneficial.
Butler’s toughness is his defining characteristic as a player, so whether it’s getting his shot back on track or shutting up critics that will be sure to come out of the woodwork if his rut is prolonged, these growing pains will help him and the Bulls in the long run.