At least one thing is settled after the Bulls' rocky, yet successful season: Jimmy Butler is indeed the franchise's starting shooting guard, at least as long as All-Star Luol Deng remains in Chicago as the team's small forward.
"I don't see why not. The way he played this year, he earned that spot. He's got great versatility. He became much more confident and competent, running pick-and-rolls, catch-and-shoot, putting it on the floor, posting up, so I thought his improvement offensively was tremendous, and his defense has gotten better and better, and I think it will continue to improve," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Jimmy I thought had a terrific year and it started last summer. His commitment to work and improvement was special. Actually, I spoke to him [Thursday] for awhile, and he's already talking about this summer and what he wants to do, and he'll be back here shortly. He'll take a brief vacation. You just love his attitude and approach."
Butler, a second-year swingman, emerged as an impact player in the second half of the regular season. After Deng was sidelined due to complications of a spinal-tap procedure, his profile gained even national acclaim, as he was dubbed the "Ironman." 48-minute performances and admirable defensive work against league MVP LeBron James for the undermanned Bulls couldn't be ignored.
"It's a big, big, big plus for our team. There was expectations on Jimmy, put on him at the beginning of the year, but he's definitely doing that and more," teammate Joakim Noah observed. "We knew that he could be a very good player, but I think the sky's the limit for him, especially with the way he approaches the game, his mindset, the way he works. Sky's the limit for Jimmy."
By now, Butler's hard-luck story is familiar to many. Butler grew up in small-town Texas, made a name for himself at the junior-college level and then experienced success at Marquette before being drafted by the Bulls at the end of the 2011 first round.
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After a year of basically being a bystander, then beginning with his stellar summer-league performance and emergence in the second half of the regular season, he became a beacon of hope to Bulls fans. Since continuing that trend in the playoffs, both the second-year swingman's potential and current ability has become a topic of discussion nationally, as he's compared to higher-profile players like San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, a lottery pick in the same draft class and rookie-year starter.
"I took a lot from it. Just that I can compete, I hang, to tell you the truth. I feel like I've got a long way to go, don't get me wrong," Butler told CSNChicago.com. "But I feel like I learned a lot. It was a tremendous learning curve. I benefited from it, from everything and I've got a long way to go, but I'm going to work. I'm going to work until I help us win games."
That's already occurring, as Thibodeau increasingly leaned on Butler to be a durable, reliable two-way performer, providing offense with his slashing ability, offensive rebounding, transition scoring and vastly-improved outside shot, as well as being a primary defender on the other end of the court, taking on assignments such as Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, New York's Carmelo Anthony, Nets scorer Joe Johnson and of course, the Heat's James.
While Butler described guarding James as "fun," he acknowledged that the defensive assignment was a monumental challenge, albeit one that he relished.
"That's what you wanted growing up. You want to guard the best, play against the best. It's a lot easier when you have guys like Jo and Booz and Nate there with you, and you're beat, boom, they're there. But you've just got to compete," he explained. "He has the ball in his hands a lot and he plays every position on the floor, to tell you the truth. Back to the basket, dribbling the ball up the floor and it's tough.
"I feel like you've just got to try to speed him up at times, get the ball out of his hands, make other guys make plays. He's such a great player that he does create for others and he can create for himself," the Tomball, Tex., native continued, before explaining that he didn't get demoralized when the Miami superstar hit high degree-of-difficulty shots against him. "It happens. That's what great players do. They make tough shots. You can play really great defense, but great offense is going to beat great defense any day.
"Because you play 48 minutes, people are going to make shots. You can't get discouraged by that. That happens. It's part of being in this league, going up against the best and it's all about having a short-term memory, forgetting it and moving on to the next play."
Thibodeau, a defensive guru, expressed optimism that Butler could one day join Noah on the league All-Defensive team.
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"I'm hopeful," the coach said. "Jimmy has great feet, great body balance, anticipation, intelligence, great work ethic, great multiple-effort mentality and I think his drive-I think what you're going to continue to see is his improvement from year to year."
"He's a great worker, great demeanor and has gotten significantly better."