PORTLAND — Jimmy Butler came into this season firmly planted amongst the Top 25 players in the NBA and depending on who you ask, maybe he was a bit higher.
With his play taking yet another leap after so many massive ones already, perhaps it’s time he be mentioned in a higher context.
Since he called himself out to be more aggressive following a blowout loss to the Pacers on the second half of a back-to-back, Butler’s numbers have risen. Averaging 28.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists represents one of the best stretches of his career to date.
He was asked about being ranked in the Top 10 of NBA players this season, and wasn’t shy about it.
“Do I dispute it? No. Do I believe it? Of course,” said Butler to CSNChicago.com following a morning practice at the University of Portland Wednesday. “I think you can ask people we have on this team, I walk around and say certain things I really mean.”
“I’m not gonna tell you exactly what I say but I think you know what I’m talking about,” Butler said. “I don’t talk about it in public. But between these guys, they know how I feel, they know the way I go about the game and how I love it and how I love being better. I place myself where I place it and I hope my game continues to speak.”
The quote Butler didn’t want to say but one that has been heard by teammates more than a few times: “I’m the best (bleeping) player in the world.”
Butler’s never been one to say anyone’s better than him, and certainly his confidence is warranted. He was drenched in sweat after staying longer than anybody to get up extra shots following Wednesday’s practice and it’s no secret he considers himself a true franchise player.
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If performances like these can stay to some level of consistency, it’ll be harder to deny that he belongs in the same conversation as the one-name superstars like LeBron (James), Steph (Curry), Kevin (Durant), Russell (Westbrook) and 2015-16 MVP runner-up Kawhi Leonard, the player widely regarded as the best two-way player in basketball.
“I think you look at this last stretch, averaging 29 over the last six games. He’s just doing it so many different ways,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We’re using him in the post, we’re using him as a facilitator. I love the 12 rebounds (Monday against the Blazers) where he’s pushing the ball down the floor without an outlet. We’re isolating him a lot. Just his overall game, you gotta give him all the credit in the world for the work ethic and everything he’s put in to make himself the complete player he is.”
His teammates are following him, probably the most understated part of this season compared to last. Butler doesn’t have to convince them he can lead them to a top spot in the Eastern Conference anymore; they see it and so far, he’s been a better teammate and the resistance this season compared to last has been nil.
“I'm surprised at how mature he is,” said Bulls forward Taj Gibson, who worked out with Butler over the summer. “He's a lot more mature than he was, as far as being how he's been with the guys, how he's communicating. He's always critiquing the game, but he's always positive. Last year, he had his times when he was questioning things, and he didn't know how to let it out. But this year, having D-Wade I think helps him a lot. And then you can learn from it and understand it. And (Team) USA helped him out big time.”
Butler doesn’t doubt the production is sustainable, as it seems like he’s found easier ways to score without being so taxed — almost like finding some secret only a few guys know and refuse to share.
“I think so. I work at that,” Butler said. “I work to catch what those guys are doing, to perform at the highest level like those guys. I take notice. I watch, I learn from those guys as much as I learn from players from the past. So I put myself in that category.”
The same category as multiple-time MVP’s and first-ballot Hall of Famers? Butler doesn’t flinch.
Privately, he chafed at the notion he couldn’t be a franchise player or that he somehow plateaued because of where he started. He simply thinks everybody else is late to the party of the Butler takeover.
“Yeah, if I go at the game with the same mentality, like Dwyane (Wade) told me, every time you step on the floor, you gotta have the mentality that you’re the best player out there,” Butler said. “You gotta be out there to prove that point every single night, every single day in practice. That’s what I’m working to be. I want to be the first guy in the gym, the last game to leave, studying film and having a killer mentality.”