NEW YORK -- Jimmy Butler has been open all summer long about his desire to be more of a leader for the Chicago Bulls. It goes deeper than that, though. Butler wants to be the face of this group. He wants to be the star. When people talk about the Bulls, Butler wants to be the one they think of first. After trying to find his role over his first two years in the league, Butler's metamorphosis from defensive stopper to All-Star has been well documented.
But what has become increasingly clear to many within the organization and those close to Butler is how the 26-year-old's personality has changed. He has worked incredibly hard to turn himself into one of the best two-way players in the league. In the process, he has made sure that his voice, and the mantle that comes with being his team's most consistent player, follows him wherever he goes. Never was that clearer than on Saturday night after the Bulls' loss to the New York Knicks.
"I believe in the guys in this locker room, yeah," Butler said when asked whether a shakeup was needed for players to get a message. "But I also believe that we probably have to be coached a lot harder at times. I'm sorry. I know Fred's a laid-back guy and I really respect him for that, but when guys aren't doing what they're supposed to do, you got to get on guys. Myself included. You got to do what you're supposed to do when you're out there playing basketball."
The assessment was stunning for several reasons. First and foremost, it's not every day that an NBA player calls out his head coach so publicly. Former Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was a taskmaster, and the relationship between his players, including Butler, frayed last season before he was fired at the end of the season. But despite all the friction, no player ever called out Thibodeau publicly. They couldn't stand him at times because of his domineering ways, but they always respected him because of his work ethic. Twenty-five games into Hoiberg's tenure, he has to face the reality that his best player just called him out on a public stage.
While it has been clear to many around the team that the Bulls are struggling to adjust to Hoiberg's style after five years under Thibodeau, that storyline, at least in the short term, will ride shotgun next to this one: How will Butler's comments be received within the organization?
It's possible that Butler might face some disciplinary action for calling out his coach in the media. But it's also possible that Butler was speaking not just for himself, but for other teammates who also feel that Hoiberg's style isn't working for them. Either way, the foundation for Butler's future as the face and voice of the Bulls will either be cemented or crushed by his comments on Saturday. They might serve as a turning point for a player who desperately wants to be seen as the focal point of the organization -- a final vocal push to get out from underneath Derrick Rose's long shadow.
Or, Butler's comments may become the beginning of the end for a talented player who bit off more than he can chew within the organization. To say that Hoiberg has the full support of the front office would be an understatement. Bulls general manager Gar Forman and executive VP John Paxson have supported Hoiberg both publicly and privately at every turn. He signed a five-year, $25 million contract six months ago and is entrenched as the coach for the future.
But that's where this saga gets tricky for the Bulls. Butler was supposed to be the future king of the roster, the player they would build around, after signing a five-year extension worth over $90 million in July. Along with Hoiberg, Butler was supposed to be at the forefront of everything the Bulls did. Now, those questions will be left under a microscope for the rest of the basketball world to see.
While Hoiberg and Butler's relationship will be analyzed from every direction, the other issue to keep an eye on is how Butler's comments will be viewed by the rest of the players. Nobody is going to question Butler's work ethic -- he works as hard, if not harder, than any of his teammates to prepare for the season and keep his body in order. But Butler's honesty, and the reaction to it, will be telling.
For years, the Bulls have taken their cues from Thibodeau. Joakim Noah has always been the emotional heart and soul of this group, but Thibodeau provided the Bulls with much of their identity. Veteran Pau Gasol has been a stabilizing presence since his arrival last year and Rose has tried to be more vocal as he makes his way back from three knee surgeries, but the Bulls have never had somebody like Butler speak his mind with such ferocity over the past five years.
Either the Bulls will rally around their All-Star swingman in the wake of his comments and come together more than ever under Hoiberg, or this group will continue to splinter apart as these players, and this coach, continue to struggle to find any consistent unity.