An enigma. That's really what they are. From game-to-game, impossible to figure out. A "semi-successful work in progress," as writer Chris Kuc recently and perfectly referred to them. A team that has now been appointed to Jimmy Butler as his responsibility.
Butler may not be the "official leader" of the Bulls, who still seem to defer to Derrick Rose during games, but the team revolves around him. Let's just title him the focal point.
He has elevated himself into an elite group in the NBA. That rare not-much-discussed trio of "after LeBron James" players who wrestle with the pound-for-pound title of best two-way players in the game. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are the existing champs. And Butler, with his play and new contract signifying his legitimate arrival into the conversation, gets his jabs and crosses in when he can. Just enough so that people don't leave him out of the discussion.
Last Friday (when the Bulls still held the second-best record in the Eastern Conference), we sat down with Butler to discuss why it's so hard for his team to get the love it deserves and why he believes he isn't supposed to even be where he is in the first place.
Scoop Jackson: From the outside looking in, there seems to be this concern with you all. In the media, from the fans, there's just a lot of negativity about how the Bulls are playing even though you have one of the best overall records in the League. Do you hear all of that or are you removed from it?
Jimmy Butler: I don't pay attention to it. I think everybody always wants to find something wrong with a good thing. I like the way we are moving right now. Everybody is confident, everybody is continually working on their games as you can see, getting in early, staying late, coming back at night.
Man, as long as we keep winning, eventually you gotta say that these guys can play. Gotta say that we are playing good basketball and doing things the right way. More than anything, we have to focus in on ourselves and not worry about the outside looking in because it's always all about the inside and what's in here.
Scoop: So we're trippin'? The media and fans?
Butler: I don't know. I mean, everybody is entitled to their opinion. People see things from a different eye view than others. I think there are things that we can get better at, but there are things that we do very, very well, so I think that they cancel out. You may weigh one thing more than the other, but at the end of the day, we're winning games.
Scoop: I mean, I know outside and inside everybody has the same expectations of you all, but the disconnect is real. Are we just more impatient than you all?
Butler: That and, um, there's a lot of stuff that goes on that you all don't see. All you all see is the games.
You all don't get to see us go up and down [in practice], you all don't know how everybody's body is feeling on a day-to-day [basis] or how injuries take their toll on somebody or how one player being out can mess up the whole rotation because [the guy who steps in] is not used to doing this and he has to do it for three games, then he has to go back to his old role and readjust. A lot of things come into effect, and it really changes the game. You [all] just don't necessarily see it like that.
Scoop: That's that tendency we have to never take everything into consideration. Not looking at the entire picture of something before we open our mouths or write our words.
Butler: The one thing I try to get our younger guys to understand -- it's something that Luol [Deng] did for me -- he always told me: "Don't worry about what others think, you are never going to please everybody. You worry about you and what you can control."
Scoop: Unless you are Golden State.
Butler: No. No. Because I'm pretty sure there are some people that they don't even please. Like there's always somebody out there that's going to be hating. Always. No matter if they are a LeBron fan or a KD fan, someone does not like and will find fault in what Golden State is doing. You're not going to please everybody, that's my point. So at the end of the day, you have to just make sure that you are happy, your teammates are happy and you all are moving in the right direction.
Scoop: Is the team's record then an accurate definition and a true reflection of who you all are?
Butler: As of right now, yes. We can win games, but I think we can be better. So we'll continue to win games -- obviously, hopefully -- but as we continue to get better, I think we'll be able to hold leads and get stops when we need to get stops, turn over the ball less, make that extra pass to the open guy in the corner, you know, whatever it may be.
The season is still young, though we can't use that as an excuse. Each and every day we're learning. We're learning from our coaches, we're learning from each other. Everyone has a new role this year.
Scoop: That's kinda where I'm at: New coach, new system, new roles. Yet you all are still playing at a level that remains one of the best in the league this early, when in reality this is supposed to be the rough patch. This is supposed to be the "feeling out" process for you all. I don't think all of that is being taken into consideration.
Butler: Yeah, you gotta think about all of that. You know, it's not an excuse because nobody cares, but you gotta look at it like that. I understand, "Hey, Chicago Bulls, you gotta win games, you gotta win championships." Yeah, OK. I get that. But it's still a learning curve for us right now.
We have a lot of guys that haven't played a significant amount of minutes under Thibs [former coach Tom Thibodeau], and when it gets to [coach Fred] Hoiberg and he gives you all of that freedom on offense, going up and down the court and they are playing, getting their confidence up, that's a totally different role to adjust to.
"Not in a million years could you tell me that I was going to be starting for the Bulls, that my name would be on a billboard outside. ... It wasn't supposed to happen like this." Jimmy Butler
Scoop: At the same time, I've heard you make comments that you all aren't doing what you all are supposed to do or what you all are capable of doing. And it seems like you all are the same team that you were last year. So are the frustrating moments different than they were last year?
Butler: Definitely. The frustrating moments last year was kinda like, Thibs just being a hard-nosed guy. He's gonna yell, he's gonna say some curse words, he's going to let you know. With right here, [Hoiberg] is going to be like, "Hey, guys, you gotta do this, you gotta do that," and then that's the end of it.
It's two totally different coaching styles. Some works for some guys, some works for others. Some guys on this roster can't take getting yelled at, some guys on this roster getting yelled at gets them going, you know what I mean? And there's nothing wrong with that. But at the end of the day, we as players know what we are capable of and what we have to do. We're all grown men, and we've been playing this game for so long a coach shouldn't have to tell us, "Hey, this is what you have to do to win this game."
Scoop: And is that what's frustrating at times? Is that what you are saying when you come out and make those comments?
Butler: Yeah. We've been doing this all of our lives! This is what we love to do. This is what we choose to do. Look, we respect the game, we are in here [practicing] all of the time, we know what it takes to win in this league. You see it every single night. You see Golden State win, you see Cleveland, you see San Antonio, whoever it may be. You gotta play hard, you gotta guard, obviously you have to score, you just have to play hard. And that's a talent. Playing hard is a talent! And the longer you can play hard, the more you can help your team win.
If all five guys are out there playing hard -- "Hey, coach, I just played hard as hell, I need two or three minutes. Take me out, gimme a breather and I'll get right back in" -- they'll be cool with that. You gotta just play hard. We always gotta go hard.
Scoop: How much pressure is it playing "for a contract" versus "living up to a contract?"
Butler: To me, ain't none. Either way. The way I look at it, there was no pressure last year, none this year. To tell you the truth, you have to remember, I was never supposed to be here.
Scoop: And you keep telling yourself that, and that removes the pressure?
Butler: Yeah. If I just keep reminding myself, "Hey, if you fail, look where you are going to land." Not in a million years could you tell me that I was going to be starting for the Chicago Bulls, that my name would be on a billboard outside, I would be getting interviewed by you. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. But because I worked so hard and God has blessed me with so many great things and great people, that's the reason I've been successful so far. And that's what keeps me going.
Scoop: OK, then, let's go deeper: Tell me why you feel you aren't supposed to be here when there is a league full of players who can say the same thing?
Butler: OK, OK ... I hear you. But listen: I'm from Tomball, Texas. No real Division I offers coming out of high school, went to junior college, no one knew who I was in junior college, [Marquette coach] Buzz Williams took a chance on me, [I] did my four years in college, and while I was there, I was undefined.
Scoop: So you are basing this on pedigree? That you weren't this McDonald's or Parade All-American and your father wasn't a former player or ...
Butler: Yeah, but also I really wasn't a guard in college. I really didn't shoot the ball well, I just played hard. And somehow I got drafted. And once I got here, I just worked on my game. Now I'm a 2-guard. I went from really not being able to dribble and shoot to handling the ball, making shots, getting shots for others, and that's what I mean by, "I'm not supposed to be here." I'm not supposed to be here, like, it wasn't in my cards therefore I have to pull a few more and trade some back in and it just popped up in there.
Scoop: What do you take the most pride in as a basketball player?
Butler: On the court? Winning. I don't care anything about the stats. I just want to win. At the end of the day, I want that championship. I want to be able to leave my mark here as a winner.
Off the court, it's seeing the smiles on kids' faces whenever they see me. It's that whole "being a role model" thing. That's huge.
The other night I was at dinner, and two kids walked up to me and all they wanted to do was just talk to me. They didn't want to take pictures, they didn't want any autographs, they just wanted to talk. Say hello because they were fans. And that, that's the biggest point for me, man. Those things. When all they want to do is give me a hug or shake my hand or talk to me for five minutes, because they know who I am and I play basketball. It changes peoples' lives. You never know it, you never think that someone would say, "Oh, if I meet this person," that it could change everything. You never know what people are going through. And you can tell it means something because their faces just light up. It makes you feel like their night, their year, their lives have been made just off of that one interaction.
Scoop: And that's a feeling you never want to get used to, right? Where you get to that point in your career that things like that have happened so much that those moments don't mean the same to you anymore?
Butler: It'll never happen. It'll never happen where I'm like, "Ah it's just another kid." It won't. Because, remember, I'm not supposed to be here, and just knowing that that could give them motivation to be whatever they want to be or be great in whatever aspect of life they want to be great at, that's why I'm here. An example that you can be anything you want to be.
I'm never going to shut down anyone's dreams, ever. Whatever you want to do, go get it. Don't let anyone ever tell you that you can't. And that's where kids gotta start. And maybe that starts for some kid with shaking my hand.