CHICAGO -- Jimmy Butler finally has what he has always craved.
A force on both ends of the floor, Butler has turned himself into one of the best two-way players in the NBA through hard work and determination. He'll be looking for his third straight All-Star appearance later this season and is hellbent on trying to prove that he can lead the Chicago Bulls back to the playoffs after a disappointing 2015-16 season.
But as the Bulls head into week two of training camp for the new season, Butler has found something he has been searching for the past several years. Not only does he have the complete respect of his team, he has confidence in knowing that for the first time since he has been in the league, he is viewed as being the face of the franchise.
The long shadows of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are gone, both having moved on to the Knicks, and Butler is left to stand on his own in front of the bright lights, with nothing encumbering his view of the future.
Butler is "the man" for the Bulls and he is embracing all that comes with that mantle.
To understand why this means so much to the 27-year-old, you have to know from where he has come in his basketball life. The 30th pick of the 2011 NBA draft, Butler wasn't expected to be much more than a defensive stopper coming out of Marquette. When he came to the Bulls, teammates and coaches loved his work ethic, but he couldn't find minutes in Tom Thibodeau's rotation because of an inconsistent jumper and a roster filled with solid veteran players. But as Bulls personnel recall, even as a young player trying to find his way in the league, Butler was always a leader in self-confidence.
In recent years, Butler has been open about the fact that he often used to tell Thibodeau he should be playing more. Ultimately, Butler got his chance and developed into a player around whom the Bulls could build. But as Butler grew into both his body and his game -- earning the NBA's Most Improved Player Award after the 2014-15 season -- he could never shake the perception from some of his older teammates that he was still the fun-loving kid from Tomball, Texas.
While they appreciated what he accomplished, some veteran teammates wanted Butler to take a backseat within the framework of the locker room. While the relationship between Butler and former MVP Rose always drew the most attention, multiple league sources have indicated over time that it was, in fact, the relationship between Butler and former All-Star Noah that deteriorated the most.
Butler came into the 2015-16 season wanting to take a more vocal approach. This was underscored when he ripped new head coach Fred Hoiberg after a loss to the New York Knicks last December, saying the easy-going coach, who had come from Iowa State, had players who needed to be "coached a lot harder."
The problem for Butler was that while his play had given him more of a platform to speak, he still hadn't earned that right in the minds of some of his teammates. Privately, many front-office members shared the same view. As much as they respected and appreciated the work Butler put in to raise his game to another level, they wished he would have kept more of the humble approach he had when he arrived in the league.
The Bulls knew that part of the growth any player takes from role player to star involves a jolt to the ego, but Butler developed a reputation throughout the organization as a talented player with an outsized ego. Butler's mindset had changed, a notion he openly discussed after the season as he grew into stardom.
Butler was still viewed in some corners as the little brother who was constantly in the shadow of some of his older siblings. That's a large reason why he looked so content and wore a quick smile on his face during last Monday's media day.
"I think everybody that's on this roster now just knows how hard that I've worked to get to this spot that I'm at. They've seen it. They've witnessed it."Jimmy Butler
"Does it make me feel more comfortable?" Butler said, when asked if he was in a better place now because with so many new teammates, they only know him as an All-Star, not as a reserve trying to find minutes. "I mean, to an extent, yeah, because then you can never say how you may think that I've changed.
"I think everybody that's on this roster now just knows how hard that I've worked to get to this spot that I'm at. They've seen it. They've witnessed it. All they've been around for me is this point of my career. I don't know if it sounds bad, but I think that all these guys look at, 'If Jimmy work like that and if I work like that, I'll be in the same position that he's in.' I'll be more than happy to let you have that position because I think hard work can get you anywhere that you want to get to."
Bulls GM Gar Forman has been hesitant to say the Bulls are building around Butler as the face of the franchise, but after deciding not to move him at last season's trade deadline and again before this past summer's draft, Forman made moves that strengthened Butler's standing within the organization. Veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo were brought in to support Butler and make sure the Bulls didn't have to go through the type of 20-win, full-scale rebuild that the organization despises.
More important in the short term, both Wade and Rondo went out of their way early on to make it clear to the media that this was: "Jimmy's team."
"I think he's going to be comfortable in every role," Wade said. "I don't see that being a problem with Jimmy at all. I think it's my job to help him in ways that I see he can be better ... And I think me and Rondo coming in and saying that early is just giving him the confidence that he didn't have to worry about taking a step back or anything. Shaq did the same thing for me when he came to Miami. Just the mental approach to the game from him saying them words to me, allowing me to go out and just play my game. That's all we want him to do, play his game."
As much as Butler tried to downplay it last season, those close to him knew how much his standing among some of his teammates bothered him. Butler had put in so much work and dedicated so much of himself to his career that it bothered him when he didn't see the same type of commitment from some of his teammates. Bulls small forward Doug McDermott, a frequent training partner of Butler's in the offseason, says he believes his friend has learned from the good and bad things in last season's locker room.
"I really do," McDermott said. "I really do. I feel it. I feel it with these guys. I think it's good having a guy like Wade sitting in there sitting right across from him who has accomplished a lot in the league and been a champion along with Rondo and guys that are older than him and I think that's going to go a long way."
The Bulls are banking on Wade and Rondo to serve as mentors to some of their younger players, but one of the pair's main jobs is going to be keeping Butler's ego in check throughout the season. Whether it was choreographed public-relations spin or not, the Bulls' front office knows that Wade's and Rondo's words can go a long way toward having a happier and more unified locker room this season.
"For those guys to say it's his team, sure, I think that huge for Jimmy to hear those types of things," Hoiberg said. "And again, you see little things that Jimmy's doing this year, to take pride in that role, and he's done a tremendous job to this point."
Having won a championship in the league and being viewed as a locker room headache at times, Rondo has experienced the highs and lows of the league's litmus test for leadership. He wants to make sure Butler understands that his actions are going to speak much louder than his words.
"Not doing it with my mouth and doing it with my actions," Rondo said, while discussing what he can do to help Butler in his new role. "And being consistent. I told Jimmy a leader can't pick and choose when he wants to lead. You have to come out here every day, every practice. We're having two-a-days, if you're down, if you need something to get your head right you have to bring it every day. Every day."
Hard work has never been something Butler has shied from. After helping Team USA win a gold medal at the Rio Olympics, Butler said his biggest takeaway from the experience was seeing the way some of the game's elite approached their responsibilities each day.
"I was in the gym working, but I would also see the way [Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony, Klay Thompson] all of those guys, they be working hard as hell," Butler said. "So it's like if the best players in the world can work like that, everybody can work like that. So you see guys in here, afterwards they'll be back before practice, after practice, working. That's how it's supposed to be."
One of the biggest questions the Bulls are facing is whether Butler can maintain the lessons he has learned over the last year and continue making his relationship with Hoiberg better. For his part, Hoiberg has repeatedly given Butler exemplary marks for his "leadership" and for leading "by example."
Butler has returned the favor by calling himself out publicly as the standard by which the rest of his teammates should be judged.
"I told Fred, 'As much as you can, use me as an example. I want you to really get on my tail about every little thing,'" Butler said. "Because if Doug [McDermott] or Tony [Snell] or whoever it may be is watching coach talk to me like that, it's going to be like, 'If he can talk to Jimmy like that, I know he's going to come at me a certain way.' That's what I try to remind him every day. I think he's ready for that. I'm a player. I'm coachable like everybody else. I want that. I need that."
Butler already got what he needed most coming into the season. After five seasons of being seen in a complementary role, he comes into his sixth professional year as the unquestioned star of the show. The Bulls are hoping that shift in the balance of power within their locker room will give Butler the peace of mind to become a better player and leader than he has been before. Those closest to him can already see the difference.
"I think so far just his attitude," McDermott said, when asked what the biggest difference is between Butler now and a year ago. "Right now, his mindset is really getting in on us young guys, but in a different way. Last year I would say he held back a little, and this year he's been great with the coaches, with us players, and obviously his game is only getting better."