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Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade Have Chicago Bulls Blowing Away Expectations
LOS ANGELES—Jimmy Butler knew what he had to do. He usually does these days.
"Coach," he told Fred Hoiberg before the Chicago Bulls faced the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, "I'm going for 40 tonight."
Butler kept his word, and then some. Less than 24 hours after scoring 22 points and chasing around J.J. Redick in a 102-95 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, he bullied his way to a season-high 40 points, with just one three-point try (which he missed), to propel the Bulls to a 118-110 win at Staples Center while Dwyane Wade rested.
"I just felt like that’s what my team was going to need from me, to tell you the truth," Butler said. "To be aggressive, put the ball in the basket. With our second-leading scorer out, I know I have to pick up the pace a little bit."
Butler got to the free-throw line 14 times (making 12). He crashed the glass for seven rebounds. He dished out six assists. He even beat out a taller, younger and bulkier Julius Randle on a jump ball late in the game.
"I told him that was the best play he made all night," Hoiberg said.
Butler's stellar play has been but the biggest key to the Bulls' 9-5 start during a 2016-17 NBA season that looked to be a long slog in the Windy City.
Over the summer, Chicago's front office all but tore down a roster that had slipped since the halcyon days of Derrick Rose's MVP run. Out went Rose, along with Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy Jr., among others. In came nine new faces, none more recognizable than Wade's.
How would Hoiberg—a man long known as "The Mayor" for his people-pleasing demeanor—be able to wrangle a locker room run by three outsized personalities (i.e., Butler's, Wade's and Rajon Rondo's), let alone fashion a competitive club on the court?
To start, with a long lunch.
Shortly after the Bulls signed Wade to a two-year, $47 million deal, Hoiberg flew out to Los Angeles to consult with the team's next hometown hero. They had a three-hour meeting, broke bread together, worked out together.
And they talked—about Wade's Hall of Fame career, what it takes to win, the lessons he'd learned about leadership during his 13 seasons and three title runs with the Miami Heat.
"As far as building chemistry with different teams with different makeups, I think he’s pretty much the centerpiece and the leader of those groups," Hoiberg said.
In Chicago, Wade is once again rallying the troops. At 34, he's the Bulls' elder statesmen, the so-called "adult in the room."
"He’s just been a very vocal leader," said Robin Lopez, another of Chicago's offseason additions. "He picks and chooses when to say something, and when he does, it's usually of significant importance."
He's helped to turn what was once a toxic situation into one of joy and passion almost overnight.
"This is a job you’re supposed to have fun with it," Butler explained. "When you’re having fun with something, you don’t ever want to stop doing it. So guys are constantly wanting to work on their games, constantly wanting to study film and be better to help this team win. If the older guys are doing it, and the oldest guy in Dwyane Wade is doing it, then these young guys, it’s easy for them to follow suit."
Though Wade had the night off after playing 35 minutes against the Clippers on Saturday, he didn't sit idly by. He played Mickey to Butler's Rocky, offering advice throughout the game.
"It’s great to have him in my corner," Butler said.
Wade's given much more than words of wisdom to the Bulls. In the 13 games he's played, he's posted career highs in three-point attempts (3.5 per game) and percentage (37.8 percent).
That's helped Chicago overcome what looked to be a lack of outside shooting, especially with Doug McDermott sidelined by a concussion and Nikola Mirotic (31.5 percent from three) still struggling to find his range in the NBA.
Neither Wade nor the Bulls as a whole have forced the issue from outside. Chicago ranks 28th in three-point attempts (21.4 per game), 27th in makes (7.4) and 17th in percentage (34.7 percent).
Yet, in a league where perimeter shooting extends its jurisdiction by the day, the Bulls rank eighth in offensive efficiency.
"We have to play the way our roster is built to play," Wade said.
So far, Chicago has done just that. With bruisers like Lopez and Taj Gibson up front—and Butler flying in from the wing—they've crashed the glass on both ends and turned those offensive caroms into heaps of second-chance points.
They're not a particularly speedy team overall (22nd in possessions per game), what with Wade often on the ball. But that hasn't stopped the Bulls from capitalizing on opportunities in transition. According to NBA.com, Chicago has scored the seventh-most fast-break points per game (15.3) and the fifth-most points per play in transition (1.2).
To that end, it's helped the Bulls to have so many young legs coming off the bench, if only to help Rondo push the tempo. There's no telling yet what they'll ultimately get out of the likes of McDermott, Bobby Portis, Cristiano Felicio, Jerian Grant, Isaiah Canaan and rookie Denzel Valentine. But if they can play as fearlessly and frenetically against the rest of the league as they did opposite the Lakers, Chicago might soon be onto something.
Still, the core of this team's identity to date is one of physicality and brute force.
"That’s really how we used to be before a lot of injuries and a lot of players being moved," Gibson said of his team's punch-first approach. "I love it."
Remnants of the Tom Thibodeau era are visible because this is Butler's team now. Teammates are taking on his identity, his attitude, his supreme confidence.
For all the changes in Chicago since June, none has been more consequential than Butler's rise into MVP consideration. His career bests in points (25.1), rebounds (6.6), field-goal percentage (47.3 percent), three-point percentage (41.7 percent) and usage rate (27.3 percent), per Basketball-Reference.com, point not only to his current potency, but also an upward trajectory.
"Jimmy thinks every time he steps on the floor, he’s the best player out there," Hoiberg said. "More often than not, he’s right."