Jimmy Butler is a survivor. For the last three years, Butler has been dangled like a carrot in front of teams hungry for a transformational superstar. The Chicago Bulls, to their credit, haven't pulled the trigger on sending him packing, even if the mere idea of parting ways with a player of his ability seems counterproductive.
So every year, around late January through the trade deadline in February, he answers the same questions: "Do you expect to be traded?" "Do you feel disrespected?" Butler has also survived the cartoonish morass of the Bulls front office. He lasted through the teardown of the Derrick Rose/Tom Thibodeau era and the tumultuous growing pains of the arrival of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Now, with Taj Gibson off in Oklahoma City, he's the last man standing, the unlikely steward of a franchise that seemed destined for more.
Yes, Jimmy Butler has survived, but he's also in the rarefied air of superstardom—poised, at last, to be crowned King of Chicago, even if he wears the robe like an off-the-rack suit.
"It feels the same if I was a second-year player, or if I'm the face of the franchise," he tells the throng of reporters surrounding him in New Orleans after practice on the Saturday of All-Star Weekend this year. The group for Butler is sizable but dwarfed by the attention paid to the biggest stars and the guys always good for money quotes.
NBA All-Star Weekend has a hierarchy, like most things. Sure, the assembled athletic talent is the top tier of the top tier of basketball, but there are subtle levels of fame that are, at first glance, imperceptible. At media availabilities, the LeBrons and Stephs of the world get sprawling command centers with which to hold court. The rest of the gang get crammed into a receiving line, with little more than a chair and a bottle of water to comfort them.
Everybody leads in their own, different way. — JIMMY BUTLER
Butler is a modest man from a modest upbringing and doesn't court the spotlight, which makes his status as the figurehead of Bulls-land—the land of Jordan and Pippen and Phil Jackson and three-peats—a seemingly awkward fit.
"I just go out and go about things in the exact same way. Being the so-called 'face of the franchise' hasn't changed what I do on a night-to-night basis," he continues. He's a tradesman, an artisan of his craft less concerned with image than results. He's averaging 24 points and five assists a game, both career highs, for a squad struggling to stay relevant in the Eastern Conference.
Against Phoenix last week, Butler hit a huge game-tying three with 48.2 seconds left, then scored seven points in the overtime period, clinching a Bulls win. The very next night, on the road against the defending champion Cavaliers, he dropped a triple-double (18 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) en route to a statement win against the conference's elite team. We know what he can do on the court, but how meaningful are his stats for a 30-30 team on the precipice of dropping into the lottery?
More than ever before, results feed into how we perceive our athletes. Steph Curry is the face of Under Armour in no small part because of his team's unprecedented level of on-court success. The qualities we look for in our on-court leaders are nebulous, intangible and hard to truly pinpoint—other than the hoisting of a trophy at the end of a season. Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan were notoriously combative with teammates and flaunted their otherworldly expectations of mere mortals, but rings wash all that away.
When you're struggling, the way the Bulls have for the first half of the season, the questions mount. After mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo took to Instagram to criticize the leadership of Butler and Dwyane Wade back in January, it looked like the Bulls were about to fully implode before our eyes. In this volatile situation, the approach of a Jordan-esque dictator might be more valuable than Butler's more laid-back approach to being the best player on his team. "I feel like everybody needs to be that [leader]. Everybody leads in their own, different way," he says with his trademarked half-crooked smile.
I'm enjoying getting to know Jimmy more, getting to be part of getting him to that next level. — DWYANE WADE
When everyone's the leader, it begs the question if anyone is actually leading at all. Look across the league and, in just about every instance, the best player on the team is considered the figurehead of the franchise. We accepted that the moody DeMarcus Cousins was the leader in Sacramento before he was traded to New Orleans. The Pacers are Paul George's team. Chris Paul defines the Clippers' mentality and their image to the wider NBA fanbase. What this presumes is that physical gifts naturally lead to an aptitude for running the show in the locker room, too.
Butler plays the way we assume leaders play: He's the focal point of the offense, he has the ball in crunch time, and he's typically Chicago's leading scorer. Public perception exists independent of what goes on behind the scenes. We base all of our expectations of athletes on either what they offer through the press or what leaks out against their will, like the Rondo drama. Butler is a leader, a face of a franchise, because we think he is, not because he's courted the responsibility. He's inherited a basketball team that's been remade and revamped around him.
Wade was Butler once. He was the beloved franchise player tasked with embracing new players and a new way of doing things. Now, he's the new guy, the one adapting, and the one with the best seat in the house for the evolution of Butler. When Wade walks into the International House Hotel in New Orleans for an event promoting his Way of Wade brand, I'm momentarily blinded. Not by the flashbulbs, which aren't particularly necessary in a brightly lit room, but his stark white outfit. Where Butler might tiptoe around the various pleasures and pitfalls of fame, Wade embraces it.
Sometimes, we equate leadership with stardom. People want to be around stars, and therefore they are leaders because those people would follow them to the bathroom just for a handshake if they could. Wade is unquestionably a star—a man with a taste for fashion, the public eye and the sort of schmoozing that Butler doesn't seem to have much of an interest in. In a sit-down interview, Wade immediately engages—surprisingly comfortable being candid about the Bulls' struggles in the first half of the season.
"From a basketball standpoint, every team I've been on has had something go on throughout the year," he says. "Whether we've won a championship or we didn't, it just depends on how much it plays out in the public or in the media, but every team goes through something."
You don't have to go back too far to recall the first year of the Big Three era in Miami—the question of who would handle the ball was the tangible issue, but the philosophical issue was whose team it was. Every superteam goes through that moment, from the 2003-04 Lakers all the way down to today's Voltron-esque incarnation of the Golden State Warriors. Back in 2010, the question was, is it LeBron's team or D-Wade's? It wasn't long before that question was answered and LeBron became the man in South Beach, but that initial period of uncertainty was volatile. Now that Butler seems to be staying with the Bulls through the season, that same question has been answered in Chicago. It's Jimmy's team. Everyone else is along for the ride.
Wade sees differences between where he was back in his Miami Big Three days and where he is now. "It's a little different than Bron and Chris [Bosh], because when I came over [to Chicago], I didn't know none of them guys," he says. "Like, me and Jimmy knew each other a little bit. We didn't know each other a lot. So, I was like the new kid in class. I had to come in and try to make friends and I had to learn everybody." There was certainly no Rondo-esque wild card in Miami, no Instagram posts to stir the pot.
But it's clear that they've bonded in Chicago. That Rondo social media incident stemmed from the two of them jointly taking a side against the young players the Bulls front office has surrounded them with—what might be called a half-tank job, a top-heavy team with veterans trying to drag inexperienced players through the rigors of the NBA season. That they are superstars anchoring a young team would inevitably push them together, just as much as their shared connection to Marquette University.
"I'm enjoying this process," Wade says, relentlessly optimistic about his team and his decision, as the Bulls hover around the bottom seeds of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket going into the stretch run of the season. "I'm enjoying getting to know Jimmy more, getting to be part of getting him to that next level, and being back home."
Wade is at that valedictory moment in his career, but on the other side of downtown New Orleans, Butler is restless. The Bulls haven't been to the conference finals since 2011, when they lost to Wade, LeBron, Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat. Later that summer, Butler was picked 30th overall in the NBA draft. He wasn't supposed to be here, wasn't expected to be an All-Star-caliber player. But he is, and he's a leader, whether or not he's fully comfortable with that distinction. But he knows that leaders really are defined not by what they say, but what they win.
Butler is perturbed when a journalist in the All-Star scrum asks him how hard it is to be a superstar on a struggling team. A small question gets twisted into something far more combative than it was meant to be by the complicated King of Chicago. "I just try to get better. Win some games when we can. I'm not going to say that I'm the reason that we got worse. I'm not going to say that, like you just made it sound. Don't worry about it, though. It's OK."
Where Wade is cheery and blissful about Chicago's chances, Butler tenses up. "We'll be better moving forward. What do you want me to do? Go downward? Does me getting worse make us better?" Separately, Wade's high-on-life positivity and Butler's prickly pragmatism might not make for a potent leader, but together, they might be onto something.
If Jimmy Butler isn't all that comfortable with the trappings of superstardom, then Wade might be the perfect player to pick up that slack for Chicago's reluctant leader. The Bulls' ceiling might not be particularly high with a hodgepodge of pieces that don't quite fit together, but at first glance, Butler and Wade don't necessarily fit together either.
Yet here they are surviving, making it work.
Dave Schilling is a Writer-at-Large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also hosts the Roundball Rock podcast, a comedic look at the NBA. Prior to joining B/R, Dave wrote for Grantland, The Guardian and VICE. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.