CHICAGO — Give the Chicago Bulls' season this: One of the questions from training camp has been answered beyond a shadow of a doubt. This is Jimmy Butler’s team, whether he’s ready for it to be or not.
With Derrick Rose struggling and new head coach Fred Hoiberg still feeling his way around the NBA game, Butler has emerged as the Bulls’ clear-cut leader on and off the court. It’s a role that’s new to him, and it hasn’t been without its share of drama.
I believe in the guys in this locker room. 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.
At shootaround on Monday morning, both Hoiberg and Butler wanted to make it clear that they’d talked things out.
Butler admitted that going public with his criticism of Hoiberg wasn’t the best idea, and Hoiberg stressed the importance of open lines of communication. Butler blamed the controversy on the media (of course) and insisted he wasn’t calling out his coach (despite the fact he called out his coach by name), but he didn’t back off the core sentiments.
In truth, it doesn’t matter how anyone spins Butler’s comments after the fact. This episode will come and go in the news cycle and in the Bulls’ long and still-unfolding season. Butler will move on, and so will Hoiberg.
But his comments lay bare some deeper concerns that aren’t going away anytime soon.
Namely that this is a team that has struggled to establish an identity under Hoiberg. Beyond that, it’s a collection of players for whom the much-coveted notion of continuity has crossed over into stagnation, and there’s nothing to suggest that will reverse course.
This is a team at a crossroads, caught between identities at a time when change is desperately needed but not entirely feasible.
Going up and down the roster, the Bulls are full of players who either have uncertain futures with the team (Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah) or whose present-day production is leaving something to be desired (Rose and Nikola Mirotic, for starters).
The only long-term sure thing is Butler, who is in the first year of a five-year, $94 million deal and looks like a lock to make his second straight All-Star team.
In terms of on-court production and off-court magnetism, he checks all the boxes of a franchise player. But his unorthodox path to NBA stardom—a late first-round pick who wasn’t a high-profile high school recruit—is making the transition something less than natural.
“I've never been in this position before in my life,” Butler said at shootaround. “Not high school, not junior college and not here. So I'm learning. It's different, a lot goes into this and there's good and bad.”
This weekend’s comments and the fallout they caused could be classified as growing pains for Butler as a leader. But the more important thing is he felt empowered to make them in the first place, to be taken seriously as a public voice of the team. It is a sign of things to come.
Butler is no longer the scrappy underdog made good. He’s a star, max contract and all, and is embracing everything that comes with that money and responsibility.
“I know we have what it takes to win here,” Butler said. “Talent-wise and guys constantly working their game. I mean people are going to think what they want to think. People want me to lead, you take my leadership for what it is. Some people may like it, some people don’t. Money has absolutely nothing to do with it.
“I feel like I’ve been here long enough, I’m one of the so-called vets here that I can’t allow stuff to happen when I see it happen, so I have to put that on myself. Us as a team has to handle that. Yeah, I said Coach, but then again when we all talked about it, talked about it with my teammates, it’s on us. We’re the ones that have to go out there and play.”
Hoiberg, for his part, insists he didn’t take Butler’s comments personally.
“Look, I know how passionate Jimmy Butler is,” the coach said Monday. “That’s what makes him a great player, his passion, his work ethic. But it is a new role for him. It’s a new role being a leader. I think he has all the tools to be a really good one. The talk we had yesterday—I’ll keep what we talked about between us—was really positive.”
Butler was right about one thing: In demeanor and approach, Hoiberg is a complete 180 from his predecessor.
Under Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls had vocal locker room leaders in their most tenured veterans, but the need for new ones like Butler to emerge was tempered by the presence of such a strong personality on the sidelines.
Going from Thibodeau to Hoiberg has been something of a culture shock for a Bulls team that’s virtually unchanged from last year’s. Thibodeau’s defensive mentality is still deeply embedded in this squad’s DNA in such a way that Hoiberg’s more uptempo offensive style has yet to establish itself.
Between that and most of the roster's inconsistent play, there’s a void in the leadership department, and Butler is stepping into it—as much at the urging of his teammates as anything.
“Those comments are a positive,” Gasol said after Monday night’s 105-102 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. “I think it’s good that certain guys want to take ownership and say, ‘Let’s go.’ But that also comes with responsibility, not just on the floor but off the floor and everything you do.”
Butler has the on-court part down. It’s the other responsibilities that will require trial and error before he can master them. But for the long-term success of the franchise, it’s a transition that needs to happen.