The 2015-16 season has been nothing short of disastrous for the Chicago Bulls, and it took another turn when star player Jimmy Butler reportedly flew separately from his teammates for Monday’s 121-116 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
That was according to ESPN’s Chris Broussard, who appeared on SportsCenter and said Butler did so because of a family commitment. However, in a nod to the “dysfunction” that has plagued the Bulls all season, at least one player thought it was another example of Butler receiving "preferential treatment."
Here is the video, courtesy of ESPN.com:
Dan Feldman of NBC Sports' Pro Basketball Talk shared Broussard’s words:
Some players, and I’m not saying it wasn’t a family commitment, but there were some – I know at least one player in particular, a starter – who felt like he was a bit bothered by the fact that Jimmy wasn’t on the plane. And it was a misperception. He felt it was emblematic of a little bit of the preferential treatment that a lot of people say Butler’s been getting now that he’s emerged as the best players on the Bulls from the front office and things like that.
There’s a division. There’s all types of dysfunction in Chicago. There’s kind of a division in that locker room.
The younger players see Butler as the leader. He’s clearly been their best player the last two years. They see him as the leader.
The other guys, the veterans who’ve been there, it’s not so much of disrespect of Jimmy, but they don’t see him as the team as the team leader. They remember when you were averaging two points a game.
While there is an apparent split in the mentality between the older and younger players, Feldman did concede Butler probably deserves some type of special treatment (as long as he is not “above the rules”). After all, he is Chicago’s top player and averages 21.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game all while frequently guarding the opposition’s best player on a nightly basis.
However, Feldman also noted point guard Derrick Rose's presence complicates matters. Rose is a Chicago native who was the face of the franchise not that long ago. Before injuries derailed the former NBA MVP’s promising career, he was beloved across the city and the biggest superstar to don a Bulls uniform since Michael Jordan himself.
Naturally, there are probably some on the team who still see Rose as the leader, which could explain the different mindsets between the older and younger players.
There is also Joakim Noah, who has always been known for his leadership and passion on the floor.
Feldman goes as far as to suggest that re-signing the big man, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, may not be the best plan for the Bulls since there is already some trepidation about whether Butler can take the reins as the leader moving forward. Adding Noah—who is already seen as a leader—could complicate things even more.
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Dysfunction and questions about how well this Bulls team gets along and where Butler fits in is nothing new this season. Butler even suggested coach Fred Hoiberg doesn’t coach the team hard enough after a December loss.
As for the dynamic between the players, there were rumors before the regular season started that Butler didn’t like Rose’s work ethic, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley (via Fox Sports).
The former Marquette star even had to address his relationship with Rose as recently as Monday, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: “C'mon, man. That (expletive) always comes up when people lose. I'm tired of talking about that (expletive).”
Zach Lowe of ESPN.com reported in December the Bulls don’t socialize off the floor and frequently fought with each other when things went poorly during games. Lowe added “There is a sense that Butler relishes the trappings of stardom a bit too much and that he doesn't do enough to support his teammates, as a playmaker or a cheerleader.”
Butler’s name has even popped up in trade rumors this season, according to The Vertical's Chris Mannix (h/t HoopsRumors). It seems strange on the surface since he is only 26 years old and an established superstar in the league. However, it could be for reasons outside of his basketball abilities given all the reported issues within the franchise.
The one thing that may have helped Chicago overcome all this uneasiness is winning, but it has not done nearly enough of that this season. The Bulls are 41-40 and will be on the outside looking in when the postseason starts Saturday for the first time since the 2007-08 campaign.
Many thought that wouldn’t be the case when the season started. While the Bulls often fell short against an obstacle named LeBron James during their recent playoff streak—whether he was with the Miami Heat or Cleveland Cavaliers—Rose was largely healthy, and the team had just pushed Cleveland to six games in last year’s postseason.
If it weren't for James’ buzzer-beater in Game 4 of that series, Chicago may have gone up three games to one and eventually advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. There was reason for optimism, but these chemistry issues and injuries ultimately derailed the campaign.
Noah, Butler, Rose, Pau Gasol, Mike Dunleavy, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson have all missed time with physical ailments, and the Bulls never developed much on-court chemistry—to speak nothing of the off-court variety.
What’s more, youngsters such as Tony Snell and Doug McDermott were inconsistent at best in their attempts to fill in for the injured stars.
The Bulls are entering an important offseason for the franchise with Noah as a free agent, Gasol facing a player option on his contract and the looming concerns about Butler’s leadership and ability to co-exist with Rose and others.
How they respond could go a long way toward shaping next season’s Eastern Conference playoff picture.