The Chicago Bulls have been searching for a long term shooting guard since Michael Jordan’s second retirement in 1998. Once upon a time, it seemed like the answers to Bulls fans shooting guard prayers were answered with the arrival of Ben Gordon in the 2004-2005 season. Ben Gordon was the 6th Man of the Year in his rookie season and twice eclipsed an average of twenty points per game in his five years with the Bulls. Eventually, the Detroit Pistons offered more money than the Bulls were willing to hand out and BG ran to the dough.
Following Gordon’s departure from the Windy City, the Bulls were back to searching for a long term solution at the two spot. First it was journeyman Keith Bogans who had an opportunity. While Bogans worked hard and was always a professional and a solid teammate, his points per game average in the 2010-2011 season boiled down to a measly 4.4 while playing just 17.1 minutes per game as a starter. Interestingly enough, when Bogans managed six plus points in a game that season, the Bulls were almost unbeatable.
In that same period, Chicago also gave Ronnie Brewer a chance. Ronnie had an awkward shooting form due to an arm injury he suffered as a kid, leaving him with little consistent shooting ability. Brewer’s defense was excellent and intense, but his shortcomings offensively weren’t enough for him to stick with the Bulls long term despite also being a hard worker and dependable teammate.
Fast forward to the 2011 NBA draft and the Bulls had the 30th pick after finishing the previous season with 62 wins and the top record in the entire league. The casual fan may look past such a late first round pick, but the decision makers for a professional basketball team must look deep into the prospect pool to attempt to draft a game changer.
The Bulls opted for a lesser known prospect, Jimmy Butler, a senior from Marquette University. While the draft pick at the time lacked much fanfare, the background story of Butler’s life was certainly one to behold. Jimmy’s father abandoned him as an infant. At the age of thirteen, Jimmy was kicked out of his house in Tomball, Texas by his mother. Butler then bounced around from friends house to friends house until meeting Jordan Leslie, a freshmen basketball and football player at his school. From there, Leslie’s family consisting of 5 brothers and sister and his mother (Michelle Lambert) and stepfather, took in Jimmy after hearing and understanding his circumstances. To this day, Michelle Lambert is the woman Butler calls mother and he couldn’t be prouder of it.
Jimmy’s first year with Chicago was a quiet one. Stepping into a team that was a contender and had a full rotation forced Jimmy to learn through practice and sitting on the bench observing during games. Jimmy rarely saw the court and finished with an average of 8.5 minutes per game.
Entering the 2012-2013 season, the Bulls franchise was in a much different place than the previous two seasons. The franchise’s superstar and former NBA MVP, Derrick Rose, was out with a torn ACL. Making things even more difficult that season were continuous injuries to core players such as Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah. The Bulls vaunted bench mob had been reassembled as well. All those factors gave Jimmy Butler playing time and opportunity. With a quiet yet determined demeanor, Butler quickly showed Coach Tom Thibodeau that he could handle playing forty plus minutes any given night while also guarding the best player on the other team.
Butler’s regular season averages jumped up a little bit from his rookie season, but he was still learning his place with the Bulls. After it became more clearer that no one would see Derrick Rose play in a Bulls uniform last season, the Bulls had to pull together quickly. The veteran leaders of the team in Noah, Boozer, Deng, and Hinrich stepped up without a doubt. However, an X factor was needed, and Jimmy Butler stepped up to that challenge.
The Bulls faced off against the Brooklyn Nets, a team led by Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. Many believed the absence of Rose was too much too overcome. The skeptics were almost right, almost. Jimmy Butler elevated his game to another level. Joakim Noah had a historic game 7 and the Bulls advanced to the second round.
A date with the reigning champ Miami Heat was in order. Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng both would miss the entire series with injuries suffered from the first round matchup with the Nets. With longest tenured Bull, Luol Deng missing the series, Jimmy Butler was called on to guard LeBron James the entire series. The world finally took notice of the man Bulls fans have come to know as Jimmy “Buckets”. Butler played all 48 minutes in game 1 guarding LeBron James for 44 minutes. Jimmy’s defense forced LeBron into bad shots and also a -15 night for King James as the Bulls stole game 1 in Miami. Butler finished game 1 with 21 points and 14 rebounds to LeBron’s 24 points and 8 rebounds on 8-17 shooting, well below his season FG% average.
The Bulls would go on to lose 4 in a row much like in 2011, however Mr. Buckets managed two impressive feats. He held King James to only 23.6 ppg on .437% from the field in the 5 game series. From observing the series, even the casual fan could see LeBron James was never in his comfort zone against the non-stop tenacious defense Butler displayed. On top of his All-NBA like defense on James, Butler averaged 13.3 ppg/5.2 rpg/2.7 apg/1.3 spg while shooting over 40% from the three point line.
Looking ahead to the 2013-2014 season, Bulls fans and NBA fans a like all await the insanely anticipated “Return” of Derrick Rose. While that storyline definitely dominates the headlines, and while Rose is unquestionably the leader and best player for Chicago, the true X factor to the season lies within a humble 24 year old who is ready to take his game to another level and establish himself as the long term two guard in the Windy City.
With a brand new opportunity to play in a lineup with Rose, Deng, Boozer, and Noah, Butler now has 4 all-star level players surrounding him. He won’t be asked to do as much as last season in terms of minutes with Hinrich and Dunleavy as solid subs, but he will still have to be ready to guard the best wing defenders on the other team as well as knock down open three point shots when Derrick Rose sees the inevitable double and even triple teams. Coach Thibodeau has already begun raving about Butler in training camp this past week, citing more muscle and an even smoother looking outside jump shot to go with great athleticism and endurance.
Many occasions Jimmy “Buckets” could have given up due to circumstances, or had a reason to not reach his potential on and especially off the court. There is something special to this kid, and the Bulls front office somehow saw that when 29 other teams didn’t. The Bulls believe he might end up being the missing piece to a starting lineup that was once just three wins away from an NBA finals berth 3 seasons ago. “The Return” will be all the hype, but silently and patiently Jimmy Butler is waiting for his return to the court to help bring a seventh NBA championship banner to the United Center.