Bulls

Competitive spirit, appreciation for Chicago still evident in Jimmy Butler's return

Competitive spirit, appreciation for Chicago still evident in Jimmy Butler's return

From the deafening cheers in the opening introductions to the uber aggressive way he started the game, there was no way Jimmy Butler’s return to Chicago was just another game.

Hell hath no fury like a player scorned, or something like that. No matter how much he tried to tell everyone it didn’t mean that much to him—and how he wanted that message parroted by his coach and teammates—there’s too much common sense to buy that nonsense.

It isn’t in Butler’s character to swallow such disregard without retribution; It goes against everything we know about the self-made superstar who’s been playing MVP ball for the last two months.

So with eight months to stew after being traded, there was a big soup ready for the Bulls, with Butler ready to serve to anyone who wanted a spoonful.

A big, boiling soup of petty.

Butler scored 38 but when his wing triple at the buzzer bounced off the rim, he ceded the night to one of the players he was traded for, Zach LaVine, who scored the last 11 for the Bulls in the emotionally-charged 114-113 Bulls win Friday night.

Butler had a chance on a previous possession to cement the win, but passed it to his younger teammate, Karl-Anthony Towns, who was wide open for a triple. The possession before, he drove and scored to put his team up one but resisted the urge to do it again.

“I knew everybody thought I wanted to shoot the ball,” Butler said. “I trust KAT (Towns) like I trust myself. I’ve seen him make that shot time and time again. I’ll take that.”

Butler certainly played with a chip on his shoulder but was reflective afterwards, not venting through the frustration of his team blowing a 17-point third quarter lead, allowing the Bulls to crawl back before the end of the period and a dogfight ensued.

He gave frustrated Towns a fist bump in the locker room after the game, saying ‘it’s alright big fella’ before heading to the showers, minutes before addressing the media.

Towns and everybody in that locker room knew how much this game meant to Butler, but he’s having to watch his approach with such fragile players who haven’t yet played big boy basketball yet.

Whether he admits it publicly or not, there’s a part of him that admires the moxie from LaVine, his counterpart who scored 35 and showed no fear down the stretch. His aggressiveness in guarding LaVine on the final Bulls possession resulted in him fouling LaVine on the elbow, with LaVine hitting three free throws to subsequently seal the Bulls win.

“I fouled him. I definitely fouled him,” Butler said. “Stepped up and made the shots. Never want to lose like that but it happens sometimes.”

The petty never left Butler, and in a show of maturity he didn’t let the game get too far away from him. Aside from a few moments, he played in the flow and worked himself into 38 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four steals in 40 minutes.

That explains why he sat at his locker for several minutes before heading to the showers. It was emotional and draining for him to be back, even though he took a trip back to Chicago last week for agent Henry Thomas’ funeral.

Being back around, seeing the video tributes to he and Taj Gibson perhaps softened him up a bit, but he was beyond appreciative and let his tough veneer down for a few minutes afterwards.

“A lot of love and respect,” Butler said. “It’s great to see the fan base come out and see me and Taj play. This is where it all started. And we love them right back.”

The video showed the stages Butler went through as a pro, from the guy who was lucky to take his warmup off to the star who emerged unexpectedly and had his bumps along the way.

 “I saw it,” he said. “I saw myself with no hair. Reminds me never go back to that.”

He blossomed under Tom Thibodeau and grew even more under Fred Hoiberg, who he clashed with at times. Had that relationship been better, one wonders if his departure would’ve been cemented last summer.

But he could only be himself, warts and all, and smiled when speaking of the Bulls and the city of Chicago.

“Everybody knows I’ve got a lot of love for this organization, this city, this fanbase,” he said. “Me and Taj talk about it all the time.”

Bulls Executive Vice-President John Paxson left from the Bulls locker room to congratulate Butler and Taj Gibson after the game, a gesture Butler appreciated given the way things played out last June, when he was traded on draft night.

“That’s the kind of guy Pax is, come in there, say what’s up, check on me,” Butler said. “I’m happy that they’re doing well. They deserve it. The city of Chicago definitely does.”

There didn’t seem to be much love for Bulls general manager Gar Forman, who’s out of town scouting. It’s no secret Butler felt misled in the days leading up to his trade, leading to the shock he felt while overseas when the news broke he’d been moved to the Timberwolves.

Had Forman been in town, it probably wouldn’t have been as pleasant a greeting between the two.

“It’s okay. I don’t need no pats on the ass,” he said. “I don’t need to speak to everybody. I’m fine. I’m content with who I am. I come here to play basketball. I wish them the best of luck.”

He wouldn’t take the bait when it was noted so many superstars had changed addresses over the past several months, although it was no secret he wanted the star talent to join him in Chicago. Instead, he’s had to meet up with Towns and Andrew Wiggins, two talents who clearly don’t have the experience to grasp the importance of every game when it comes to playoff seeding.

“We got guys like that here. KAT, Wigs, Taj, Jamal (Crawford). We’re okay. We can be a lot better,” Butler said. “We don’t play hard all the time. We just made stuff up, can’t have that happen, especially on the road.”

He’ll be a free agent again in two years, now a veteran of the NBA business, knowing what’s ahead and that there’s no guarantees—but even with that acknowledgment, a little petty seemed to flash on his way out.

“I don’t think time really heals it,” he said. “I just feel you have to realize it’s a business. Not all guys stay in one place forever. They moved in a different direction and it’s looking good for them, obviously. I’m happy where I’m at.”

And you wonder if the petty, for all the fun it produced, could’ve been avoided to begin with.

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.