Bulls

A happy, content, competitive Jimmy Butler is part of 'Heat culture' now

A happy, content, competitive Jimmy Butler is part of 'Heat culture' now

Jimmy Butler never wanted to leave the Bulls, who began their ongoing rebuild by trading him in June 2017.

He’s now three teams removed from that day and, this offseason, had his choice of where he wanted to go after trades to the Timberwolves and 76ers.

Butler chose the Heat.

“He always makes it a point about how the Bulls didn’t like us. One of our first conversations, I was like, ‘You underestimated how much we disliked you as a team,’” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday at the United Center. “I’m dead serious. We didn’t like them. They didn’t like us. That’s what you want in a playoff series, borne out of respect and high-level competition with type-A personalities going after each other.

“When you go through a couple series like that, you gain deep respect for what’s on the other side. When we were finally able to sign Luol Deng, that was something that grew out of respect.”

There’s a saying about 'Heat culture' that has existed since the days of the Pat Riley-coached teams centered around Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway that battled the dynasty-era Bulls. The rivalry intensified when Butler, Deng and company battled Spoelstra’s Big Three of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

And you don’t need to see the Heat’s 10-3 record to know that culture fits Butler like a glove.

“It’s our whole organization. Everybody is around the work every day. Everybody is putting their time in,” Butler said Friday. “It just makes me smile because that’s what I do. I don’t got too much to say. It makes it fun because when you put in that much work, you’re not doing it for no reason. You’re doing it because you want to win.”

Butler, now in his ninth season, has been around long enough to know every season presents challenges and adversity at some point. Unsurprisingly, Butler raised that almost certain likelihood in unsolicited fashion.

“Everything is phenomenal now. Like I tell everybody, I’m happy, man. We’re winning. We’re competing at a high level. Organization is great — people around it, teammates,” Butler said. “I want to see what happens whenever it’s not going so well for us. I don’t want to lose two in a row or three in a row; don’t get me wrong. But whenever it isn’t the way that we want it to be, how are we going to respond? That’s going to be a test for myself and everybody else here.”

Given that Butler is this team’s unquestioned alpha dog and shares the same serious-minded competitiveness that Spoelstra does, you have to like the Heat’s chances to persevere. Butler joined an organization that, top to bottom, shares the same values as him.

“He has helped us win. We’ve been looking for a guy like this for awhile,” Spoelstra said. “He’s a competitive, two-way player. And he just knows how to impact winning.

“He’s a throwback player almost, just in terms of not caring about what his individual statistics are. He’ll impose his will when he needs to. If we need a 35-point game like we did in Phoenix, he’ll do that. But he’s distributing the ball. He’s playing effectively point guard for us in a role that I’ve had Dwyane and LeBron in before. He has gobbled all that up and really helped our young guys gain a lot of confidence.

“He has a tremendous work ethic. And I think he relates to the guys who can go toe-to-toe with him as far as work ethic and competitiveness.”

Spoelstra said Butler’s talent and competitiveness remind him of Wade, and the fact that his competitiveness doesn’t have an off-switch recalls Wade, Mourning and Udonis Haslem.

In other words, Butler is 'Heat culture' now.

“That’s why we say we try to get like-minded people who share your values and standards. He does,” Spoelstra said. “We speak the same language.”

Butler’s strong friendship with Wade began when both played for the Bulls. But even Butler called Wade a “Heat lifer.” And given that Butler is in the first of a four-year, $142 million deal with the Heat, he has the makings of forming a long-term relationship with the franchise he once disliked — but respected — as well.

“I got to do what’s best for me, my family and my people. I got to do what made me happy,” Butler said of choosing the Heat. “And, like I tell everybody, I’m happy. This place fits for me.”

Butler is 0-2 at the United Center as a visiting player, losing each game by one point. One came with the Timberwolves and one with the 76ers.

Other than saying he loves the Bulls’ ownership, which he called “incredible,” he said he doesn’t much follow the franchise’s fortunes anymore. He did notice how the Bulls on Wednesday honored Deng, whom Butler always credited as a mentor.

“I wish I could’ve been here as well. Lu taught me so much about the game and being a pro. I was very fortunate to be able to learn from him. He’s just an incredible, incredible human being,” Butler said. “I’m glad he got to go out here and they honored him here. He did a lot for this organization and obviously did a lot for me. In this organization, I was able to be around so many good people, him being at the top of the list.

“It’s always special to play here. This is where I started. This is when I was a kid at the age of 21. And I was fortunate to be able to play in front of these wonderful fans in this great city and obviously all the history that went on here with the players that I was able to play with. This is always home. I still have places here. I’m here throughout the summer all the time. I’ll always have love for this city. That will never change.”

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.

Past installments: What is Zach LaVine's ceiling? | Should Bulls lock in Kris Dunn long-term after career-reviving year? | Evaluating last offseason's additions, how they fit long-term

If the NBA never resolves its regular season, that will be just fine with a large swath of the Bulls’ fanbase. With a 22-43 record through 65 games, and just two of those wins coming against teams above-.500, this team’s fate was all but sealed before the COVID-19 pandemic ground the NBA's schedule to a halt.

But there were reasons to invest in the stretch run — among them, the hope of a small reclamation for Lauri Markkanen, whose third season began with unbridled optimism, but was littered with disappointment.

That initial optimism wasn’t misguided. In Markkanen’s second year, he averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game, bumped his workload on steady efficiency from his rookie campaign and amassed a month of February for the ages, posting averages of 26 points and 12 rebounds on rising-star-level volume (36.3 minutes, 18.1 field goal attempts, 26.9% usage). All of that packed into an agile, sharp-shooting, 7-foot frame, and he looked like a budding face of the franchise.

Then, year three happened, and with it, regression across the board. With 50 games under his belt (he appeared in 52 in 2018-19), Markkanen is averaging career lows in points (14.7), rebounds (6.3) and field goal attempts (11.8), as well as shooting career-worst marks from the field (42.5%) and 3-point range (34.4%). As of this writing, he’s averaging just 0.1 minutes more than his rookie season, and 2 ½ less than his sophomore campaign.

The high-point was 35-point, 17-rebound, 17-for-25 shooting performance in Charlotte on opening night, but after that, Markkanen never eclipsed 19 field goal attempts in a game again (he had 10 such games in 2018-19). His best extended stretch of play came in December, when he averaged 17.6 points on 50.8% shooting (41.6% from deep) in 14 games the Bulls finished 7-7. In his other 36 contests, he averaged 13.6 points on 38.9% shooting (31% from deep).

You get the picture. But none of that changes the fact that the Bulls will (eventually) enter this offseason and the 2021 season reliant on Markkanen to re-discover his second-year form and the potential that leapt off the screen in it. Crucial to that happening is understanding why his third season played out the way it did. 

The answer to that question is a complex one, a perfect storm of adversity. 

Injuries undoubtedly played some part. Rumors of a nagging oblique ailment colored Markkanen’s early-season shooting struggles. A badly sprained ankle hampered him throughout January. He missed nearly six weeks from Jan. 22 to March 4 with an early stress reaction in his right pelvis. In four games returned from that injury, Markkanen averaged 11.8 points and 3.8 boards on ever-increasing minutes restrictions before the novel coronavirus cut that spell short.

Coaching was a factor, too. The Bulls’ freshly-minted offensive system yielded the league’s 29th-rated team offense, but Markkanen’s production was its greatest individual casualty. His catch-and-shoot and spot-up diets increased, his drives and possessions as the roll/pop-man in the pick-and-roll decreased and his efficiency tanked across the board. A player at his best on the move spent too many games at a standstill. Further, uneven usage and playing time resulted in Markkanen’s role in the offense waxing and waning drastically game-to-game (he only posted consecutive 20-point outings once), — sometimes half-to-half

What’s more, late-season comments (e.g. when he said proving that he “can be aggressive and get to do multiple things and not be a spot-up shooter” as a goal for the stretch run after his first game back from the pelvis injury) pointed to friction between Markkanen’s desires and the Bulls’ schemes.

But, of course, a share of the blame falls on Markkanen. Bulls coach Jim Boylen likes to talk about controlling the controllables — for Markkanen, he often cited crashing the glass as a means to assuage his offensive woes. But according to Cleaning the Glass’ metrics, Markkanen’s defensive rebounding rate sank from being in the 83rd percentile for his position in his sophomore season, to 41st in this one. His on-ball defense didn’t take a step forward, he struggled to attack mismatches on the offensive end and, while there is a responsibility for coaches and players to get their stars involved in the flow of the game, Markkanen can and should grab the reins more than he did this year.

Again: A perfect storm. A nicked up, third-year player with a deferential, team-first temperament regresses while attempting to adjust to a new offensive system not directly catered to his strengths. In retrospect, it’s not so unbelievable.

Still, the solution must come quickly, for Markkanen’s sake and the Bulls’. Entering the offseason, this rebuild is as fraught as ever, changes are reportedly coming to the team’s front office and Markkanen is extension-eligible come July (though that date could change in the post-coronavirus cap environment we inhabit). Markkanen’s side will want a big-money, long-term commitment from the Bulls in line with the cornerstone distinction bestowed upon him, but he hasn’t played up to that standard on a consistent basis. From an optics perspective, a staring match benefits no one.

Bottom line: Lauri Markkanen is not the player he was this season. He’s not the player he was in Feb. 2019 either. The true Markkanen lies somewhere in the middle, and whenever the Bulls resume operations, finding his place on that spectrum is perhaps the most important issue facing the team.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Bill Simmons recalls behind-the-scenes Michael Jordan footage

Bill Simmons recalls behind-the-scenes Michael Jordan footage

A palpable buzz is building as we creep closer and closer to the April 19 release date for ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary series on Michael Jordan and the 1990s Bulls.

Former ESPN employee and current CEO of the Ringer, Bill Simmons, added to that in a recent appearance on FS1’s "The Herd," a radio show hosted by Colin Cowherd.

 

In Simmons’ time at ESPN, he famously pioneered the "30 for 30" documentary series that has since swelled in popularity and name-brand recognition. In a six-minute interview with Cowherd, Simmons recalled the universal reverence for Jordan and the ’90s Bulls, and Jordan’s reluctance to peel the curtain back on their exploits.

“We [ESPN] tried to do it [a Jordan documentary] after we finished the first "30 for 30" series when we had everything going in 2009,” Simmons said. “We knew about this documentary that NBA Entertainment had. You know, they had filmed his whole season. They had all this behind the scenes stuff. So we got a copy of it, and we watched it. And the behind the scenes stuff, it was the real Jordan. It was the homicidally competitive Jordan, the guy yelling at his teammates. It was all the stuff we had always heard of but never seen. And we were just like, how do we get this made?”

But…

“Jordan never wanted it, and I think what happened, middle of the (2010s) decade, especially when LeBron won that Cavs title, when things really started to shift and all of a sudden there was an MJ vs. LeBron argument. I think for the first time, Jordan and his camp realized, ‘Oh, we gotta protect our legacy here,’” Simmons said. “People are starting to forget how great and famous and how universally everyone thought, who was there, this is the best basketball player I’m ever going to see. And I still feel that way.”

To be clear, there’s no evidence of the footage Simmons alluded to being directly related to “The Last Dance.” But it shows that there is a side to Jordan that the masses have yet to see.

Hopefully, we get to experience that side in all its flaws and glory come April 19.

RELATED: How to watch 'The Last Dance' docuseries on MJ, '98 Bulls

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.