Bulls: As Jimmy Butler finds his voice, time for Fred Hoiberg to do the same


Bulls: As Jimmy Butler finds his voice, time for Fred Hoiberg to do the same

 Jimmy Butler’s postgame comments about Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg will be met with some shock and likely some criticism for how it came out.

But it indicates Butler is ready to take on a different role for the franchise, one that could be necessary in the coming years.

"I believe in the guys in this locker room, yeah," Butler said to reporters in New York after the Bulls’ loss to the Knicks on Saturday night. "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."

Did he say Hoiberg couldn’t coach or the franchise made a mistake with his hiring? No, he didn’t.

He also wasn't campaigning for management to bring back Tom Thibodeau and all the drama that came with it.

Butler isn’t a player who’s been coddled or someone who was projected as a star at every turn. He’s turned into a max player because he poked and prodded at his limits while being poked and prodded by influential figures who brought out the best in him at that time (Buzz Williams at Marquette, Thibodeau in Chicago).

He’s a worker, a grinder in every sense.

Butler is a great player, and great players at every level of sport want to be coached. They know they don’t know everything, and there are times when the effort or concentration isn’t up to par.

Great players don’t mind being held to that standard, even through gritted teeth and rolled eyes, because of what’s waiting on the back end of that foul language.

This doesn’t look like a max player who’s now feeling himself deciding to make it known he’s the new sheriff in town, as some will make it appear to be.

Fans have longed for a player of his caliber to show the emotional investment to the results in the way they do with their pocketbook and their voices on various mediums.

Being upset that it comes from Butler dilutes that thought, or believing this hasn’t been simmering for quite some time. One can probably surmise Butler has been holding this frustration in for quite awhile, and that he’s so invested in the franchise he could no longer find it tolerable.

Butler has entered the strata where he’s put in the work to make his voice heard, and shouldn’t apologize for it, no matter what he says Monday before the Bulls’ next game against the Brooklyn Nets.

For all the personnel changes that will likely take place over the next couple of years, Butler will be the constant, a rock of consistency whose thoughts will matter at all levels of hierarchy.

[RELATED: Bulls run out of gas in New York, fall to Knicks]

What Butler has done, besides ruffle a few feathers above and below him, is take the next step in what a franchise player should do. Butler is pointing out problems as he sees it, even as the team is winning at a decent clip.

Isn’t that essentially what management and ownership did with Thibodeau? The Bulls were winning, enough to be one of the top five teams in the league during his tenure but people didn’t like the “how.”

His grinding style, the way he wasn’t as diplomatic and couldn’t play nice with Gar Forman and John Paxson.

Butler isn’t so concerned with the record as he is the “how:" Some guys breaking off plays to do their own thing, disrupting the rhythm of what’s trying to be developed and what’s worse, seeing the actions go unchecked by the head coach.

“It's not even about being coached a certain way for five years," Butler said. "It's making everybody do their job. We weren't doing what we were supposed to be doing, what we wrote up on that board before the game, and nobody spoke up about it. I did probably not enough times, but I think that he has to hold everybody accountable. From the No. 1 player all the way down to however many guys we got.”

Isn’t that what you’d want from a franchise player, someone who embraces the responsibility of what’s going on and saying, “This isn’t good enough?"

Perhaps with Thibodeau’s looming presence over the years there wasn’t room for a voice to be developed in the locker room. But now Hoiberg doesn’t carry himself that way. It’s more understated, more subtle.

He’s figuring things out, for sure, and neither Butler nor anyone should think the Hoiberg who’s here 25 games into Year 1 will be the same Hoiberg he’ll be in Year 2 or Year 3. As much as he’s been a part of a front office in Minneapolis to locker rooms in various stops as a player, his most recent experience is as a college coach, where he operated as a CEO more than a daily taskmaster.

Thibodeau cast a very large shadow during his time in Chicago. Not because of his booming personality or charisma, but his ability to produce results without the panache.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Hoiberg has been very deferential to the success Thibodeau enjoyed in the five years while trying to change the identity of the team on the floor. It’s hard to tiptoe the line between respect and stepping out of your predecessor’s shadow, and it could’ve played a part in his soft-pedaling of players in the locker room.

Make no mistake, Hoiberg can’t change his stripes and turn into a Thibodeau clone overnight because that’s not what this franchise needs. And players can sense a fraud a mile away with coaches, they can see within a millisecond if a guy’s full of it or being himself.

All it takes is for Hoiberg to bench or get on one player of substance for a screw-up, maybe even if it’s Butler, to show the players there are consequences to things not being done the way it was laid out to be.

A message has been sent from the Bulls’ best player, who’s finding his voice whether you like it or not, and will continue to voice his observations because he’s earned it.

Now it’s on Hoiberg to use a voice he already has, because he’s earned it with his title and backing from the front office.

And 15 eyes in the locker room are on him, as well as everywhere else.

The best thing Zach LaVine has done for the Bulls, according to Stephen A. Smith

The best thing Zach LaVine has done for the Bulls, according to Stephen A. Smith

Chicago played a tremendous host to the NBA’s 69th All-Star Game and the preceding weekend of festivities. The Bulls, though, spent much of their time at the center of the NBA universe being lambasted from all sides by pundits and fans, alike. 

The bright spot amid the tumult was the team’s best player and bona fide cornerstone, Zach LaVine, who made the only appearance in an All-Star event by a Bull while gracefully juggling television spots and community engagement appearances throughout the weekend.

RELATED: Bulls Talk Podcast: NBA All-Star 2020 weekend recap and Bulls front office changes?

One national personality offered a refreshing perspective on LaVine’s ascension in his sixth season: ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith.

“I’ve always seen the growth from Zach LaVine,” Smith told NBC Sports Chicago. “He’s a really good person, he’s a damn good player, incredibly athletic — had a nasty injury a few years ago, came back from that — so to see the athleticism and the ability he’s had… I remember his agent Bill Duffy used to brag about what he was going to be, and he’s lived up to it.”

That growth, in Smith’s opinion, is the greatest thing that could have happened for a Bulls team mired in a choppy rebuild. But not for the reason you might think.

“I think the greatest thing that Zach LaVine is doing for the Chicago Bulls right now is making the Chicago Bulls fans see that change needs to occur,” Smith said. “Cause when you have somebody like him — what’re you doing with him? What’re you building around him? What kind of things are you doing to facilitate the level of success he obviously craves? When you have talent like him, you don’t just let it go to waste, and right now there are legitimate questions about whether or not that’s exactly what the Bulls are doing.”

Change could very well be coming for the Bulls this offseason, though it remains unclear exactly what said change would entail. But if this season has shown this city anything, it’s that LaVine is a part of the solution, not the problem.

“I think he does, I think he does,” Smith said when asked if LaVine has the potential to be a true franchise player to build around. “I'm not saying he's the second coming of Michael Jordan, but he's a damn good basketball player with a tremendous upside. He's got the right mentality, he's got the right approach and the right focus. He certainly has tremendous athletic ability. he's not scared of anybody. And he can do some things.”

Desirability as a destination will be key to the Bulls in the next phase(s) of the rebuild. Smith lamented that aspect of the organization, as well.

“But you haven't put anything around him from an organizational perspective, from a coaching perspective, from a player personnel perspective. You haven't done anything. And the Bulls are gonna have to do something because you do not have a talent like that and just stand around and do nothing. Cause if you don't do anything with him, there's no star alive that's gonna think about coming to Chicago to play for you.”

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.

Developing the young core remains the focus over final 27 games for Bulls

Developing the young core remains the focus over final 27 games for Bulls

With the Bulls headed to a third straight trip to the NBA Draft Lottery, the focus over the final two months of the NBA regular season now shifts to the development of the team’s core players.

Wendell Carter Jr. should be ready to go after missing the last 18 games before the All-Star break because of a high ankle sprain. Carter Jr. has already established himself as a quality defender and screener, but we still don’t have any idea what his ceiling could be as an offensive player. Before he was injured in early January, Carter Jr. had started mixing a couple of 3-point attempts into his shot profile, and while his success rate of 21.4% is nothing to get excited about, his shooting form suggests he should be able to improve over time.

Not many NBA teams are using dumping the ball into the low post as a big part of their offense, but the Bulls should try to get Carter Jr. more touches with his back to the basket to keep defenses honest. During his one collegiate season at Duke, Carter Jr. showed the ability to finish with either hand near the rim, and he has the ability to draw fouls against taller centers. NBA analytics will tell you layups, dunks and 3-pointers are the way to go in the modern game, but Carter Jr. is capable of getting some easy baskets inside and stepping out to knock down mid-range jumpers. Whether Carter Jr. becomes a consistent 3-point threat or not, he still can be a bigger part of the Bulls offense. 

The Bulls are also hoping to get starting forwards Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. back at some point in the coming weeks. We pretty much know what Porter Jr. is at this point, a capable 3-point shooter and solid third scoring option. Problem is, Porter Jr. has been dogged by injuries over his NBA career, the latest being a fractured foot that’s cost him most of the season. There’s virtually zero chance Porter Jr. passes up his $28 million player option for next season, so he’ll be on the roster next season.

All kinds of questions about Markkanen, who was going through a puzzling third-year slump before being sidelined with a stress reaction to his pelvis. Markkanen was expected to make the jump to All-Star level status this season, but he got off to a poor shooting start and didn’t show the kind of aggressiveness on the offensive end we had come to expect. Markkanen says the new offensive system calls for him to be more of a spot-up 3-point shooter, which has limited his ability to attack the basket or post up against smaller defenders.

Whatever the reasons for his regression this season, the Bulls would love to get Markkanen back on the court at some point over the final two months just to give him a chance to reestablish his effectiveness at the offensive end and give him some positive feelings heading into the offseason. Markkanen will also be eligible for an extension to his rookie contract this summer, and those negotiations could prove to be difficult with the 7-foot forward having missed so many games because of injury over his first three seasons.

Another big question mark for the Bulls involves the point guard position. Tomas Satoransky was signed as a free agent last July with the idea he would handle the starting position until top draft pick Coby White was ready to run the offense on a regular basis. The Bulls have used White as an instant offense shooting guard off the bench, but he has been getting more chances to run the point in recent games, dishing out a career-high nine assists against the Pelicans on Feb, 6 and seven helpers against Washington in the last game before the All-Star break. Why not give White more opportunities to play as a point guard with Zach LaVine on the court, giving the Bulls another shot creator to ease some of the defensive pressure against LaVine.

While the season began with talk of making the playoffs, the bigger objective was developing the players who can make the Bulls more than a seventh or eighth seed in future seasons. If you’re looking for bright spots, it looks like Chandler Hutchison has figured out how he can be effective at the NBA level as a slashing small forward who can finish at the rim with power. If Hutchison can improve his outside shot and stay healthy, the Bulls might just have a long term answer at that position.

Now it’s about continuing to develop the so called “core four” of LaVine, Markkanen, Carter Jr. and White. The Bulls are hoping they’ll have a better idea by season’s end whether this is the right nucleus to build around or if it’s time to consider significant roster changes this summer.

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.