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Chicago Bulls

The real hard work begins now for Jimmy Butler

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
AP Photo/Chris Szagola

No one spends more time in the gym than Jimmy Butler.

The legends of summer workouts wherein Butler shuts out the outside world have grown to the point where one of his trainers was featured by Sports Illustrated, while the other was under consideration for hire by the Chicago Bulls.

Entering his sixth season, the Bulls are finally, in every sense of the word save for literal ownership, Butler’s team. The clashes in on-court fit with Derrick Rose and in the locker room with franchise anchor Joakim Noah are no more. While he had long replaced both as the franchise’s best player, the excising of both the son of the city and the heart of the team also removed any “yeah, but’s” around Butler’s status as the Alpha Dog.

And the team’s trainer vacancies? Created by the dismissal of director of sports performance Jen Swanson, who outlasted Tom Thibodeau’s lack of support, but not that of Butler, who reportedly felt she played favorites with the oft-injured Rose and Noah.

Now 27, Butler got everything he could have wanted: top billing for a marquee franchise that, while stopping short of knocking down the walls like some wanted, took down the old photos and repainted. Just Butler and Taj Gibson remain from the 2014 Bulls, with only Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott joining as holdovers from the Thibodeau era. Butler has gone from little brother to big brother, aided by the presence of a head coach in Fred Hoiberg who he has already influenced into changing the offense.

Look a little closer, though, and Butler could be the latest to reinforce the saying, “careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

Butler has long wanted to be the leader, but there’s a difference in wanting to be the leader and having to be the leader. Leadership is not a sometimes thing. In years past, he could afford to come and go, as with not attending the team’s optional get-together in Napa Valley last fall. In touting his role (“People want me to lead, you take my leadership for what it is. Some people may like it, some people don’t.”) while also asserting his independence, he has seemed to be someone who likes the idea of being deemed the leader more than truly being one.

Trading Rose for Robin Lopez was a brilliant move with the ancillary benefit of giving the front office an even better excuse to merely pay lip service to the idea of retaining Noah. However, as anyone who has ever watched a TV show about crime knows, sometimes removing a threat leads to creating a vacuum for an even bigger threat to step into.

Rose was never a vocal presence, and Noah was a largely benevolent one. In their stead are Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, personalities who might be described as “pricklier” than the previous nucleus:

wade

The “Three Alphas” bit won’t hold very long if things aren’t being run right, and Butler could find himself in another turf war, this time with former champions who have no ties to the franchise, in spirit, legacy or in contract.

Even if who’s holding the conch shell ends up a non-issue, there’s still the dilemma of how the Bulls will find ways to win despite acquiring past-their-prime defenders and somehow making the team’s spacing worse than previous years. Butler will already have to step his defense back up to pre-2016 levels (it took a step back under the weight of his offensive burden), and his shooting remains a big question mark.

He’s posted above-average three-point marks in the past, but historically, his numbers take a dive once he picks up the nagging injury that always seems to flare up. Making it even more of a curiosity is Butler’s adamant belief that he doesn’t need to improve his marksmanship. This offseason, Butler told Bill Simmons, “You don’t have to be able to shoot threes to make your mark in this league […] That’s all this league is. Pick your spot, get there before the defender, and do what move you want to do.” He has stuck to that after the roster makeover and through preseason.

Bulls brass may have botched the last few offseasons, but they remain as adept as ever at covering for themselves. Always ready for the next scapegoat, management already put Butler under the microscope before Rose was even traded, with John Paxson quipping in April that the only untouchable player he’s even been around was Michael Jordan.

If this season implodes on the franchise, the other fall guys are already gone. Butler could easily find himself back in trade talks, and if he proves insufficient of building around, it’s unlikely he’ll get another shot at being “The Man.” Why would someone else trade the farm to put themselves in the same position when Butler’s a year closer to 30? Should he be dealt, Butler will surely be back to where he started this ascension from, standing on the side in photographs when Media Day rolls around, as opposed to the center.

Nothing in this world, on or off the court, was given to Jimmy Butler. Now the world is his. How long it remains that way is largely up to him.

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