Jimmy Butler went from a player the Bulls could not wait to re-sign to a max contract, to an egomaniac who cannot be moved quickly enough. In only six months. A curious case?
Winning is all that matters in professional sports. Everything that makes fans revere a player on and off the court during the good times, are often the same things they are criticized for during losing campaigns.
Butler’s 2015-16 season demonstrates just how true this is. This flip-flopping nature might not be the best way to view athletes, but it has become the only way. And all parties involved must learn to live with it.
Butler was drafted by the Bulls in 2011, after finishing his senior season at Marquette University. His story rivals The Blind Side. His rise from small-town Texas, to NBA superstardom was amazing: until it wasn’t enough.
His transition from a role player to the face of a historic franchise was more than the organization could have hoped for: until it became a problem.
Everything that once made Butler so desirable in the hearts of many Bulls fans is being used against him. When a player – particularly a star player – has a public life outside of their sport, it simply makes them who they are. It is all a part of their winning formula. However, this is only true when their team is winning.
Butler sparked a friendship with Mark Wahlberg during the summer of 2013. Until recently it was viewed as fun, and often as a positive for his career, even on the court. Now, as their friendship becomes more public, the relationship is viewed to have a toxic effect. Did he become a diva overnight because of his relationship with Wahlberg? Probably not, but the Bulls didn’t make the playoff for the first time in eight years.
Two summers ago the Bulls shooting guard turned down a four-year, $40 million extension, to bet on himself. By midseason he landed a Sports Illustrated cover, and became an Eastern Conference All-Star; all before earning Most Improved Player honors.
Last summer his self-confidence paid off in full. He earned a new max contract, as well as a spot among the NBA elite, after being invited to Team USA minicamp. Butler was profiled in GQ, after taking less money to sign with Jordan Brand. He was riding a momentous wave of success going into the 2015-16 season. Then the narrative began to change.
Chicago wanted to him to take a leadership role. That meant speaking up, and speaking out. Early in the season Butler publicly implored Fred Hoiberg to coach the team harder. Players and coaches have used the media to encourage better outcomes before. And if the Bulls would have made a late playoff push, Butler would have been applauded for this act: but they didn’t.
When elite players struggle to coexist, it can divide a locker room and a city. However, winning cures this. The Los Angeles Lakers faced this issue. The Cleveland Cavaliers have dealt with this, and now they are on the brink of back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. Derrick Rose and Butler have never shared the court at the peak of their basketball powers, and maybe they never will. However, the dynamics of their relationship would not come into question if the Bulls were facing the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals: they are not.
Chicago’s number 21 is an exceptional two-way player, which is a rarity in the NBA. However, Butler is no exception when it comes to losing. Nothing can be justified when the excepted results are not achieved.
Butler was revered. Few could have predicted his rise from junior college to NBA All-Star. He was the missing piece last season. The Bulls were becoming his team; fans wanted it, the front office wanted it and he even said it. Then, they had their most disappointing season in recent memory.
Everything that makes a player who they are on and off the court in a winning effort, is amazing. In a losing effort, it all must go.
Butler’s teardown is beginning to slow as more outlets realize that trading him is not a viable option. The Bulls have begun to show signs of their commitment to him. And he even admits that he learned a lot from the tumultuous season.
If Butler and the Bulls begin to win again in the 2016-17 season, we can expect everything to return to the way it was. However, if the losing continues, we can expect the vitriol to return in an even more boisterous fashion. It is the way professional sports work, and no one is above it.