Jimmy Butler has become the player the Chicago Bulls always needed

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Drafted No. 30 overall in 2011, Jimmy Butler clearly had doubters around the league long before he even stepped foot on an NBA court. Having played three years with Marquette, the 22-year-old prospect was perceived by most scouts to have a ceiling in the league as a quality role player at best. That was, of course, until he got his chance to shine with the Chicago Bulls.

In his first two seasons, Butler was held to a reserve role off the bench and had his minutes restricted to a minimum. Former Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was notorious for his tight rotations and was sure to make young players fight hard to earn adequate playing time. Despite these obstacles in his path, Butler would earn a promotion to the starting lineup in just his third year in the league before ultimately being named an All-Star after compiling an impressive fourth season.

Butler’s rise to stardom was an unexpected surprise that’s sure to elicit fond memories from Bulls fans even after all these years. Had Butler been allowed to reach his full potential alongside a healthy MVP Derrick Rose, Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, and All-Stars Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer, it’s not at all unrealistic to imagine Chicago would have collected at least one championship during that stretch.

Unfortunately, their pursuit would be a futile effort; however, their failure certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying. Even after being forced to move on from the core of Rose, Noah and Deng, the Bulls still managed to put a competitive roster around Butler by adding a multitude of future Hall of Fame candidates in Pau Gasol, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo.

Knowing what we know now, that proved to be a disastrous move as Wade would go on to promote the culture of the Miami Heat and encourage Butler to leave the Bulls, while Rondo took an antagonistic approach to Butler’s leadership. This ultimately led to the Bulls trading Butler away as well as waiving Wade and Rondo outright. If nothing else, the notorious “Three Alphas” era was certainly a memorable chapter in Chicago Bulls history.

But still, it’s hard not to think about a reality in which there was only ever “One Alpha.”

Could the Bulls have realistically competed for a championship now knowing the player Jimmy Butler would become?

In all fairness, Chicago can’t complain about the return package they received for Butler. Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen were intriguing prospects at the time, and Zach LaVine has become a true star in his own right. It’s very rare to actually receive a future top-25 player when dealing away a star, so the Bulls at least have that going for them.

Butler even took the time to commend the Bulls for the moves they made last summer in hopes of challenging his Heat for supremacy in the Eastern Conference.

However, Butler has now led a team to the Conference Finals as the best player on his roster on two separate occasions and has built a very strong case for being a top-10 player in today’s NBA. Former Bulls managerial duo John Paxson and Gar Forman seemed to express doubt about Butler’s ability to ever become the type of player who could lead a championship-level squad. As we’ve seen in Miami, they were dead wrong in their assessment.

In the 10 games it’s taken for the Heat to eliminate both the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers, Butler has been on an absolute tear. He’s averaged 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.1 steals per game thus far. Even better, he’s accomplished this feat on elite efficiency, currently maintaining a 61.8% true shooting percentage.

This performance is no flash in the pan either, as Butler famously willed the Heat to two wins in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. In that series, Butler averaged an even more awe-inspiring 26.2 points, 9.8 assists, 8.3 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per contest. Had Miami built a better supporting cast around Butler that year, it’s no stretch to believe that Butler would have laid claim to his first Finals MVP and a championship ring.

It’s easy to see that Butler has the talent to be the primary option on a championship roster, but whether or not he could have achieved these heights with the Bulls remains unclear. Even if the Bulls had not made the critical error of adding Wade and Rondo to the roster, it’s tough to see Chicago building a contender out of the remaining roster pieces.

While players like Bobby Portis, Robin Lopez and Nikola Mirotic would have made for fine depth, they’re not the type of players Chicago could have counted on to be big playoff performers. Unfortunately for Chicago, the clock started ticking the second Butler became the best player on the roster. After making the decision to trade away Rose and Noah, the Bulls only had a three-year window before Butler would hit free agency.

As much as fans would like to picture Butler leading Chicago to the promised land, it’s hard to see how the team could have reasonably accomplished such a tall order with the roster they had at their disposal. It’s much more likely that the Bulls would have suffered through three harsh seasons of mediocre basketball (while also not being bad enough to outright tank thanks to Butler), before Butler would have made the decision to move on in free agency.

Instead, the Bulls were able to recoup a fine player in return and also allowed themselves to walk away with (mostly) good memories of their time together. While Butler may be carving out his legacy elsewhere in the league, that doesn’t mean we can’t still cherish what he meant to this team. His rise was what took the Rose-era Bulls from being a very good team to legitimate title contenders.

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Without Butler, we the fans never get to experience the fun that it was to be a Chicago Bulls fan from 2011 to 2016. For that reason, many are hoping Jimmy gets to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, even if his victory parade won’t be storming through the streets of Chicago.