By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — It was a brief one-liner and a revelation at once. Amid speculation about Bulls star Jimmy Butler’s future, the organization’s basketball boss admitted Butler wasn’t a seamless fit in coach Fred Hoiberg’s ideal style and alongside some of his teammates.
“Jimmy’s a different player than some of these other guys,” executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said Wednesday at a season-ending press conference at the United Center.
The comment was made in the context of what awaits the Bulls this summer and also how they want to play. Limited in their flexibility this summer by some of their current contract situations, the Bulls’ primary path to affecting marked change in the offseason would be to trade Butler, the three-time All-Star and “far and away our best player, an all-NBA type,” as Paxson put it. There will certainly be plenty of interest.
And if the Bulls were to do so, Butler’s at-times incongruous fit in Hoiberg’s preferred system would be one of many factors in doing so. Butler was magnificent in averaging 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists in 2016-’17, a season in which he sometimes single-handedly kept the Bulls afloat in a 41-41 campaign.
The rub is that Hoiberg wants to play as fast as possible, both in getting out in transition and with the side-to-side flow of an offense in the half-court. For all his empty coachspeak throughout his two seasons in Chicago, Hoiberg time and again has cited those two tactical tenants in the Bulls’ success or lack thereof.
Butler is a more methodical player, which Paxon indirectly acknowledged.
“The Jimmy component, we’ve talked about,” Paxson said. “But ideally, in the system Fred wants to run we need to play with pace and push.
“He has the ball in his hands a lot. Honestly, there was a stretch of games late in the year, he had some big assist games. We understand that. We know his value.”
Hoiberg and Butler have had plenty of growing pains along the way. It was Butler who in December 2015 during Hoiberg’s rookie coaching season called him out, saying he needed to “coach harder.” At various points this past season, Butler waved off Hoiberg’s request for a timeout late in a close game and ignored running Hoiberg’s preferred sets.
With the offseason upon us, it’s not so much about Hoiberg and Butler now. It’s about the Bulls front office and Butler.
An added subplot is that Butler, who will turn 28 in September, could be eligible for a five-year extension worth in excess of $200 million in the coming years via the designated player exception in the new collective bargaining agreement. In making decisions now, the Bulls also need to weigh their long-term vision and how such a contract could affect it.
The season-ending press conference with Paxson and general manager Gar Forman on Wednesday came on the heels of Butler’s exit meeting last Saturday but before the more significant sit-down that they’ll have in the coming weeks, one in which Butler will seek clarity regarding his standing with the organization. A trade of him would signal the start of a rebuild, but the Bulls cautioned that’s a slippery slope.
“To say to just blow it up, for example, if we don’t get something in return that puts us in a position to really move forward, you can’t do that,” Paxson said. “You can’t do that.”
Judging by their words Wednesday, the Bulls remain open to trading Butler if the return is high. They praised him but didn’t commit to building around him when questioned about it in some form on multiple occasions.
“Our job, you always have to keep things open,” Paxson said. “We told Jimmy in our exit meeting that look, often times when the season ends, your emotions are high, they’re raw, and you want to just decompress a little bit and let him decompress. We’re going to sit down with Jimmy again. It’s going to happen. We’re going to talk to him and we’re going to define to him, with him our thoughts, those types of things.
“I respect very much Jimmy Butler’s professionalism and how he goes about his job. I think the one thing we will do is continue to communicate with him. Like I said earlier, we’re going to sit down and talk to him. We can say anything to him, he can say anything to us. He can ask any questions he wants and we’ll be honest with him. Look, that’s the responsibility for us to do. He’s our best player. Ultimately, Gar and I are always going to continue to do what we think we have to do from our seat.’’
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.