By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — A faint smile, for just a moment, pursed Bulls general manager Gar Forman’s face upon hearing the question directed toward Jimmy Butler. Forman appeared unsure of where Butler may navigate with this answer.
Standing upon a temporary stage on the United Center floor that he’s wowed on so many times this season, Butler took the political route when reminded of his notable words upon turning down a contract extension last Oct. 31 from the Bulls – “I want to bet on myself.”
So, did you win that bet, Jimmy?
“Do I feel like I won the bet?” Butler said. “I think it’s a tie. I think we both won.”
Butler’s words came on a Thursday afternoon in which he was honored as the NBA’s Most Improved Player. In a career season, Butler averaged 20.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals (11th in the NBA) while shooting 46 percent from the field and playing a league-leading 38.7 minutes per game.
The 25-year-old Butler was just one of 15 players in the league to average 20 points, and he increased his scoring by 6.9 points over the previous year. This won him the vote in a landslide, as he earned 92 of the 129 first-place votes. Warriors forward Draymond Green and Jazz center Rudy Gobert were a distant second and third, respectively.
Butler’s path to becoming a first-time All-Star this season is truly an inspiring one. Growing up in Tomball, Texas, he was homeless at 13 after his mother kicked him out of the house. He bounced around to friends’ homes until several years later, when he was taken in for good by Michelle Lambert, the mother of one of his friends.
On the basketball court, Butler was an unheralded recruit who played a season at Tyler Junior College in east Texas before transferring to Marquette, where he blossomed from being a defensive-minded wing initially into the team’s second-leading scorer in each of his final two seasons.
The Bulls then selected him with the 30th overall pick in the 2011 draft. He became a full-time starter in 2013-’14 before this breakout campaign.
Butler took all this in Thursday, giving thanks to his family for the support and putting up with his bad moods after losses, to his coaches and teammates who have pushed him through the years and to the Bulls for giving him this chance to shine.
“I’ve come a long, long, long way from Tomball, Texas, and I couldn’t be more proud,” Butler said. “I feel like the Bulls are just as proud of me.”
It was in Texas — Houston to be exact — where Butler spent this past summer living in a rented house with friends. Their pad had no cable or Internet, Butler’s sole goal being to put in long hours at the gym to transform his game. It paid dividends.
“I feel like any level I was at, whether it be junior college or Marquette, I don’t think I was supposed to be there, being from Tomball,” Butler said. “Yet somehow, someway, with the people that were in my corner, I found a way to get there.
“It’s an incredible achievement, but more than anything, I just want to continue to improve because I think there’s so much that I can get better at. I just want to help my team win. I just want to get another trophy. I just want to win a championship. That’s the final goal.”
Butler’s playing a leading role in whether that goal comes to fruition. As the Bulls have split the first two games against the Cavaliers in their Eastern Conference semifinal series, Butler’s play against Cleveland star LeBron James has portended the result.
In Game 1, Butler outscored James, 20-19, and held the NBA’s best player to 9-of-22 shooting as the Bulls won. In Game 2, James got the better of Butler, responding with 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists to lead the Cavs to victory.
That Butler is checking James one-on-one with such big stakes while playing at such a high level has demonstrated his growth.
“He’s one of the best two-way players in the league today,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It hasn’t happened by accident. The way he’s worked, it’s a testament to his character and who he is as a person. Obviously, to get to where he is today, you have to have a lot of talent, which he does have. But when you combine that with his intelligence and his drive, then you get something special. I don’t want to put a lid on it.”
Soon, after Chicago’s postseason fate is decided, a lingering question will be whether Butler will be a Bull for life. He turned down an extension in October that the Tribune reported to be for four years and $44 million, but indications to date are that the Bulls will match any offer in restricted free agency this summer, if they don’t proactively give him a max deal at the beginning of it.
Reflecting on this season’s journey and that bet on himself, Butler reiterated this is where he wants to be.
“I did my job, what I was supposed to do,” Butler said. “And I think that they are happy with where I am right now. And to be a Bull (long term)? I think so. I think this is a place for me. I love playing with the guys that we have. They continue to bring in great, high-character guys that fit the team role. I love it here. I’m happy to be here.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.