Butler's playoff performance reminding Bulls they chose a risky path

  • Philadelphia's Jimmy Butler, scoring in Game 3 of the 76ers' second-round playoff series with Toronto Thursday, is having an exceptionally strong postseason.

    Philadelphia's Jimmy Butler, scoring in Game 3 of the 76ers' second-round playoff series with Toronto Thursday, is having an exceptionally strong postseason. Associated Press

Updated 5/5/2019 10:48 PM

If they played one-on-one with a trip to the conference finals on the line, Jimmy Butler would probably lose to Kawhi Leonard 100 times out of 100.

Leonard is just bigger, stronger, faster and able to use his insanely large hands to toss in just about any shot.


At the same time, Butler has probably been Philadelphia's most valuable player in the second-round playoff series against Toronto. He piled up 22 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds and 3 steals as the Sixers took a 2-1 series lead Thursday, two days after Butler scored 30 points in Game 2.

The Bulls are a distant memory by now, but Butler is providing a harsh illustration of what the Bulls gave up in their quest to rebuild.

Butler may never be an MVP-caliber talent, but guys like him are tough to find. Butler's passion and emotion get him in trouble at times, but those traits drove him to become an NBA star.

That's probably the biggest question facing the Bulls right now. They do have some talented players in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. But do any of them have what it takes -- the toughness and relentless drive -- to push a team to a difficult playoff victory?

It's time to find out. Next season will be Porter's seventh in the NBA and LaVine's sixth. Youth is not a valid excuse. If the Bulls don't show some significant progress next year, it might be time to call the Butler trade a mistake.

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There are plenty of reasons why the trade with Minnesota in June 2017 made sense for the Bulls. Butler is an all-star, but he hasn't made it to the top level of NBA superstars who can lead a team to the championship. If they weren't going to win a title with Butler, why not rebuild?

Because rebuilds don't always work. The United Center remained full on most nights, but how many fans tuned out completely during this 22-win season? The Bulls may not have been anything more than a second-round playoff team with Butler, but there's no guarantee they'll get back to that level anytime soon.

A good counter argument is it's easy for Butler to look good playing with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Bulls didn't have guys like that, which is sort of an ominous warning that they'd better do well in this year's draft. More accurately, the Bulls need to do well in the draft lottery, which is out of their control. They could pick anywhere from first to eighth.

The alternate plan to a Bulls rebuild would have been to add pieces around Butler. If they did things right, they could have added a couple of good free agents, convinced Butler he's not worth a supermax contract, made smart picks in the draft and executed a helpful trade or two.


Just look at some of the stars of the NBA playoffs. Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo were chosen No. 15 in the draft, while the Rockets landed James Harden in a trade for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks that turned into Steven Adams, Alex Abrines and Mitch McGary. Bottoming out can work in the NBA, but it usually doesn't.

After Philadelphia's Game 2 win, coach Brett Brown had plenty of nice things to say about Butler.

"This was James Butler," Brown said. "That was the adult in the gym. He was just a tremendous rock. He willed us to a lot of different situations. He was a stud."

Butler responded by stating accuracy is important.

"My name isn't James," he said. "It's literally Jimmy."

That's true. Butler's given name is Jimmy. And he's doing some nice things without the Bulls.

Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls


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