While much of the NBA community remains distracted by the saga that is Derrick Rose's health, his Chicago teammate Jimmy Butler is quietly having a breakout year.
Butler, the third-year swingman from Marquette, is averaging more points per game (21.6) than Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard and attempting more free throws (8.2) than LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He also leads the Bulls in minutes (39.2) and steals (1.62).
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, not usually one for glowing praise, couldn't help himself recently when talking about the league's most surprising player.
"He's been incredible," Thibodeau said Tuesday after Butler scored 32 points in the Bulls' loss to the Nuggets. "He's a star, and he does it on both ends of the floor. He's just an amazing player. We've had him play the point, we've had him play the 2, the 3, and tonight he played the 4. And he hasn't had any opportunity to practice the 4. So he just got out there, he's smart, he's tough, he does whatever the team needs, and he found a way to help lead us into coming back and having a shot at the end."
How did Butler make the leap from dependable to downright stellar? He didn't give himself a choice.
Ben Golliver writes in Sports Illustrated that during the offseason Butler and his buddies rented a house in his native Houston and worked out three times a day. He did his best to make sure there were absolutely no distractions.
"I wanted to be so good at the game that we didn’t have cable, we didn't have the Internet,” Butler said. "Whenever we got bored, all we would do is go to the gym. We'd eat, sleep and go to the gym. We'd go three times a day because we didn’t have anything else to do. We were sitting on the couch, looking at each other, saying, ‘What the hell are we going to do all day?'"
All the hard work is paying dividends, literally and figuratively. Butler is averaging career-highs in basically every major statistical category and has helped the Bulls stay afloat despite injuries to Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol. At 9-6, Chicago has the third best record in the Eastern Conference.
Butler bet on himself earlier this season by turning down an offer from the Bulls worth about $40 million for the next four years. This makes Butler a restricted free agent after this season, and assuming he plays at or near this level, he should be in line for a deal like the ones signed by swingmen Chandler Parsons ($46 million/three years) and Gordon Hayward ($63 million/four years).
For Butler, whose backstory makes him somewhat of an NBA version of "The Blind Side" protagonist Michael Oher, the money is secondary to pride.
"I feel like I've never been the best player," Butler told ESPNChicago. "I've never been highly recruited, so I've always had all the chips stacked up against me and I've always found a way to make things happen. [The contract talk] is just another obstacle, another hurdle. But I think I'm in the right direction and if I keep my eye on the prize I think I'll end up successful."