JP Pelosi is a writer who’s covered basketball for Sir Charles In Charge and for the now legendary Saving The Skyhook. His work has also been published in The Atlantic, The Globe and Mail, The Cauldron and The Good Men Project. You can find him on Twitter @halfcourt32.
Meeting expectations in basketball can be like taming a mad bull in a red-colored room. And there was perhaps no bigger Bull than Michael Jordan, and no redder room than the United Center. Though a rather bland looking building in a remote part of town, it quickly became a celebrated place for basketball thanks to Jordan, where his teams bamboozled opponents, set records and won championships. It’s a period that’s etched in our minds, and we hang onto it many years later, even as other great teams like the Spurs, Heat and now Warriors step forward and create fresher NBA memories.
Something sticks in the mind about those Bulls and the fandom inside the mad, mad United Center, which continues to offer a near spiritual experience because of its devoted fans. Yes, there are other great cities and fan bases and superstars, but that isn’t the point. Jordan not only changed the game, but made diehards of the disinterested. As such, he’s still idolised many years after his playing career. So as fans, we tend to be less forgiving of those that follow in his footsteps at the shooting guard position for Chicago. Like a mustard covered hot dog in a poppyseed bun, Bulls fans have had it one way, and don’t need any variation.
And yet, nobody can deny Jimmy Butler’s handling of such great expectations. In fact, this is worth thinking about in a much broader context than whether or not he’s an All-Star, or if he can shut down LeBron. Butler is carving out his own niche in Chicago’s auspicious two spot. He plays it his way, using his broad shoulders to outmuscle opposing two guards, his soft mid-range jumper to score over them, and his quick step to skip by them for easy inside buckets. Like Jordan, he’s become masterful at making the difficult look routine.
For example, in a December outing against the Grizzlies, Butler exploded for 43 points, the sort of weightless effort Jordan had while you popped out for a few twilight spritzers before heading home to catch Melrose Place. More recently, he broke Jordan’s points record for a half, hitting 40 against the Raptors. But he doesn’t want anyone to compare him to Jordan — at least not yet. That wouldn’t be fair — not to Jordan, nor him, or even Bulls fans.
Butler’s piling on points so many years after the Best Ever is special though, especially because we’re seeing a Chicago team with a real chance at competing for the title. That his play may never feel or look like Jordan is fine, of course, because there’s just no way for anyone to occupy that space on the wing in the same way ever again. Keep in mind that Jordan’s number ‘23’ isn’t the only thing of his lingering over the United Center; daydreams of his artistry and large persona always collect in the mind during Bull games. This can’t be helped.
Given this, both Jordan’s real accomplishments and his constant aura, Butler deserves credit. Satisfying the fans is one thing – getting them to jump up and cheer every night is another. And that’s the trick. Playing a good two for Chicago will never be about replacing Jordan. It’s not even about scoring an impressive 20 and 5, as Butler has the past two seasons. It’s about sticking to your game, and moving along your own trajectory. This is the only way to rise in a club with expectations like no other.