How Tom Thibodeau helped create the Jimmy Butler monster that Knicks now must stop
Brian Scalabrine was summoned to Tom Thibodeau’s office in 2012 and the coach was fuming about a spot on ESPN Radio in Chicago.
“He’s like, what the f—k are you doing going on the radio, giving them bulletin board material to use against Jimmy Butler?” Scalabrine, then a forward under Thibodeau with the Bulls, recalled to the Daily News. “He’s like, ‘You want to do radio interviews?’ I can make that happen tomorrow. You can do nothing but radio interviews.’”
The subject of Scalabrine’s interview was Butler’s breakout stretch as a rookie midseason, when Luol Deng was injured and Butler, the 30th overall pick out of Marquette, helped the Bulls beat the Jazz, Knicks and Heat.
Those performances awakened Scalabrine to the intensity and competitive spirit of Butler, the traits that carried the small forward to a certain Hall of Fame induction and, beginning with Game 1 on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, a second-round showdown against Thibodeau’s Knicks.
“He was guarding LeBron and Carmelo and that dude was 1000 percent about that life. You could just tell,” Scalabrine said. “He wasn’t like, ‘Uhh, LeBron, will you give me your jersey afterwards?’ He was 1000 percent about it. I’m watching on the bench and I’m like, man, that’s a bad motherf—ker right there.”
To this day, Thibodeau discourages any quotes that may add pressure to his team or motivate the opposition. It’s partly why the current Knicks won’t offer many answers beyond the boilerplate. And while Thibodeau wasn’t happy about Scalabrine gassing up a rookie in the same breath as LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, the coach and player had a strong enough relationship to move past the interview and thinly-veiled waiver-wire threat.
Still, Scalabrine needed to understand from his coach: why wasn’t Butler playing? Why was a player so talented getting buried in the rotation?
“Thibs is like, ‘With young players, man, you got to make them work for everything,’” Scalabrine said. “When they work for everything, they end up knowing how important it is and how much each possession matters. So that’s how you bring along young players. Keep them hungry. Keep them humble. Keep them working.
“And I really can’t argue with that. I don’t disagree with anything he said. Now the meeting’s over, break bread, me and Thibs are always good even when he’s threatening to cut me. And he was right. Jimmy Butler worked his ass off. He always wanted to play. And he always believed in himself. And he got down when he wouldn’t play but it never stopped him from working. On his body. On his conditioning. On his game.”
Thibodeau’s approach with Butler is relevant to the Knicks, who have seven players in the rotation who are 25 or younger. Critics in the media and fanbase chastised Thibodeau for not giving youngsters enough opportunities, but each has improved — especially Immanuel Quickley and Mitchell Robinson — under his watch.
As Butler’s agent, Bernie Lee, told The News after Thibodeau was hired by the Knicks, “Jimmy’s having a lot of success just based on the foundation that Thibs created for him.”
Now New York has to stop the monster that Thibodeau helped create.
“I’ll be honest — I didn’t see this,” Thibodeau said of Butler’s ascension. “I saw the things that stood out were his toughness, his competitiveness. He played a lot of power forward [in college].
“But when you look at him, you say OK, I felt like we were getting a rotation player. I didn’t know how good he would become.”