Jimmy Butler’s path to NBA Finals boosted by Nate Robinson in 2013

Chicago Bulls (Photo by Ivan Shum - Clicks Images/Getty Images)
Chicago Bulls (Photo by Ivan Shum - Clicks Images/Getty Images) /

Jimmy Butler got some help back in 2013 that helped him transform from a defensive minded player to a two-way star leading the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

Chicago Bulls‘ fans may remember coming into the 2013 NBA season that Jimmy Butler was far from a household NBA name. Butler was entering his second year with the Bulls, a late first-round pick who had averaged only 8 mpg and 2.6 ppg in his largely nondescript rookie season. There was no “Butler buzz'” heading into his second year on West Madison.

Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls were hopeful Butler could become an impact player on the defensive end of the court. Butler was willing to do whatever it took to get on the court and Thibs loved himself some hard-nosed defense.

The Bulls were also trying to figure out how to play without Derrick Rose, who was out for the season after tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs. Nate Robinson, now a budding media star, had been signed as a free agent to back-up Kirk Hinrich to mitigate the Rose-less Bulls.

Robinson ended up helping the Bulls beat the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs, scoring 23 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4, including 12 straight with the Bulls down 109-95 with 2:53 left. It was one of the greatest playoff performances in Bulls history.

Robinson’s biggest impact was not his performance on the court, but rather his mentorship of Butler, who was locked in on being a defensive player at the time, unaware of his ability to impact the game on both ends of the court. Robinson was a workout fiend and had found a gym near his apartment in Skokie that he frequently visited.

“When I was on the Bulls I used to work out a lot even after practice I would go to this nearby gym that was by my apartment,” Robinson told Da Windy City podcast. “I remember one day I was shooting and Jimmy Butler called me and he was like ‘Nate what you doing’ and I was like ‘I’m about to go to the gym’.

“He was like, ‘Are you about to go to the facility?’ and I was like, ‘Nah I got a gym right by my house’. And he was like, ‘Aw man do you mind if I come’? And I was like, ‘Of course you can come pull up’. So me and Jimmy used to always go to this gym right by my house. We would go to this gym and shoot and I would just work on my game, work on things that I could work on without the coaches saying don’t do this, don’t do that.”

It was during those after-practice workouts that Butler focused on expanding his game, competing against Robinson, who was ahead of the curve in assessing Butler’s talents and did his best to open up all the possibilities to Butler during these extra hours on the court.

“I told him, bro you are a defensive guy, but you’re just as good as anyone on this team offensively I’ve seen it,” Robinson said. “You gotta let it blossom, you gotta show the world. I told him in the playoffs we are going to need you to score too, not just guard all the guys like LeBron (James) or D-Wade (Dwyane Wade) and all the tough assignments. We need you to go back at em’ on the offensive end as well.”

The offense for Butler suddenly seemed to appear out of nowhere: he scored in double-figures only once in the first 34 games of the season. By the end of the year, Butler had scored in double-figures in eight of his last nine regular-season games, including a then career-high 28 versus Toronto.

In the Eastern Conference Semifinals against LeBron James’ Miami Heat, Butler had 21 points and 14 rebounds in Game 1, the lone Bulls victory over the Heat in the series playing all 48-minutes. Butler was on his way to becoming a star and was already essential for the Bulls’ success.

“I think that year in Chicago, that’s when Jimmy kinda started blossoming as being more offensively in 2013,” Robinson said. “Now look at him, blossoming and becoming a two-way player somebody that can get buckets and play and lead his team he’s doing a helluva job.”

Indeed. Butler is now only the third player in NBA history to have a 40-point triple-double in the NBA Finals, joining LeBron James in 2015 and Jerry West in 1969 — almost unthinkable when you consider where Butler started his NBA career. Nate Robinson had at least an idea that an incredible level of performance was possible for Butler in 2013.

Reminder: None of us do it alone. We all need some help along the way. Butler got it in 2013 from Robinson.