CHICAGO — As Taj Gibson gets ready for his first game against the Chicago Bulls, the happiness of being back in familiar surroundings will be mixed with a tinge of sadness about what might have been.
When Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves step onto the United Center floor Friday night, it marks the last link to one of the most fruitful eras in Bulls history. The trio, along with Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, went all the way to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011 and helped bring the organization a level of sustained success it hadn’t seen since Michael Jordan retired. Now, as the affable power forward looks back on his time with the Bulls, he knows he will feel all kinds of emotions during Friday’s reunion.
“I think it’s always going to be a question of ‘What if?'” Gibson recently told ESPN. “What if they would have got everything together? What if they would have never had injuries? What if they would have jelled at the right time? You always got that ‘what if?'”
The emotions will be running high for many Friday as video tributes for Gibson and Butler are sure to elicit a lot of cheers from a devoted Bulls fan base that watched each player grow in front of their eyes. As Gibson and Butler have adjusted to their new surroundings under Thibodeau in Minneapolis, the veteran forward acknowledges that their shared experience with the Bulls is never far from their hearts.
“We always talk about Chicago,” Gibson said. “Even when we’re just regular going through plays, going through stuff, going through anything. Because I’m with the same coaching staff I had my whole career over there, we talk about that daily. Chicago, Chicago, Chicago. It was one hell of a time.”
Butler already said before the season that he’s had this game circled on his calendar, but after Wednesday’s overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, he tried to play it off.
“To me, another basketball game,” he said. “I play to win. I’m going to go out there, pass the ball when I’m not open, shoot it when I am. Hopefully play a little bit better defense and get us a dub.”
To anyone who knows Butler, especially members of the Chicago front office who watched him grow into an All-Star because of his hard work, the answers felt hollow. They know how much this game, playing again in this city means to him.
“The one thing that we learned about Jimmy while he was here is that he’s motivated by a lot of things, but he’s motivated by having that chip on his shoulder,” Bulls executive VP John Paxson said. “He’s thrived, survived, his whole life by doing that. We have great respect for Jimmy, he was wonderful for us.
“I respect the heck out of what Jimmy gave us, Taj the same way. I told you guys last year when we moved him, [Taj is] one of the great people in this business, one of the great professionals, was a wonderful representative of our organization; we don’t forget those things.”
Gibson feels the same kind of respect for the team that drafted him out of USC in the 2009 draft.
“I always watch Chicago,” Gibson said. “That franchise is always going to be family to me. They took a young guy fresh out of college who didn’t know much, and they helped groom me. I got my license! I got my first car, my license with them. I went through a lot of different late-night lessons learned. Partying and getting caught — and I had a [sit-down] with Gar Forman and John Paxson in the morning telling me about what to do, what not to do. That’s like family over there, man.”
One moment in time that won’t be soon forgotten for either side of the family is the night the deal for Butler went down. After months of speculation about his future, the Bulls finally decided to send Butler (along with what would later become the draft rights to Justin Patton) to Minnesota, in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the draft rights to Lauri Markkanen. Almost eight months after the deal went down, both teams seem very pleased with what they received. Butler is playing the best basketball of his career and will likely earn some All-NBA votes, and the Bulls are very happy to see the progress Markkanen, Dunn and LaVine have made this season. Paxson acknowledged that it’s one of the rare times a deal feels like a win for both teams.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Paxson said. “We’re really happy. I won’t speak for Minnesota, but you got an All-Star player in Jimmy Butler that can go along with their young core. It seems to have addressed the desires of both teams. In this business, if you can do that, that’s a good thing.”
Thibodeau has praised Butler’s presence and play at every turn this season.
“I know what he’s done for us,” Thibodeau said. “He’s completely changed us. Of course, the addition of Taj, as well. It’s hard to go from where we were to where we are now. And he’s had great impact, and to get a player like that going into his prime, we were very fortunate.”
Thibodeau has been open about how much Butler has helped change the culture for the young group and served as a walking reminder about how to do things the way Thibodeau wants them done. Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns called Butler the best two-way player in the league.
“He’s a dog,” Towns said. “He wants to win. It’s great when you have someone like that on the team who’s a dog. We all got to be dogs if we want to win this game and win this season and make it successful. So when we have dogs like that, it makes us all better.”
So who won the deal? Both teams can make a strong case, but the ultimate victor in a deal like this hinges on more factors in the future. For as much as Dunn and Markkanen have developed this season, will they be able to maintain that same growth in the years ahead? Same goes for LaVine, who has been up and down since returning from an ACL injury and is due for a big extension as a restricted free agent this summer.
As for the Timberwolves, Butler has been a huge upgrade in every area for the young group and is on track to lead them to their first playoff appearance in 14 years. But he becomes a free agent after next season and might not stay in Minnesota unless he is offered a full max deal worth close to $ 190 million over five years. Are the Wolves willing to make that kind of commitment to a 28-year-old who has been a league leader in minutes for the past five years?
For now, both teams are satisfied with the results and remain optimistic about their respective futures.
Butler isn’t sure how he’ll respond to all the cheers and well-wishes he’ll receive Friday, but he is happy he gets to feel all of it with somebody he trusts.
“I’m glad I get to experience it with Taj, to tell you the truth,” Butler said. “We got a lot of former Bulls here, as well, but to me it will be the same. It’s basketball, man. Yeah, I get to play in a place where it started for me, all in all, I’m going in there with the same mentality I go in every night and that’s to play some great basketball and help my team win.”
Having been around Butler all these years, Gibson knows the experience will be an emotional one for the All-Star swingman. But Gibson also knows Butler will be trying to demolish the Bulls when given the chance.
“He’s going to try to play his heart out,” Gibson said. ‘He’s going to try to put up 40, knowing him, get us a win and move forward. But I think that chapter is always going to be a sour subject because of course nobody wants to get traded and Chicago was home. That was where he blossomed at.”
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All that Butler would acknowledge leading into the game is that he was looking forward to playing in front of all the Chicago fans again on the United Center stage.
“You could say that,” Butler said. “I’m fortunate to play basketball every day anyway, as that is my job. You know everybody wants to hear me say, “Oh, I’m so happy to be back,’ this and that, no, I’m going to go in with a killer mindset like I do every day. I’m going to do what I do and try to lead this team to victory.”
Gibson, who for years was the glue for a Bulls team that had plenty of in-fighting at the end of its run together, knows that games against their old team mean more to Thibodeau and Butler than they let on. After knocking off the Bulls in their lone appearance in Chicago last season, Thibodeau tried to play it off as if it was just another game. Those who knew him knew better.
“One thing about Thibs, he holds grudges,” Gibson said. “He don’t forget nothing. He don’t forget nothing. He’s old-fashioned. That’s why I respect him, because he’s old-fashioned. [If] he’ll ride with you, he’ll ride with you. If he don’t mess with you, he don’t mess with you. He’s straightforward. He’s going to do his way and his way only. And if he’s going to go down, he’s going to go down knowing it’s his way.”
All three men have been molded by their experiences with the Bulls, and all three men have taken lessons learned in Chicago with them to the Timberwolves.
“I feel that phase of my life prepared me for anything to come next,” Gibson said. “Because if you can play in Chicago, you can deal with the fans, you can deal with the media, you can play anywhere. That’s like up there with New York, man. Every day you’ve got people in stands going at you, but then they love you the next moment, so it helped me, it was all bright spots. I have nothing negative to say about [my experience there], because at the end of the day they drafted me and I had a great time there.”
As happy as he is about the chance to play in his old stomping grounds and see so many familiar faces, Gibson can’t help but wonder what might have been if injuries and egos hadn’t derailed the success Thibodeau’s Bulls maintained over a five-year span.
“I just wish it never went down like that,” Gibson said. “We had some great things going on. I just wish they would have never break up that thing going on. I just wish they would have gotten that thing right because it’s hard to win in this league. It’s hard to have success in this league, when you’ve got some things going you’ve got to do whatever you can and get that thing going the same way.”