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With Tom Thibodeau in his corner, Jimmy Butler gets big boost for Olympic team spot

Tom Thibodeau was there when the Bulls introduced Jimmy Butler as their top pick in 2011. He'll be there again as an assistant coach for the U.S. team when Butler tries to make the 2016 Olympic squad. (Al Podgorski-Chicago Sun-Times)

If you’ve watched Jimmy Butler this season, you know he should be a lock to make the 2016 U.S. men’s Olympic team. He scores when he wants, and he still plays Krazy Glue defense. He’s one of the top two-way players in the NBA.

But would he be a lock if former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau weren’t an assistant coach for the American team? I wonder.

This is one of those barstool debates that can’t get answered because Thibodeau indeed will be around to sing Butler’s praises to the people making the roster decisions, including head coach Mike Krzyzewski and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo.

But the Olympic team isn’t always based on who the best players are. There are personalities and team chemistry to consider. Politics and politicking play a role. So does international playing experience, of which Butler has none.

“I’m excited about the possibilities this team has,’’ Krzyzewski said. “Among the finalists, we have multiple players who won gold medals at the Olympic or World Cup level.’’

Butler is as good as most of the 29 other finalists for the U.S. roster, but what he doesn’t have is a star’s soaring career trajectory. By NBA standards, he has been a late bloomer. He was the 30th pick overall in the 2011 draft. He didn’t average 20 points a game until his fourth season with the Bulls, the first time he was an All-Star. He doesn’t have the name recognition of many of the people on the list, including LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and James Harden.

But he raised his profile this season with a 40-point half against the Raptors and a 53-point game against the 76ers.

It would be easy for a coach to take a pass on him, if a coach were worried about taking heat for cutting someone with a bigger name and broader resume. But having an advocate like Thibodeau will help Butler when the roster gets pared down to the final 12 names.

It’s good to have friends in high places.