The Butler: An Unexpected Journey

Jimmy Butler has been a fan favorite for most of his Bulls career, but it wasn’t until this season that he’s played like a true All-Star on both ends of the floor. I won’t get into his incredible life story, but it’s well worth a read if you’re unfamiliar. Most players as talented as Jimmy are great offensive players who take longer to become consistent defenders, if ever (like James Harden or Carmelo Anthony). Butler is the rare player who came out of the gate as an elite defender and has, early on this season, developed into a high level offensive player as well.

While the Bulls are no doubt ecstatic about this development, it has come at a particularly opportune time for Butler financially. In the NBA, first round picks are under cheap, cost-controlled rookie contracts for their first four seasons. The deadline for teams to agree to extensions with these players is on Halloween of their fourth season. (You might remember Taj Gibson receiving his contract extension at the buzzer two seasons ago). After Jimmy’s extremely disappointing campaign on the offensive end last year (which we’re about to dig into), the Bulls were hesitant to hand Butler the $12 million per year plus he wanted. With Butler on the shelf to start the year, the two sides agreed it would be mutually beneficial to revisit contract talks after the season.

jimmy butler

Of course, this could be horrific for Bulls fans. After the season, Butler will be a restricted free agent, where any team can sign him to an offer sheet that the Bulls will have the ability to match. While the Bulls have expressed that they’re happy to match a big contract if Jimmy is worth it, one only needs to look at Houston, Dallas and Chandler Parsons to see how dicey things can get when a savvy team gets creative with the offer sheet. In fact, stay in Houston for a moment and you’ll remember that the Bulls lost Omer Asik to a backloaded offer sheet that had more consequences for Chicago than Houston. The Bulls’ front office was confident about retaining Asik as well.

If Butler keeps up his current level of play, the Bulls will likely match a maximum offer sheet, especially if Derrick Rose’s health issues exacerbate and it becomes time to consider building around other young players like Butler. Let’s take a look at how Butler’s game has gone on the titular unexpected journey towards stardom. Here are Jimmy’s traditional box score statistics over the last three seasons (he didn’t get much run his rookie year):

(stats via Basketball-Reference)
(stats via Basketball-Reference)

The numbers that stand out first are the constant increases in scoring. What’s important to note is that Butler’s minutes increased by nearly 50% from 2012-13 to 2013-14 but have remained at the same insanely high level for this season. He’s fluctuated wildly in terms of efficiency from range, but this season’s small sample size is probably the most indicative of his true rate. While Jimmy’s not bricking his threes this year, he’s upped his scoring in multiple ways. Originally thought to have the ceiling of a “3 and D” guy who could lock down top scorers and knock down shots from the corners, Butler has instead become a dynamic playmaker.

To really dig in, we need to look at the advanced stats, which are actually quite simple. Usage % is an estimate of the possessions that a player uses while he’s on the floor. With five guys on each team, an average usage rate would be 20%. Free throw rate (FTr) is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt; it tells us how proficient a guy is at getting to the charity stripe. Three point attempt % (3PA%) is the percentage of FG attempts that come from long distance. Assist, rebound and steal rate measure how often a player accrues those statistics. Finally, Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WP/48) quantifies the number of “wins” a player contributes on a per game basis. It’s a stat that encompasses many aspects of the game and the career leaders are MJ, David Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, Chris Paul and LeBron. (All advanced stats besides FT rate do not include Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets):

stats via Basketball-Reference
(stats via Basketball-Reference)

The most shocking development in Jimmy’s game has been his usage rate. For his first three seasons in the league, Butler was a markedly below average player in terms of volume on offense. At times last season he would disappear for entire halves. Of course Butler was playing through turf toe, but his role was severely diminished regardless. Jimmy has not just been an important part of the offense this year; he’s been the integral part. Using almost 23% of possessions has made Butler the first or second option most nights on a team that has played far more often than not without its highest usage player (Derrick Rose).

Key to Butler’s increased volume has been the efficiency coming with it. On last season’s anemic Bulls squad, Jimmy took a very high 34.6% of his field goal attempts from long distance. Because he shot so poorly from range, he brought very little value on the offensive side of the floor. By bringing that number under 20% in the early part of this season, Butler has regained his efficiency through a vastly improved post game and constant activity cutting and driving to the basket. Furthermore, taking less contested jumpers has brought Jimmy’s three point percentage up to a more acceptable 33%.

Of course, the most important part of Jimmy Butler’s emerging offensive game is his ridiculous free throw rate. After setting a career high with 18 free throws made in 20 attempts in Denver, Butler’s free throw rate now stands at .588 which is higher than DeMarcus Cousins and free throw legend James Harden!!! It’s no wonder Stacey King loves comparing Butler to Harden (.579 FT rate). Getting to the stripe has always been a big part of Jimmy’s game, but it’s been a delight seeing him continue to rack up free throws as his volume increases so significantly.

Finally, we can see by using WS/48 that Butler may truly be ready to join the league’s elite. Going into Tuesday’s loss to Denver, his WS/48 of .209 would have ranked in the top ten in 2013-14 and is notably higher than his two previous seasons. Combining Jimmy’s constant All-NBA defense with his improved offensive game is lethal. If Butler can keep up what he’s shown thus far, he’ll be a no-brainer All-NBA and maximum contract player.

 

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