Why Jimmy Butler’s Development Is So Important

Posted: 12/30/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

Coming into this season, the Bulls were co-favorites with the Cavs in the East. They were believed to have as good of a shot as any team to make the finals, although their fate against a Western Conference team was probably going to be a loss. But even though the Bulls were well-regarded, they still had a ton of question marks heading into the season. Their defense and big man depth were main strengths, and probably why so many people picked them to go far in the playoffs. But Derrick Rose was a question mark, and the Bulls still seemingly lacked a wing player who could score in crunch time.

It’s telling that the Bulls went after Carmelo Anthony this offseason to the extent that they were considered favorites to get him at one point. Anthony was thought to be a perfect fit for the Bulls, because Tom Thibodeau could get improved defense out of him and, more importantly, because he was the scorer they lacked. That’s why it was a big letdown when Anthony decided to stay with the New York Knicks. In retrospect, though, it’s a good thing the Bulls didn’t sign Anthony, thanks to the amazing breakout by Jimmy Butler.

In the first three years of his career, Jimmy Butler was a very important part of the Chicago Bulls’s playoff runs. He was their defensive specialist, frequently shutting guys like LeBron James and Paul George down. He earned second team all-defense honors last season and was a key cog in Thibodeau’s always-terrific defense. He wasn’t, however, known for his offensive prowess. In fact, it would be fair to say Butler had a terrible offensive season last year. Despite playing 38.7 minutes per game, tied for first, ironically, with Carmelo Anthony, Butler averaged just 13.1 points, shooting below 40% from the field and 29% from three point range. He was a 77% free throw shooter, and scored about 30% of his points from the line, but he was terrible from the field. All but one other player (Chandler Parsons) in the top 10 in minutes per game averaged at least 19 points per game.

Butler was really raw offensively in the first three years of his career, which basically is a nice way of saying he was really bad offensively but had the tools to be better. His rapid development, though, was not expected by anyone, including, as evidenced by the Melo pursuit, the Bulls. I thought now was a good time to talk about Butler, given that the Bulls have won seven consecutive games and given his late-game heroics last night against the Pacers.

He’s absolutely exploded, to the point that he’s not only the clear Bulls MVP but also likely in first team all-NBA consideration. Butler’s playing even more minutes (40.1 per game, 1.8 more than any other player), and has ramped up both his usage rate and efficiency. His PER, which was a surprisingly-low 13.6 last season, is up to 22.9. He’s averaging 22 points and six rebounds per game, up from 13 and five. Butler has added close to 100 points to his field goal percentage, which has risen to a very respectable 48.7% and 60 points to his three point percentage, up to 34.5%. He’s clearly a much more aggressive player this year and is much better at finishing at the rim and drawing fouls. His free throw percentage is at 83%, and he’s shooting 8.3 free throws per game after shooting five last season. This improvement is unlike any other in this year’s NBA, and has picked up the slack for a team that is still hurting elsewhere.

Here’s why Butler’s development is so crucial, both to the Bulls and the rest of the East: if Butler were the same guy this year that he was last year, the Bulls would be in real trouble. Their defense has actually regressed this season, and neither Rose nor Joakim Noah looks like they used to. The Bulls might not be able to make the finals with an ailing Rose and Noah, but they’ll be able to go a lot further with a wing who’s shockingly improved from 94th to seventh in the NBA in offensive RPM. And if Rose and Noah improve, the Bulls go from an underdog to make the finals to the prohibitive favorite.

It’s possible to be a contender without having a wing who can score at will; just look at Memphis, who’s 22-8 despite having just one wing averaging more than 7.9 points per game (Courtney Lee, 11.4 points per game). But it’s a heck of a lot easier if you don’t have to rely so heavily on a point guard and big men, especially in close games. Thanks to Butler, the Bulls are probably the favorite in the Eastern Conference as is despite not playing their best. I’m not sure anyone would be excited for a Memphis-Chicago finals, but it seems as if we might be headed that way. This much is for sure: in a year, Jimmy Butler has gone from being a defensive stopper but offensive liability to one of the most important (and valuable) players in the NBA. The biggest fans of Butler thought he might reach this level at some point down the road, but nobody thought he’d be this good this soon. He’s become one of the NBA’s storylines; will he keep this up, or will he fade down the stretch? It’s something to look out for in a conference in which there isn’t much to watch.

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