So I'm going to have to drag this one out again:
@McGrawDHBulls I spoke to an NBA executive the other day who said they would happily max Butler. Double checked and he wasn't joking.— Mark Deeks (@MarkDeeksNBA) July 2, 2014
It just seemed so crazy at the time. Butler, while an elite defender, was coming off a season that saw him shoot under 40 percent overall and under 30 percent from three-point range. Even if there were reasons to believe the horrendous shooting was an aberration, a max contract seemed outlandish.
The Bulls and Butler negotiated up to the Oct. 31 deadline, but the two sides couldn't come to an agreement on a contract extension. The negotiations reportedly ended around $2 million apart, with Chicago offering about $11 million annually and Butler looking for around $13 million. Common sense would have seemingly brought the two together at about $12 million a year, but it didn't pan out that way and Butler decided to "bet on himself" to have a big season.
Nine games into this season, Butler and that anonymous executive are looking like geniuses, while the Bulls aren't looking too smart. That's because the dude is playing like a certified bad ass, and if he keeps it up, a max contract offer sheet will be in the cards next offseason.
We already knew about Butler's superb defense, but if you needed a reminder, he was the primary defender in holding DeMar DeRozan to a woeful 3-of-17 shooting night in the Bulls' 100-93 victory over the Raptors on Thursday night. Butler had a few issues getting caught up in screens in the early going, but it wasn't a problem as the game wore on.
But I'm not here to talk about Jimmy Butler's defense. I want to talk about the apparent massive improvements on the offensive end.
In what has been a recurring theme this season, Butler scored a super efficient 21 points on 10 field goals by going 7-of-10 from the field and 6-of-8 from the line. After the Raptors win, Butler's scoring average sits at 19.7 points per game on a ridiculous 52.3 percent from the field. (His true shooting percentage is 63.2 percent.) Remember, this is the same guy who shot 39.7 percent from the field last year. It's a small sample size, but with each passing game, the improvement is looking more and more legit. So just why is Butler's shooting percentage so much better to start this year?
For one, Butler is taking a ton of easy shots at the rim and converting at a high rate. 38.6 percent of his shots are coming in the restricted area, and he's making 64.7 percent, per NBA.com. Last year, those numbers were 33.2 percent and 57.0 percent. One reason for all the easy baskets is his excellent cutting:
Butler has also seen a vast uptick in his efficiency on twos outside of the restricted area. One crazy stat from last year is that he made just NINE shots (9-of-37) that were in the paint but not in the restricted area. He has already made five shots from that zone in just nine attempts this year. Moving back even further, he's shooting 45.8 percent on mid-range shots, which may be a bit unsustainable but promising nonetheless.
This kind of in between game is something we haven't seen from Butler until this year. He's knocking down shots off screens, making things happen out of the post (a major development) and creating better shots for himself off the dribble. He has done a nice job picking his spots to score, and he hasn't had to take too many super tough shots.
And how about that three-point shot? Last year it was often painful to watch Butler hoist a three, but right now he's at a very solid 38.1 percent. Again, it's early and that percentage is mostly because of one game, but his outside shot just LOOKS better right now. It certainly helps when Derrick Rose is creating wide open looks for you:
We figured Butler would be a major beneficiary of Rose's return, and that has certainly been true in the few games they've played together. (Although it must be noted that Butler has also been great with Rose sidelined.) Against the Pistons, when Butler went 4-of-7 from three, he got primarily wide open shots. 10 of Butler's 12 shots were uncontested, according to SportVU, including his dagger three off a pretty feed from Rose:
While an actual pick wasn't set, the three highlights some of the nifty pick-and-roll action we've seen between Rose and Butler, especially down the stretch of games. Here we see it against the Raptors, and it turns into an easy basket for Joakim Noah after a nifty pass from Butler (more on Butler's passing in a bit):
The Bulls show the same action here, but while a screen really isn't set, there's still a switch that leaves Terrence Ross overplaying Butler at the top of the key. Butler takes advantage with a timely back cut, and Rose hits him in stride, resulting in a foul:
And just for good measure, here's another Rose/Butler PnR from the Pistons game:
I'm a huge fan of this action. If teams are going to put so much focus on Rose, that leaves Butler with plenty of room to operate, and often with a head of steam. In these highlights, we see Butler do several different things with these opportunities. He knocks down an open three, gets to the bucket for an easy layup, gets to the foul line and drops a nice dime.
This kind of stuff during crunch time is huge for the Bulls, and so far, Butler has been adept at making big-time plays. He knocked down a clutch jumper against the Raptors when things got really tight, and he's currently 5-of-11 from the field in "clutch" situations, according to Basketball-Reference.com. For years, Chicago has been looking for another guy to consistently make plays down the stretch, and that guy may have finally been found.
Another reason this may be the case is because of Butler's growth as a playmaker. We saw it above in that pass to Noah, and there are countless other examples of it this season. Butler had six assists against the Raptors, and he's averaging 3.7 on the season. That's a full assist per game more than last year.
Here's a play against the Raptors where Butler curls off a screen, gets to the bucket and makes a slick pass to Pau Gasol after getting the defenders in the air:
And here's Butler passing out of the post (TAKE NOTES TAJ!) to Gasol for a wide open jumper:
So yeah, Jimmy Butler as second wing shot creator could be a real thing. I haven't even mentioned his ability to get to the line, which is something he has always done well. His free throw rate is .545, which is better than the last two seasons but shy of his crazy .709 mark in his rookie season. He's almost James Harden-esque in his ability to flail his body around when driving to the bucket, which often leads to a friendly whistle.
With such a dearth of two-way shooting guards in the league, one has to think Butler's play has him on track for a max deal. We'll see if he can keep it up over the course of the season, but I'm believing more and more that this Butler is here to stay. And if this truly is the real Jimmy Butler and a max offer sheet is on the way, the Bulls really have no other choice but to match.