Among my long list of concerns when the Bulls signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade in July was that the newcomers would stunt the growth of Jimmy Butler. Butler was unquestionably the best player on the team last year, but the additions of two players who need the ball to make an impact seemed like a surefire way to neuter Butler’s effectiveness on offense. Despite GarPax’s attempt to sabotage the greatest draft pick they’ve ever made, Butler has risen above the stumbling blocks in his path and taken his game to never before seen heights.
With 12 games in the books (goodbye small sample size theater! Hello decent sample sizes!) Jimmy is on pace to have the most prolific season of his six year career. He currently is averaging career highs in scoring (24.2), rebounding (6.6), field goal percentage, three point percentage and free throw percentage (47.6%/45.2%/88.8%). Look at those shooting splits again, those are elite numbers.
Butler has remained incredibly efficient despite using a career high 26.6% of all Bulls possessions. A big key to his ability to remain efficient is the fact that Butler has set up a permanent residence at the foul line in every arena he’s entered. Butler is attempting a career high 8.9 free throws per game, the eighth highest total in the league. James Harden, king of drawing contact, is taking less than one more attempt per game that Mr. Buckets.
Perhaps the part of Jimmy’s game that has taken the biggest leap forward since his early days riding the bench under Tom Thibodeau is his ball handling ability. Butler is taking a healthy 7.6 drives to the basket per game and is converting those drives into points 83.3% of the time, the 10th highest rate in the NBA for players who average at least five drives a night. A big part of his success in turning drives into points is the three free throw attempts per game he averages, the eighth highest number in the NBA.
Of course, not all of Butler’s scoring is derived from bullying his way to the basket. After a concerning dip in his shooting last year, Butler has refined his stroke and is letting it fly with great confidence. Part of his shooting success can be attributed to an improvement in the type of shots Butler is taking this year. Last season, it felt like far too many of Jimmy’s jump shots came in isolation, or after haphazardly maneuvering past a Pau Gasol screen.
This season, Butler is taking advantage of Rondo and Wade’s ability to draw help in the paint, settling around the perimeter for kick-out threes. Butler is averaging an insane 1.48 points every time he takes a set shot, up from .96 a season ago. He’s shooting 47.4% on catch and shoot threes and has knocked home four of his seven attempts from the corners. Remember the think pieces about spacing? Jimmy Butler set them on fire.
There’s yet one other facet of Butler’s game that has been largely untapped this season that I hope Fred Hoiberg will try to exploit over the next 60 games. Butler has recorded just 13 post-up possessions according to NBA.com. While it’s a very small sample, Butler is averaging 1.15 points on post-ups, ranking in the 91st percentile in the league. Creating post-up opportunities is difficult when Jimmy shares the floor with two traditional big men, but there is one way to create mismatches that could lead to post-ups. Jimmy has finished less than ten plays as the screener in the pick and roll. I’d love to see some Canaan-Butler 1-3 pick and rolls where Butler ends up with a point guard switched onto him.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook have gotten plenty of coverage for propping mediocre supporting casts up above .500 through this early stretch of the season. Jimmy Butler has the dragged the Bulls suspect roster to an 8-4 start. He’s done so leading the team in minutes, points, three point percentage, free throw attempts and percentage, steals and overall plus/minus. He’s currently sitting in third place in ESPN’s RPM statistic! Remember when there was talk of three alphas? Jimmy Butler has distinguished himself from the pack.