Since Jimmy Butler was named the new starting shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls last offseason, many expectations were laid upon him to make "the leap." Now that we’re well into the season, how is he living up to those expectations?
Here’s a midseason progress report for Butler. In doing the report, we’ll look at what the expectations were and how he’s meeting them on both sides of the ball. We’ll also look at what he needs to do to take his game to another level.
In grading his progress, it’s important to gauge exactly what the expectations were. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because the projections weren’t all the same. He was a popular, though far from universal, pick to win Most Improved Player.
That award seems to be squarely in the fists of the less-heralded Lance Stephenson right now, but Butler is still greatly improved. His penultimate game of 2013 against the Memphis Grizzlies may have been his best as a pro.
One game doesn't make a season, though. To measure whether he's coming short of, meeting, or exceeding expectations, we need to establish what the expectations really were.
Statistically, it was pretty scattershot. ESPN’s fantasy projections (14.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists) and ESPN insider Bradford Doolittle (11.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists) offer the high and low end of the spectrum (subscription required). Averaged out, they come out to 12.7 points, 4.9 boards and 2.3 assists.
Butler’s actual numbers are 12.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, all of which are career highs, but all of which are also slightly short of the expectations.
Also, his field-goal percentage (40.5), three-point percentage (35.7) effective field-goal percentage (46.8) and true shooting percentage (55.8) are all below his career averages. To a degree this should be anticipated by the fact that his usage is up, and increased usage usually means a corresponding drop in scoring efficiency.
On the positive side, he’s attempting .589 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, which is well over last season’s already impressive rate of .455. He’s attempting 35.4 percent of his shots from deep and shooting fewer long twos.
So, the potential for his efficiency to go up is there if he can start hitting. He is playing smarter.
Overall, right now it balances out. His player efficiency rating is about the same as it was last year (15.1 compared to 15.2).
There are also some mitigating factors to consider, primarily that he missed a block of games because of injuries, mostly a sprained toe and a sprained ankle. In all, he’s played just 18 of the Bulls’ 30 games. Two of those, the Charlotte Bobcats game on November 18 and the Oklahoma City Thunder game on December 19, he left early because of injury.
Because of the small number of games he’s played, those two low-minute games impact his averages. When he’s actually played the whole game, he’s averaging 12.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists—more in line with what was expected.
In terms of his scoring, he’s basically meeting expectations but not exceeding them. His rebounding is a bit lower than what was expected, though the toe and ankle problems would understandably impact his jumping, and by extension, his rebounding (something confirmed by the eye test).
His passing numbers are a little low, but that has a lot to do with the horrendous shooting by the Bulls in general (28th in the league in field-goal percentage).
A good part of the preseason excitement around Butler was centered around his defense, and none of these numbers really reflect that. His opponents have a PER of just 6.5 according to 82games.com.
To put that in perspective, there are two players in the league with a lower PER. In other words, on average, the third-worst player in the league is whoever Butler is guarding.
According to Synergy, he’s giving up just .80 points per play and 8.1 points per game when he’s the initial defender. He’s yielding a field-goal percentage of just 39.2 percent. He fouls just 3.3 percent of the time and forces turnovers 13.3 percent of the time. On top of that, he scores 3.4 points per game off of those turnovers, good for 19th in the league.
Anecdotally, there’s a compelling comparison. No player scored more against the Bulls this year than DeMar DeRozan, who has 63 points in three games. When he has been on the court with Butler, he’s been 12-of-34. When he’s been on the court without Butler, he’s gone 11-of-14.
On the season, the Bulls are 5.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he’s been on the court.
The Bulls are already an elite defensive team, but they’re even more elite when Butler is out there.
In sum, Butler actually may be exceeding even the high expectations of his defense and is on his way to establishing himself as the best defensive shooting guard in the game.
How to Improve
Just looking at the raw numbers, Butler has taken a step forward, but it’s a “step” more than a “leap.” The biggest problem isn’t so much with the accumulated stats as the efficiency.
That’s not a hard thing for him to correct.
What does he have to do with the remainder of the season to go the rest of the way? Simply put, he just needs to have more confidence in his open shots.
Here’s Butler taking an open three with confidence.
Instead, what he’ll frequently do is (sort of) attack the closing defender. He doesn’t do it very well. He’ll wait for the closer to get to him, give the ball a bounce or two, move to the side, and take the shot, and he’s not nearly as accurate when he does that.
Here he is when he’s doubting himself.
The new NBA tracking stats chart the difference between “catch-and-shoot” (when you shoot without dribbling) and “pull-up jumpers” (where you shoot off the bounce). Butler averages 3.4 catch-and-shoot points per game, shooting an effective field-goal percentage of 56.4, which is outstanding (Dirk Nowitzki’s is 56.3).
On the other hand, his pull-up jumper is not very effective. He attempts 2.1 of those per game and has an effective field-goal percentage of just 26.3 when he does.
That's not good.
Butler either needs to commit to truly attacking the closer and driving all the way into the lane, or he needs to just take the shot when he catches it. Trying a pump fake every now and then wouldn't hurt either.
This in-between thing he does isn’t working.
The good news is that since coming back from his second injury, it looks like he’s starting to become that "leap" player. He’s averaging 5.5 boards, 3.0 assists and 16.8 points with a true shooting percentage of 58.7 in that span.
A certain degree of latitude needs to be extended though. He’s a small forward learning to play the starting shooting guard, so it’s more than a bench player stepping into a starting position. It’s a bench player stepping into and learning a new starting position. That learning curve might not have been accounted for when the projections were made.
By season’s end, he may have ended up in the same spot as if he’d taken a big “leap,” but it looks like he’ll traverse the distance through a series of significant steps more than through one giant hop.
Unless otherwise stated, all statistics are from Basketball-Reference, and in particular, Butler's player page. Stats are current as of January 1, 2014.