Jimmy “Buckets” Butler hasn’t exactly lived up to his nickname as the NBA season approaches All-Star Weekend. Meanwhile, his team is exceeding its muted expectations.
At the midway break last season, the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls held a 30-22 record on their way to the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed. This year’s Rose-less (and Deng-less) version sits at 26-25, good for fourth in this historically terrible East.
Just one game separates Chicago from the third-seed Toronto Raptors. If the never-say-die Bulls want to continue making noise in what most people consider to be a lost season, several key players need to step up their game, and it starts with Butler.
Without its one-time NBA MVP, and the man who picked up the scoring load in his absence, Chicago has struggled to maintain any offensive consistency. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s defense is performing at its usual high level, allowing the second-fewest points per game in the league at 92.8. But en route to posting the NBA’s worst offense, the Bulls have reached 100 points just 11 times in 51 games while 16 teams average more than that per game.
Butler is very much part of the problem. His PER sits at 13.09, below the 15.00 league average and the 15.26 he posted in last year’s breakout campaign. According to ESPN.com, Butler has 1.8 estimated wins added this season compared to the 1.0 he posted in just 12 playoff games a year ago.
What plagues the third-year guard? In short, expectations have changed drastically from every angle—externally, within the locker room and probably inside his own head.
March 24, 2013—a 104-97 win over Minnesota—marked Butler’s permanent arrival to the Bulls’ starting lineup. From there he logged a hefty 41.7 minutes per game as Chicago finished the season 8-6 and took out the Brooklyn Nets in seven games in the first round of the playoffs before bowing to Miami in five.
In those 26 games, Butler averaged 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting an eye-popping 46.5 percent from three-point range and often guarding the opponent’s best scorer. Though his 14.45 PER in the playoffs doesn’t jump off the screen, Butler’s true shooting percentage (.575) topped Kevin Durant's and Stephen Curry's.
And he gave LeBron James fits.
Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated's Point Forward blog put Butler at No. 90 on their Top 100 Players of 2014, ahead of Eric Bledsoe, Ricky Rubio and Brandon Jennings. In the offseason, Ricky O’Donnell of SB Nation’s Blog-A-Bull dubbed him “the Bulls’ best bet at internal improvement, and subsequently their most realistic hope for being able to take down the Miami Heat (or the Nets, or the Pacers) in a playoff series.”
If external expectations were sky high entering the season, Thibodeau’s reliance on Butler this season has equaled them. The Marquette product—who played all 82 games in 2012-13—lasted just nine games, playing nearly 30 minutes a night, before missing 11 games with a turf toe injury. Chicago went 2-9 over that span.
Butler’s minutes shot back up to 34.2 per game upon his return, and Chicago split its next 12 games.
Though Mike Dunleavy slid into Deng’s spot in the lineup, Butler was expected to pick up the slack from a production standpoint. He began shooting more, including a career-high 18 attempts in the Bulls’ first game A.D. (After Deng). Butler has failed to hoist double-digit shot attempts in just five of the team’s 17 games post-Deng. Take a look at some of his stats before and after the trade:
That Butler put extra pressure on himself to fill Deng’s shoes on offense was no secret. In a recent NBC Chicago article by Bryan Crawford, Thibodeau addressed concerns over his player’s January struggle.
Jimmy’s going to be fine. Everyone’s overreacting. Jimmy’s got to go out there, play hard, got to get in the gym and he’s got to shoot. Shooting comes down to two things mainly: confidence and your concentration. You put the work in and it’s going to come around. I always say this: the magic is in the work. Get out there and work. Do that and the results are going to be good.
Whenever I let my defense dictate my offense, there’s not a lot of thinking involved. It’s just playing basketball. I think that’s where it starts for me. Mike James was definitely the one that was telling me, ‘Let your defense create your offense,’ so when I do that and I don’t think about offense, the offense comes.
Indeed, settling for jumpers—specifically three-pointers—has been Butler’s biggest issue. His true shooting percentage is a woeful 0.499. Here are his shot charts from last season (top) and this season (bottom), courtesy of Vorped.com.
In short, Butler’s game has moved away from the basket. Whereas nearly half of his shots came from inside the paint last year, he’s already surpassed last year’s total three-point attempts. And he’s making only about 27 percent of them.
Though he regularly defends the opposing team’s most explosive player, Butler’s overall activity appears to be down.
His rebounding rate has dropped a full percentage point.
His offensive rating went from 121 in 2012-13 to 103, per Basketball-Reference.com.
And for a guy praised as a multi-tool player, Butler ranks below nearly 300 other players on NBAStuffer.com’s Versatility Index.
It’s hard to hate too much on a guy who dances shamelessly to Taylor Swift.
And the picture isn’t all bleak for Butler. Only four players have more steals on a nightly basis, his opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim is a paltry 0.483 and he ranks 24th in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares, ahead of Anthony Davis, Andre Iguodala and LeBron.
That’s where Butler makes the biggest impact and it provides the blueprint for how he can improve his play on offense in the remaining 31 games, which he already acknowledged.
Focusing on his defensive assignments, wearing down the opposing player, will afford him opportunities to slash and cut, much like his predecessor, Ronnie Brewer.
Rather than forcing long jump shots in a stagnant offense—and much like his nickname—Buckets needs to use his 6'7" frame to get to the bucket more often. This will help raise Chicago’s second-worst 0.424 field-goal percentage and improve the quality of offense as the playoffs draw near.