After the offseason of work he put into developing his scoring, it’s been a disappointing season for the wing, who is averaging just 12.4 points per game while shooting a mere 37.9 percent from the field.
The answer is two parts. First, injuries have impacted him, and second, expectations for what he could do were being overstated by some.
Exaggerated expectations notwithstanding, he was reasonably expected to do better than he has been doing, though. So, what’s been the problem? It can be helpful if we break his season down into four parts:
- Before his turf toe injury (November 18)
- From his return from injury to the Luol Deng trade (January 6).
- From the trade to the Charlotte Bobcats game on January 25.
- From the Minnesota Timberwolves game (January 27) until the All-Star break.
Here is a table showing some of his key stats from each time frame. Following that I’ll break down what they mean, why these time frames were chosen and how it’s relevant to Butler’s offense.
Before the Injury
Before the toe injury, he was playing just fine. He wasn’t scoring in bunches, but he was scoring efficiently. His effective field-goal percentage was an acceptable 50.7, and his true shooting percentage was actually impressive at 59.5.
One thing that we can lose sight of when evaluating offensive talent is free throws. The ability to get to the line frequently—especially if you knock down your freebies—can make for a very efficient scorer. That’s why true shooting percentage is often a better gauge than field-goal percentage.
Butler’s 59.5 true shooting percentage before his injury was exceptional. That’s because he has a real knack for getting to the stripe. Free-throw rate, the number of free throws per field-goal attempt, measures the frequency with which a player draws shooting fouls.
Derrick Rose was still not hurt and was the focal point of the offense, so it was understandable that the offense wasn’t going through Butler much. When Butler did get the ball, he was efficient with it, though.
If there was an issue, it was more that he didn’t shoot enough but passed off open looks.
Then he got turf toe and missed almost a month, not coming back until December 15.
After the Injury
When Butler came back from the injury, it was immediately obvious that his jump shot was hurting badly. His effective field-goal percentage fell off a cliff, form 50.7 to 42.5. His three-point percentage fell from 38.5 to 29.7.
It wasn’t just the statistics that were revealing that either. It was visually evident. Butler had never had the perfect jumper, but his shot was flatter than the eastern half of North Dakota. (You’ve probably never been there but trust me, it’s flat.)
It might not be immediately intuitive, but playing with turf toe can be real murder on a jump shot. It’s extremely painful and debilitating. It’s an injury that took out Ray Lewis, and no one ever accused Ray Lewis of being soft (twice).
I remember Lewis, in a TV interview, calling it the most painful injury he’d ever experienced. It’s a bad one, and it affects an athlete in a lot of ways. It makes it difficult to do anything that involves your feet. Planting, running, jumping, cutting—all those things that basketball players do.
In the “no duh” statement of the year, it can be particularly devastating to a jump shot because jumpers require jumping.
Visually, it was obvious Butler was not getting the same lift on his shot. As a result, he wasn’t getting the same arc, and he was releasing with a different sight line. Because of that, he started trying to aim, push the ball more and guide the shot to compensate. The whole thing became a mess.
His effective field-goal percentage on just his jump shot fell from 49.9 to 37.1, according to data from Basketball-Reference.
This is also corroborated by the fact his rebounding dropped from 4.8 per game to 3.6 per game. That he had another Achilles injury over that stretch probably didn’t help any either.
While his jumper was suffering, though, he still made up for it with his high free-throw rate. In fact, that went up to 64.4. Impressively, over that span nearly 36 percent of Butler’s point came from the charity stripe.
Because of that, his scoring was up slightly to 12.9, so his shooting struggles were slightly masked. That changed after Deng was traded on January 6.
After the Trade
After the trade, Butler hit his darkest days as a pro. He was being asked to step in and replace a franchise fixture, and he’s the type of person to take such a thing seriously. He seemed to put pressure on himself, and that’s not a good thing to do when you’re already slumping.
His effective field-goal percentage over the next 10 games was just 34.1. He was hitting a meager 31.0 overall and a horrendous 17.4 from deep.
And he tried to recompense for shooting badly by shooting more frequently. His field-goal attempts were higher than normal, as he was jacking up over 12 shots per game. Over the next 10-game span, he made just 16 of his 80 jump shots and only eight of his 46 three-point attempts.
Not only that, he wasn’t getting to the stripe either—in part because he stopped attacking the rim. His free-throw rate fell to .253, less than half of what it was to start the season. He was tentative about taking contact. That’s understandable since the wounds were piling up.
The second game after Deng was traded, the January 7 game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler added a bruised thigh to his injury collection, but played through it.
The next game, against the Orlando Magic, Butler went for 60 minutes in a triple-overtime game. I’m sure he felt that the next day.
I don’t want to make excuses for Butler, but trying to fix a broken jumper and fill in for the franchise’s fifth-most tenured player, while playing an hour with three injuries, seems like a perfect storm for a shooting slump.
Over his next six games, things got tearfully awful for Butler, who shot only 28.8 percent from the field. Near the end of the slump, after the game against the Clippers on January 24, he spoke with ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell about it:
I don't know what it is, but I got to figure it out on my own. I'm getting great looks. They're just not falling for me. I don't know. It's got to be me, nothing else. The rims are the same, the balls are the same, so it's all on me to correct it.
When the Bulls played the Minnesota Timberwolves, shortly after the game started, Butler launched himself for a rebound. It was obvious—his jump was back. It wasn’t just the height, but the velocity of his leap. His explosiveness was there.
Sometimes we look for the magic reason a slump ends, but either we don’t know or there isn’t one.
I don’t know what happened between then and the previous game. Maybe he was just feeling better. Maybe he had gotten things right in his head. Maybe someone said something to help him. Maybe we’ll never know.
He didn’t have a great shooting night, but he was 5-of-12 from the field and 2-of-4 from deep for an effective field-goal percentage of 50.0 on the night. At least it wasn’t horrible. He had 16 points, eight rebounds and four steals.
The Bulls lost, but it looked like Butler might be ready to turn the page.
And since then, he’s been better. His effective field-goal percentage has been 47.9 and his free-throw rate has been .474. He’s been averaging 14.3 points, 6.8 boards and 2.2 assists.
All of that is more on par with the realistic expectations (as opposed to the Paul George comparisons) that were put on him at the beginning of the season. Now, entering the All-Star break, he should return healthier, and better.
It’s apparent that a big part of the problem with Jimmy’s offense has been his injury, but it’s also been evident that there are limitations to what he can do on offense. Less than 30 percent of his shots are unassisted.
And this is where it needs to be recognized what his limitations are. Because of his limited handles, he is going to have a hard time working himself out of slumps. He can’t generate points for himself when his shot isn’t falling. He’s able to draw fouls, and that helps compensate somewhat, but it’s hard to see him ever getting the 18 to 20 points per game that Deng used to get.
That means the other half of the equation is that it’s not so much a matter of what’s wrong with his offense as much as the expectations of some were wrong. Look for Butler to have a stronger second half to the season, but don’t look for much more than an efficient 15 points and six points per game.
Statistics for this article were compiled from the Basketball-Reference Game Log and are current as of February 15.