Some fans had dreams of him scoring 20 points a game and assuming the role of the second star beside Derrick Rose. There were comparisons to Paul George or at the very least to Luol Deng. But, all of that is proving unrealistic.
Butler is not a great offensive player, and barring an almost unforeseeable leap in his shooting and ball-handling, he never will be. But he’s sufficient enough to meaningfully contribute.
On defense, he’s becoming one of the elite wings in the league, if he’s not already the best there is.
That combination—being an adequate offensive player and outstanding defender—is precisely what the Bulls need from him. Let’s take a look at what he is and isn’t on offense, and what makes him so special on defense.
Just Enough on Offense
While some may have hoped Butler would be having an All-Star season and his scoring would hit another level, that hasn't panned out. Butler is averaging just 12.3 points per game while shooting .390 for the season. His three-point percentage is only 28.4.
With numbers like that, some would ask how Butler could be described as anything but a disappointment. Well, in part, he's not really as bad as those figures make it look.
Butler suffered a turf-toe injury early in the season and missed almost a month. Then, for about two months, from December 12 to February 9, he was beleaguered with an assortment of injuries, which had him in and out of the lineup. Between the toe, the other injuries and the inconsistency, his jumper was a mess.
If we put his season in three blocks, it’s apparent just how much his shot was affected in that span.
Butler's more realistic numbers are represented by the average of the first and second block. He's about a .435 shooter overall and good for .340 from deep. Those aren't great percentages, or even good, but they aren't deplorable numbers, either.
They also don't tell the whole story. For starters, he can get to the rim.
Also, true shooting percentage is the best way to measure scoring efficiency because it includes free throws. It’s essentially an estimation of the percentage of the time a scoring opportunity results in points on the board. If a player uses 10 possessions and misses five shots but gets fouled five time and makes 10 free throws, he scores the same amount as a player who goes 5-of-10 from the field.
According to field-goal percentage, one player shot .000 and the other .500. But was the second player really more effective?
This is pertinent with Butler because he draws a high rate of free-throw attempts (.503 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt), and he tends to make his freebies (77.9 free-throw percentage).
So, while Butler might not be an efficient shooter, he is a fairly efficient scorer, especially when healthy. Over the last two seasons, his .544 true shooting percentage is 83rd in the NBA. That’s not gangbusters, but it’s not awful. It’s passable.
Butler is probably never going to give the Bulls more than 16-18 points per game. That’s his ceiling. He might not even hit that.
But, because of his ability to draw fouls, he’ll get them with reasonable efficiency. He’s not a volume shooter, but he’s not intended to be. As a fourth or fifth option, he’s pretty decent, though. His floor is 12-13 points per game.
Offensively, he's stable. He's going to get just enough points to matter.
He’s good enough to not be utterly ignored (cough, Keith Bogans, cough). He still has to be accounted for by defenses, which means when Rose returns and/or if the Bulls get that second scorer, it will make it that much easier on the scoring tandem. If all five players can't be left alone, it makes it harder to double-team.
The Bulls can afford to settle for "good enough" with Butler’s offense, and that’s what he is.
Butler is just in his first full season as a starter, but he’s already establishing himself as one of the best defenders in the league.
In spite of the fact that he’s not a great offensive player, he tends to win his personal matchup. Per Hoops Stats, he has had a higher efficiency than his counterpart on the other team 32 times, a lower one 13 times and has tied seven times.
Based on opponent’s efficiency rating, Butler is better than any defender in basketball, according to 82games.com. Butler’s 9.8 oPER is the lowest of any player in the league who has played 40 percent of available minutes.
His Synergy stats are no less impressive. Here he is compared to last year’s All-Defensive wings:
And, what’s more impressive is that he regularly guards the opponent’s best player.
In the month of March, he’s been phenomenal in defending the world's elite scorers. First, here’s what the players did in their respective games:
He’s not doing it because of help defense, either. This is what happened when he was the initial defender on the play:
In reality, Butler is far more often the helper than the helped, as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explains, per Aggrey Sam of CSN Chicago:
So Jimmy’s tough and he’s guarding everyone. He guards point guards, twos, threes, fours. We have the opportunity to do some switching with him. Small on big, doesn’t matter. If he ends up on a big, he’s physical, he’s tough, he’s mentally tough. Those are all the characteristics that you need.
It’s more than apparent from the eye test that he’s a great defender too. He plays with his body up on the best in world, but his foot speed and lateral quickness are such that he’s able to keep in front of them. It’s rare to watch someone he’s guarding not get frustrated.
I enjoy going against him. He makes me better. He's a great defender. He's good with his feet, his hands. He knows team defense as well as being a great on-ball defender. He's physical. What makes him tough is he's not a back-down kind of player.
If you can’t get LeBron James, the next best thing is a “LeBron-stopper,” and Coach Nick of BBall Breakdown shows why Butler is the best there is at that:
Butler is an equalizer. His offensive game is average, but his defensive game is so special that he makes superstars like James and George seem ordinary, and that negates the biggest advantage Chicago’s opponents have.
He has the kind of defensive versatility and aggressiveness that makes him a perfect fit in the Bulls' system.
Some fans want Butler to be that “second scorer” who can alleviate the pressure on Derrick Rose when he returns, but he’ll never be that. What he does do, though, is broaden the field of players who can be that guy. Because of Butler’s stellar defense, virtually any scorer can be obtained without worrying over defensive liability.
Butler’s not the type of player that is going to lead you to a championship, but he is the type you need to have to win one. The closest recent comparison I can make is Ron Artest (not Metta World Peace) without the psychodrama. Their numbers in their third season are nearly identical.
Both are great wing defenders with just enough offense to matter. That helps win titles. Sure, the keys to the Lakers' repeat championships in 2009 and 2010 were Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, but Artest was critical too.
Yes, the Bulls need that other scorer, but fans need to recognize it’s not going to be Butler. And, if you’re not worried about what he isn’t, then you can really appreciate him for what he is: a critical building block for a championship.