Are Huge Expectations for Jimmy Butler Just a Chicago Bulls Pipe Dream?

Brett BallantiniContributor IISeptember 17, 2012

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 27: Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls passes the ball after grabbing a rebound against the Milwaukee Bucks at the United Center on January 27, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Between the knee injury to Derrick Rose that’s elicited wails of despair and an otherwise quiet Bulls offseason that’s invited howls of derision, the Bulls have managed to excessively lower fan expectations heading into 2012-13.

And as a result of sheer loss of manpower (Rose’s 35.3 mpg) and personnel losses (Kyle Korver to the Atlanta Hawks, Ronnie Brewer to the New York Knicks), expectations have leaped for Jimmy Butler, Chicago’s second-year small forward.

Is there any traction to the notion that Butler will respond to an almost certain uptick in minutes by building on his rookie promise, or are fans merely searching for any reason to be excited as they sit through 50 games without Rose?

The signs are optimistic, within reason.

Butler has room to grow

On an extremely successful Bulls team in 2011-12, the small forward still made a small mark in spite of being the youngest and least experienced man on the team.

Merely extrapolating Butler’s rookie digits—quadrupling his 8.5 mpg out to per-36 minute numbers—is dangerous business. After all, no one knows how a player so infrequently called upon would have reacted to instead playing three quarters of every game. That said, Butler’s team rankings weren’t bad on a per-36 level:

  • 7.3 offensive rebound percentage (fifth on the team)
  • .144 win shares/48 (sixth)
  • 1.1 steals (tied for sixth)
  • 5.6 rebounds (seventh)
  • 8.7 rebound percentage (seventh)
  • 0.5 blocks (tied for eighth)
  • 1.4 turnovers (third fewest)
  • 2.0 fouls (fourth fewest)

There are also some encouraging numbers that don't involve rounding Butler up to 36 mpg. His total shooting percentage was fifth on the Bulls, at .526. And while they are team measures, it still doesn’t hurt that Butler’s offensive rating (112) tied Rose for third on the Bulls and his defensive rating (100) tied Luol Deng for seventh.

Butler has produced in the past

The small forward has seen just 359 minutes of NBA playing time, giving him little chance to make a pro impact so far.

But at Marquette, where he played three years (and carried a major minutes load for two), he produced 12.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.7 assists in 29.6 minutes per game. For those concerned over Butler’s poor shooting in his rookie year with the Bulls (.405 from the floor and .182 from distance), in college, he hit on .508 of his shots and nailed .383 from the shorter three-point line.

Competition for minutes is wide open

Another factor, one that falls outside of Butler’s light minutes load and rookie status in 2011-12, is the fact that Chicago’s chronic underperformance at the 2-spot means that competition for minutes will be more open in 2012-13.

Remember, Butler had no training camp in 2011 to use to show off his wares to Bulls brass; this fall, he will. Richard Hamilton was brought to Chicago specifically to solve the shooting guard conundrum, and he failed (in fact, in spite of 16.4 less minutes per game in 2011-12, Butler finished the season with identical offensive win shares, 0.5, to Hamilton). Marco Belinelli is now a Bull at least in part as Rip insurance and is a supposed long-term option for the team at the 2.

But in the case of both Rip and Marco, Butler will get a chance to steal away minutes from the opening tip of 2012-13.

Summer fun 

It hasn’t hurt one bit that Butler wowed during Summer League play in 2012. He was one of 13 players chosen as All-Stars for the circuit, on the strength of 20.8 points on .431 shooting, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists over four games.

Bulls assistant Adrian Griffin, who coached Chicago’s squad, was very pleased with Butler’s development.

“He’s been putting in the time that it takes to succeed in the league, so I wasn’t surprised that he did so well in Las Vegas,” Griffin told Adam Fluck of “The future is bright for him if he continues with all the hours and this kind of dedication. He’ll have the opportunity to play next year, but it’s going to be up to him as far as how he develops and whether he is truly ready.

“He’s a very talented young player in the league. But in order to help your team, someone has to do what I like to call the dirty work—diving on the floor, hustling, and shutting down the top player on the other team.”

That’s exactly what Butler wants to hear, as he shared with Fluck upon arrival at Summer League.

The small forward admitted he was “tremendously excited” for the opportunity that appeared to be awaiting him with the Bulls in 2012-13.

“This is the time I’ve been waiting on and working toward,” Butler said. “All the time I’ve put in at the gym, now I can let it show. I’ve got to keep working though. I’ll never settle. I just want to keep getting better and better—every game, every practice, every year. So day-in and day-out, I’ll still put in that extra work because there is always somebody out there who is trying to have what you have and wants to be better than you.”

The Cons to Butler breaking out in 2012-13

The truth is, for all of Butler’s promise and fans’ willingness to root for him as a true, good-guy underdog, no one knows what he’s capable of in the NBA. His rookie year, truncated as it was and sans training camp, saw him play in just five games for 20 minutes or more.

In not one of those games of substantial minutes did Butler post an above-average game score—an average game score is 10, and Butler averaged just 5.9 over those five games. In more traditional stat parlance, Butler averaged 8.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists in his five big-minute games.

Along similar lines, Butler’s Player Efficiency Rating—an all-around stat meant to function differently than the mere aggregation of stats that in part reward a heavy minutes load (ppg, rpg, apg, etc.) by seeing the quality of a player’s time on the floor—was very weak, at 12.5. Only Brewer posted a worse PER for the 2011-12 Bulls, and he's now cleaned out his locker at the United Center. If Butler’s rookie year was merely compromised by a lack of minutes, it would show up in a PER of 15 or better, indicating extreme promise for 2012-13.

Win shares are another advanced stat that, like PER, aim to measure the all-around prowess of a player. While win shares are an aggregating stat (the more you play, the easier it is to pile ’em up), Butler’s 0.6 defensive win shares topped only Brian Scalabrine and Mike James on the 2011-12 Bulls—and the latter two players saw just half of Butler’s minutes. For a potential defensive stopper of the future, as Butler is regarded, that’s not a promising tally.

Butler also failed to see any time at all of substance in the playoffs vs. the Philadelphia 76ers. Granted, rotations tighten in the postseason, and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is unlikely to grace a rookie with too many playoff minutes on principle alone. But even injuries to Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson didn't change Butler's case.

While it’s important not to read too much into Butler’s postseason minutes, conversely, if the rookie had been building a case for a bigger minutes load, that load would have logically extended to at least spot time in the playoffs. Thus, in the coaching staff's eyes, Butler didn’t build any momentum over the course of the season.

Finally, while no self-respecting GM would hand over the keys to a player entering his second season and Butler is more small forward than shooting guard, the arrival of Belinelli means that Butler may see an even bigger squeeze for minutes in 2012-13.

Sure, Korver and Brewer are gone, but if Hamilton and Belinelli eat up all of the 2-guard time—not a stretch of the imagination at all—that leaves 10 minutes of scrap time for Butler as he backs Luol the iron man. A mere replay of his rookie-year internship won’t do much toward answering the question of whether Butler can play at the NBA level.

Conclusion: Temper enthusiasm

Yes, Bulls fans are desperate to embrace any positives, heading into 2012-13 without Rose and with their team’s brass possibly abandoning hope for the next season or two. However, to place that all on the shoulders of a low first-rounder in just his second season is beyond overenthusiastic.

That said, Butler will have an opportunity in 2012-13 he's never given, certainly not in the hubbub to collect the club together post-lockout, December 2011. A full training camp—layered atop a solid rookie season and a spectacular Summer League—will give the sophomore every shot at stealing minutes from the Chicago vets.

Butler will need to prove he has some shooting touch to see any real minutes—say 15-plus—over the course of the early season. It’s a given that he can defend and board. His hustle points, particularly in the area of offensive rebounding work, definitely impress.

To turn Thibodeau’s head, Butler needs to continue to play smart when on the floor and nudge his shooting closer to .450. Combine that with any slacking or injury from Rip, Belinelli, and even Deng, and Butler could see his time shoot skyward in the coming season.

Temper expectations, Bulls fans. Butler is due for a tidy step forward in 2012-13, but only by stepping up the offensive side of his game will the huge expectations everyone is eager to load him up with prove warranted for his third year and beyond.


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