Jimmy Butler has never had it easy.
With the Bulls taking on the Cavaliers in Game 3 of a 1-1 series, Butler was matched up with the best player in the NBA, LeBron James. Trying to stop James from attacking the basket and taking over a game is not an easy feat, but it’s another obstacle Butler took head on.
James is shooting 39.5 percent in the series, turning it over five times a game being guarded almost exclusively by Butler. Derrick Rose might’ve hit the shot people will remember, but it was Butler who came up with key stops on James down the stretch and hit a go-ahead shot himself with 33 seconds left. He’s been making plays like that all year long, and it’s what earned him the Most Improved Player Award on Thursday, but his improvement has been a long time in the making.
There’s a stigma surrounding NBA players that they were all fed with a silver spoon and groomed since they were young to blossom into stars. That couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in the case of Butler. He was kicked out of his home at the age of 13, roaming the streets without money and without a home. It was a slap in the face with reality for Butler, but it wasn’t his last.
Butler wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school, playing his first year of college ball at Tyler Junior College before transferring to Marquette. Butler was a staple of the Marquette program for three seasons, but he was hardly a lock for NBA stardom. He was a poised, hard-working defensive specialist with a solid, if unspectacular, offensive game. The Bulls raised eyebrows when they took Butler with the 30th overall pick in 2011. Experts didn’t expect him to be taken in the first round and felt as if the Bulls were grabbing a player with a low ceiling, but with high character. If things turned out well, he would make a nice practice guy.
Butler would once again prove people wrong.
After riding the pine most of his rookie season, Butler made himself known in his sophomore season, starting 62 games and averaging 8.6 points per game. He earned the nickname “Kobe Stopper” after locking up Bryant and started to earn the reputation of a defensive stopper. Fans were drooling over the progression he was making early in his career and entering his third season, he seemed destined to make the leap. It never came.
In the 2013-2014 season, with his minutes increasing from 26 to 38.7 minutes per game, Butler took a huge step back in efficiency and his jump shot went haywire. He averaged 13.1 points shooting 39.7 percent from the field and 28.3 percent for three, and finished with a 13.57 PER. He continued to make strides on the defensive end, averaging 1.9 steals per game, but he was looking more and more like just a role player.
Butler turned down a $40 million offer from the Bulls in the offseason in hopes of earning a maximum contract this summer. As he’s put it throughout the season, he bet on himself. Like Butler has done in the past to people who have doubted him, he won, whether he thinks so or not.
There’s really no other word to describe Butler’s evolution this season than incredible. He improved across the board, averaging 20 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, all career highs. Butler also improved his field goal percentage from 39.7 percent to 46.2 percent, and his three point percentage from 28.3 percent to 37.8 percent. Butler’s 21.32 PER, which was a 7.75 point improvement from last season, ranked third among shooting guards behind only James Harden and Dwyane Wade.
Most Improved Player is a usually highly-debated award because of its criteria, or lack thereof. The award usually doesn’t go to the player who improves the most, instead, it usually goes to a younger player that gets more minutes or a bigger role. Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert finished behind Butler, both also deserving candidates.
Green was an absolute stud defensively and was probably snubbed by Kawhi Leonard for Defensive Player of the Year, but he plays next to MVP Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who you could argue improved even more.
Gobert was also a terror defensively and improved his PER by 8.64 points, more than Butler, but players are expected to make huge strides in their sophomore season. Gobert only played 9.6 minutes per game his rookie season, so this was essentially his first year where he was given much of a chance.
Butler pulled off the impossible feat of evolving from a role player into a superstar in just one season without his minutes per game changing by a single decimal.
Per ESPN, Butler was 14th in the NBA in Offensive Real Plus-Minus, which estimates a player’s on-court impact measured in points scored per 100 offensive possessions. He was also 16th in Real-Plus Minus, which accounts for his defense that had far less of an impact (3.97 offensively to 0.69 defensively). That seems to be the trend no matter what advanced stats you come up with, but it’s understandable that Butler would take a step back defensively when he’s carrying a bigger workload offensively and the Bulls took a step back defensively as a unit this season.
Butler has a versatile skillset on offense, scoring at the basket, from midrange, from behind the arc, and in the post.
He’s a crafty post player, using his strength and shiftiness to score over smaller defenders or draw fouls. He led the Bulls with 1.02 points per play in the post, per Synergy.
Butler is one of the NBA’s best transition players with his ability to cut off passing lanes to start fast breaks. He finished 19th with 263 points in transition despite missing 17 games, but his 1.35 points per play in transition led all 18 players in front of him. He led the Bulls in that area by 71 points.
He also led the Bulls with 1.16 points per play in spot-up, in part from his prolific mid-range shooting and improved three point shot.
His shot chart from the past two seasons shows drastic improvements:
The Most Improved Player will surely feed debate again this season, but the award is in the hands of a player that embodies its principles. This award seemed almost destined to end up the hands of Jimmy Butler, who has faced as much scrutiny as just about anyone and found a way to come away from it a better person and player. He pulled off a rags-to-riches story, going from a role player to a superstar by putting his head down and spending hours in the gym to hone his game.
Butler is right; both sides won the bet he put on himself. If the Bulls give Butler the max extension this offseason as they’re expected to, then everyone’s a winner.