Jimmy Butler’s breakout season for the Chicago Bulls was last year, when he went from a top-notch defensive player with limited offensive abilities to one of the best two-way players in the game. And even though many of his stats are similar early on this season, those who’ve watched Jimmy Buckets closely this year are aware that he’s even better than last year. But how good can Butler be? I think we haven’t even seen his ceiling yet.
Many have wondered how Derrick Rose has had an affect on Butler’s rise to stardom, and frankly the splits have been nominal. For example, last season in games that Rose had to sit due to injury, Butler’s scoring and shot attempts only rose slightly. Not many of his stats were noticeably different, with the possible exception of his three-point shooting. While Butler took about 26 percent of his shots from downtown while Rose was on the court, that number dropped to 17 percent when Rose was off the court.
Here’s a look at how Butler’s shooting patterns changed with Rose on and off the court last year, and his shooting percentages from those different ranges (via NBA.com):
The interesting thing is that having Rose on the court allowed Butler the ability to shoot more from the outside and knock it down with more regularity. Despite Rose’s inability to shoot from the outside on his own, his presence at least allowed the floor spacing to get Butler decent set shots within the offense, and he knocked them down more regularly last year.
This could be a factor of “who the offense runs through,” and it almost certainly runs more through Rose when he’s in the game. When Rose was in the game last year, around 70 percent of Butler’s made baskets come on an assist. That number dropped to just 56.3 percent when Rose was not in the game.
Small sample size alert, as the Bulls have only played two games so far without Rose this year, but Butler has taken over the game with Rose out against the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors on the road. He averaged 40.8 minutes, 30 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 50 percent shooting and 45.5 percent on threes in those two games, with the Bulls pulling out a win over the Suns and keeping it close before losing in the final minutes to the undefeated Warriors.
Last year, a huge portion of the transformation of Butler’s game was his improved shooting. His percentages went up across the board, with his overall field goal percentage rising from 39.7 to 46.2 percent and his three-point field goal percentage rising from 28.3 to 37.8 percent. He also put up about four extra shots per game while keeping his three-point attempts about the same, which meant more shots closer to the basket.
Now we’re seeing further change in who Butler is as a player, and it’s seen him evolve beyond needing Rose to help facilitate his scoring chances. Butler’s shooting by distance has changed a lot over the last few years, improving quite a bit from both mid-range and from long distance. Two seasons ago, for example, Butler struggled to hit consistently on anything taken outside of three feet from the basket. Those percentages went up last year and now even more so this year, according to Basketball Reference:
It’s only 12 games, but so far in 2015-16 Butler has really raised his shooting percentages in the mid-range game. The difference on his shooting between 3-10 feet from the basket two years ago and now is huge, going from 20.4 percent to 44.4 percent. Considering his athletic ability, being able to knock down those shots at those percentages at this point in his career could easily place Butler in an elite category with just a handful of other NBA players.
I think the improvement, if the percentages can continue on the same course, make the Bulls much more well set up for eventually saying goodbye to Rose. Whether they’re able to find a trade that involves him (probably not) or they just let him leave in free agency after next season, Butler is ready to play without him. You could even argue right now that the Bulls are better as a team when Rose isn’t on the floor, as it allows the ball to go into the hands of the more efficient Butler more frequently.
The Bulls have looked lackluster at times under Fred Hoiberg, without much of an identity or rhythm on offense. Despite clearly missing something from the point-guard position the last two games, things looked quite a bit more crisp in the form of actually having an identity on offense. As a team, the Bulls have shot well — if you subtract out the struggling Nikola Mirotic’s 10-for-28 shooting and 2-for-11 from downtown. Kirk Hinrich brought the ball up court and almost immediately got the ball to Butler, who either drove to the basket or passed it to initiate Pau Gasol in the post.
A team that starts Aaron Brooks or Hinrich at point guard is never going to win a championship, so replacing Rose is still important. This team isn’t a true championship contender, in my eyes, with or without Rose on the floor. So eventually, the Bulls are going to need to look at how they’re going to acquire the point guard of the future. But at least for right now, they need to use this season to decide how the next team that contends for a championship is going to look.
Watching Derrick Rose leave is a thought that stings many Bulls fans to their core. This is related to the exciting memories of Rose from his MVP season and the hope that many have for the future with Chicago’s hometown hero. But even if Rose has the ability to still play at a high level and be an All-Star point guard, nagging injuries haven’t allowed him to build up any traction toward being an above-average player consistently.
The Bulls need to start pushing all their chips on the table in the form of supporting Butler as their true star player. If Rose is ever going to reclaim some of what made him such a great player prior to his many injuries, it’s just not going to be a Bulls uniform. Not only has Butler developed into a better player than Rose, the Bulls are better when the offense runs with his hands on the basketball. The Bulls need to construct their roster around Butler for him to make the next leap, from where he is now to potentially being one of the top five players in the NBA.