Jimmy Butler bet on himself last season and won.
The same player that shot under 40 percent from the floor during the 2013-14 season and couldn’t hit a jumper if his life depended on it molded into a 20 point-per-game scorer who was a model of efficiency (slash line of .462/.378/.834). For those gargantuan improvements, Butler was awarded Most Improved Player over the likes of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson who endured breakout seasons in their own right.
Butler made strides in nearly every area of his game last season, but there’s surprisingly still a lot of room for growth for the 25-year old. Let’s take a look at where Butler can continue to improve to become not just an All-Star, but possibly one of the top wing players in the league.
Even before Butler vastly improved his game, he was already known as a stout defender. His length, strength, and aggressiveness made him an above-average defender upon entering the league. He has the size to guard bigger wing players and the speed and mobility to defend smaller guards. He’s the only Bulls player that can consistently force turnovers (averaged at least 1.8 steals per game the last two seasons) as he’s constantly looking to disrupt the passing lanes. He’s already earned back-to-back All-Defensive 2nd team honors the past two seasons, but last year he took a step back in that regard.
A quick look at 82games’ always valuable opponent’s PER demonstrates Butler’s drop off on the defensive end a season ago. His opponent’s PER while defending the shooting guard position (where the vast majority of his defense comes from) increased from an astounding 11.0 during the 2013-14 season to a near league-average 14.6 last season. That doesn’t sound like a drastic change, but dipping from elite to average in that category is concerning.
Furthermore, Butler’s Defensive RPM fell from 1.23 in 2013-14, which ranked seventh among shooting guards, to a 0.43 mark in 2014-15, which was behind 19 other shooting guards despite his spot on the All-Defensive second team (although he ranked fifth in ORPM, which is impressive).
The Bulls’ also allowed 0.9 points per 100 possessions more with Butler on the floor last season, per NBA.com. Chicago allowed 1.5 points per 100 possessions less with Butler on the floor during the 2013-14 campaign. He allowed opposing players to shoot four percent above their average field goal percentage, which, once again, was a huge step back from his minus-3.2 percent mark the season before.
This is the classic case of a player exerting more energy on the offensive end. Butler upped his usage rate from a modest 16.8 percent in 2013-14 to a career-high 21.6 percent last year. That increased role offensively limited his aggression on the defensive end night after night.
Butler is an outstanding defender even after a down season on that end, but he’ll have to learn how to carry a team offensively while maintaining his defensive intensity. He proved that it’s possible when he admirably defended LeBron James in the playoffs last season while getting buckets on the offensive end. That was the playoffs though, and bringing that kind of energy every night in the NBA will be a challenge. Expect Fred Hoiberg to play Butler considerably less than the much-maligned Ironman approach of Tom Thibodeau.
Jimmy increased his three-point percentage from 28.3 percent in 2013-14 to a 37.8 mark on a career-best 73 makes last season. That leap was impressive, but Butler’s shot still needs some work.
Butler struggled with his jumper mightily at the start of the season, shooting 34.2 percent from behind the arc pre All-Star break, including a 30.8 percent mark in November. The mechanics of his jumper are sound, but his shot often looks flat. Some games his shot was on, and other times he couldn’t make the most wide open of looks.
He figured something out in the second half of the season, nailing an impressive 51.2 percent of his longballs post All-Star break, which ranked only behind Luke Babbit and Stephen Curry in three-point percentage during that span (min. 15 three-pointers made post ASB). Granted Butler was limited to just 16 games post ASB due to a shoulder injury, but that stroke also followed him into the postseason where he connected on 2.3 three-pointers per game at a 38.9 percent clip over 12 games.
Butler will need to continue being consistent with his shot in Hoiberg’s jumper-heavy offensive attack. A healthy (on paper) Derrick Rose hasn’t played with Butler much in their careers, but when he does Butler will need to be ready to play off ball.
Pull up shooting
Some of the struggles Butler has had shooting is due to his dependence on shooting off the catch rather than off the dribble. Butler was a well above-average set jumper shooter last season, ranking in the 89.9th percentile in spot-up situations with a 57.4 effective field goal percentage, per Synergy. That number dipped to 37.7 percent on pull up shots, per SportVU. On an identical amount of attempts, Butler made 42.5 percent of his catch and shoot jumpers and a disappointing 35.6 percent of his pull up shots.
Pull up jumpers are usually reserved for the primary ball handlers on a team. There’s a reason why Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and John Wall were among the league leaders in pull-up jump shots attempted per game last season. Butler had to adjust to playing that role for the first time last season.
Butler’s mechanics go awry when he shoots off the dribble. His shot doesn’t look nearly as fluid and he’s often fading away, which derails his efficiency. Shooting worse off the dribble than off the catch is a league wide norm, but Butler needs to be more effective creating his own jumpers if he wants to become a more well-rounded scorer next season.
If he can improve in those other areas as well, Butler is well on his way to becoming a superstar with little, to no weaknesses. That kind of production is well worth the $95 million price tag.