How Jimmy Butler Made the Leap From Role Player to NBA All-Star
The underdog motif is one of the most popular literary character types because of the symbolic nature of overcoming adversity to triumph over some huge obstacle or oppressor.
Everyone loves a good underdog story.
Jimmy Butler is making a case for being one of the most heartfelt underdog stories that the NBA has seen in recent years, and because of his impending free agency this summer, Butler may get the fairytale ending that he envisioned when he bet on himself last fall.
Many people may already be familiar with Butler’s background and how he prevailed over abandonment by his mother at the age of 13 and pulled himself up by the bootstraps to use education and basketball to change his life circumstances. But the narrative that is beginning to supersede his upbringing is Butler’s meteoric rise from NBA role-player to borderline NBA superstar.
After Saturday night’s game against the Bucks, all everyone in the sports industry could talk about was Derrick Rose looking like the D-Rose of old. What people may have missed was Butler inconspicuously leading the Bulls in scoring that game with 25 points.
It is a thing of beauty to see Rose’s return to his MVP form, even if only for one night, but it is Jimmy Butler who has taken over for the Chicago franchise and has led them back to championship contention.
Let’s take a look to see what numbers stand out the most in Jimmy Butler’s evolution as a player.
All Day Jimmy
To start with the evaluation of Jimmy Butler’s game, it is almost obligatory to start with the fact that he plays the most minutes per game of any player in the “Association” with 38.7 per game this year, which is the same exact per game minute total he played in the previous season. Everyone knows that head coach Tom Thibodeau is not afraid to run his players into the ground, but Butler has figured out a way to utilize his time on the court to become a more efficient offensive player.
Butler has seen his usage rate increase from 16.8% in 2013-14 to 21.6% this season, but that ranked him only 112th in the entire NBA and just 48th among the 77 players who averaged at least 30 minutes per game.
Despite that low usage rate, Butler ranked sixth in the NBA in our nERD metric, which quantifies how many wins above or below .500 a player would add to a league-average team based on an 82-game season, in 2014-15. Butler's nERD of 12.7 was higher than MVP candidates Russell Westbrook (10.6) and LeBron James (9.1), both of whom have much higher usage rates in the top five in the NBA -- 38.2% and 31.8%, respectively.
Butler is the potential superstar that the Bulls thought they needed in Carmelo Anthony via free agency last summer. Too bad for them that they did not open their checkbooks when Butler could have been had at a discount.
Butler has mastered the art of doing more with less, and this is exactly why his efficiency has made him a real asset going forward.
From Defensive Stopper to Offensive Savant
Butler made his laurels in the NBA by becoming known as a lockdown defender and role player: the quintessential 3-and-D player of the new decade.
Butler's Defensive Win Shares increased in each of his first three seasons, going from 0.6 to 2.6 to 4.6 from 2011-12 to 2013-14, culminating in an NBA All-Defensive Second Team berth last season. While Butler had elevated his defensive game to one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, his offense suffered -- possibly due to the amount of energy he was expending on the defensive end.
His Offensive Win Shares dropped from 4.4 in 2012-13 to 2.4 in 2013-14. By the time the end of the season came around, Butler didn't have much left in the tank to lead the Bulls past the upstart Wizards in the first round of the playoffs.
This season, Butler took the NBA by storm, unveiling a new more efficient offensive style that has propelled his Offensive Win Shares from 2.4 to a career-high 8.2 this season, good for sixth in the NBA.
The jump that Butler has made offensively can largely be attributed to his better shot selection and more decisiveness on the court. In the day in age where the analytics people are suggesting that players should take more three-point shots, Butler actually decreased his three-point attempts from 3.3 per game last season to 2.8 this year. The lack of looks from deep hasn't hurt Butler because his percentage jumped from 28.3 percent to 37.8 percent, allowing him to make more threes per game this year (1.1) than last year (1.0). More with less.
While Butler has not acquiesced to the three-point metrics taking basketball by storm, he has prescribed to two of the other major tenets of analytical basketball: free throws and points in the paint.
Butler has seen his free throw attempts per game increase from 5.0 last season to 7.1 this season and his percentage even increased from 76.9 percent and 83.4 percent. Butler's aggressiveness at attacking the basket has not only allowed for him to get to the free throw line, but it has allowed him to finish on higher percentage shots at the rim. In 2013-14, 30 percent of his shots came from within three feet of the basket, and that is up to 33 percent this season.
Further, his free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempts) elevated from 48.8 percent last year to 50.8 percent this year, so it's not just a product of an increased usage rate.
Even though Butler has seen his defensive game slightly decrease from 4.6 Win Shares last season to 3.0 Win Shares this season, the opportunity cost of his exploding onto the scene as a viable offensive weapon has been both surprising and refreshing.
The above numbers present a great case as to why and how Butler has made the jump from valuable role player to invaluable All-Star, but this recent postseason tear is putting Butler on the precipice of superstardom.
Last night Butler managed to single-handedly keep the Bulls' offense afloat by scoring 14 of the team's 20 fourth quarter points, matching the Bucks' output. Even though two games is a very small sample size, Butler's statistics of 28.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game on 54.5 percent shooting and a PER of 26.8 are the type of numbers that superstar players have in playoff games.
The Bulls have put themselves in prime poll position to advance out of the first round, further than they did last season, and Jimmy Butler's ascension may have been the catalyst that started it all.
Jimmy Butler may have been the hero that Chicago has been yearning for all along, and watching his matriculation to NBA superstardom is no fairytale. He just used hard work to turn his dream into a reality.