Jimmy Butler Is Great, But He Wasn't the NBA's Most Improved Player
Jimmy Butler secured the NBA's Most Improved Player award just in time to celebrate in front of his home crowd on Friday night before the Chicago Bulls host the Cleveland Cavaliers in a pivotal Game 3.
The Bulls will be hoping to avoid a post-award letdown, as was the case for Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors when Curry's MVP ceremony preceded a Memphis Grizzlies win in Game 2 of their series.
But even if the Cavs reel off a second straight win, there's no reason to take anything away from Butler's award.
Or is there?
Butler received an overwhelming 92 first-place votes (no other player got more than 12) and earned 535 points in the voting process. Draymond Green, the second-place finisher, secured just 200 total points.
Was Butler's improvement this season really that much more drastic than the rest of the candidates?
Butler earned his first ever trip to the NBA All-Star game this season, and his ostensible offensive improvement is a big reason why.
On a per-game basis, Butler's points increased from 13.1 in 2013-14 to 20.0 in 2014-15. Butler's Offensive Rating improved -- from 108 to 122 -- but it came at the expensive his defensive efficiency -- his Defensive Rating worsened from 100 last season to 104 this year.
Still, Butler nearly saw marked increases across the board from 2013-14, but when digging deeper into the numbers, something interesting becomes quite obvious.
Butler's 2014-15 season, by many measures, was very similar to his 2012-13 season. In fact, his Defensive Rating was 104 in both seasons, and his Offensive Rating was 121 in 2012-13 and 122 in 2014-15.
The most crucial difference, of course, is that last column: usage rate. Butler went from a last resort to a more involved ball-handler and shooter. His field goal attempts per game climbed for another season, up from 10.3 last year to 14.0 this year, and his assists per game increased from 2.6 to 3.3. As for his 2012-13 season, he scored just 8.6 points and averaged 1.4 assists per game.
Yes, obviously maintaining impressive rates (be it shooting percentages or per-possession numbers) at a higher volume is easily definable as improvement, but simply put, Butler was an already above-average player in the league who shouldered a bigger offensive workload than ever before and maintained his efficiency while doing so.
His defense, though, took a step back this season while Butler transitioned from a lockdown defender to a scoring threat.
|Season||Off. WS||Def. WS||WS||WS/48||OBPM||DBPM||BPM|
There is no denying that Butler had an elite season, but to say that he took a substantial leap in ability or efficiency wasn't actually the case. His Effective Field Goal Percentage jumped from 44.6 percent to 50.2 percent (but was 50.6 percent in his smaller workload in 2012-13). A key reason why is that his three-point attempt rate (his percentage of total field goals from behind the arc) dropped from 34.6 percent last year to 21.2 this year. Butler shot just 28.3 percent from three last year but ramped it up to 37.8 percent this year.
That's a big jump, but it's not as though he was never able to shoot: he shot 38.1 percent from three in 2012-13.
Again, the main change in Butler's season was volume, a change that Butler handled incredibly well, but his shooting took a step back last year and then regressed to his 2012-13 percentages with the increased volume.
The Rest of the Field
So, Butler cashed in on his bigger workload, but did his numbers really indicate the biggest improvement relative to the other vote getters?
Here are Butler's Win Share marks (via Basketball-Reference.com) and his nERD scores from the two most recent seasons compared to the rest of the top 10. nERD is our metric for measuring a player's overall efficiency, and a nERD score indicates how many wins above or below .500 an otherwise average team could expect to finish with that player as a starter.
|Player||13-14 nERD||14-15 nERD||Change||13-14 WS||14-15 WS||Change||MIP Vote Score|
In terms of nERD, Butler added 8.3 more wins above .500 than he did last year, which actually trailed Rudy Gobert's increase. Of course, nERD is a cumulative number, and Gobert played just more than 400 minutes last year before hitting 2,100 minutes this year (Butler hit the 2,500-minute mark in each of the two seasons). Still, it's possible that Gobert would have continued the negative trend if he had received more minutes.
Butler also narrowly edged Giannis Antetokounmpo in nERD change, and Antetokounmpo actually saw a bigger jump in Win Shares than did Butler, too. Still, Gobert's Win Share change was the biggest of all.
(As an aside, Anthony Davis, as scary as it sounds, probably should have received more votes.)
Of course, voters don't concern themselves only with empirical increases, and Butler played a significant role on a Bulls team that managed to secure the 3 seed in the Eastern conference despite his own and Derrick Rose's absences -- Butler and Rose combined for just 113 games this year.
In the grander scheme of things, giving Butler, an incredible all-around player, an award for getting better is fitting and makes sense. It's not as though he didn't improve, but his landslide victory doesn't really indicate the actual, tangible level of improvement that some of the other players in the leagues made.
If anything, the most logical reason why he wasn't deserving of the award meant for the player who put made the most significant improvement (e.g. Rudy Gobert) is that Butler was already better than eight of the nine players in the top 10 to begin with.