It’s only natural for an NBA player in his mid-20s to undergo a period in which he questions his identity. But for Jimmy Butler, who recently celebrated his 26th birthday in style, the answer could very well determine how much of a threat the Chicago Bulls become in the Eastern Conference.
When this swingman was leaving Marquette and preparing to overcome the odds in the Association, defense was the cornerstone on which he built his reputation. He was a lockdown stopper with the Golden Eagles, so effective on that end of the floor that his lackluster offensive game was almost irrelevant.
As a rookie during the 2011-12 campaign, the No. 30 pick averaged just 2.6 points while shooting 40.5 percent from the field. He couldn’t connect from the outside, and he generated an equal amount of assists as he did turnovers.
But Butler has steadily improved throughout his time in the league, and this past year, he used his many talents to become a bona fide superstar on the offensive end while earning a max contract with the Bulls. In 2014-15, he posted 20 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists during his typical outing while connecting on 46.2 percent of his shots from the field, 37.8 percent of his three-point attempts and 83.4 percent of his tries at the charity stripe.
Those are sensational numbers. In fact, he was one of just five players in the entire league to top 20 points and three dimes per night with a true shooting percentage of at least 58 percent. The full list?
How’s that for impressive company?
However, things aren’t all hunky-dory in the Windy City. As is so often the case for young players still realizing their full potential, the massive amounts of increased offensive responsibility proved detrimental on the other end. Butler, whose reputation on defense always preceded him, struggled to continue asserting himself as a shutdown wing.
You can see the monumental shift in focus quite clearly by looking at offensive and defensive box plus/minus (OBPM and DBPM), which estimate how many points per 100 possessions a player impacts an average team on either side, as compared to a league-average contributor:
The upward trend on offense is fantastic. But the rise in value is severely mitigated by the crumbling of what was previously his calling card, and Butler is perfectly aware of what’s happening.
“I think it starts with me, to tell you the truth,” the swingman explained to ESPN’s Chris Broussard during February, trying to find the reason for his team’s middling defensive numbers. “I’m supposed to be this prime-time defender and I don’t think I’ve been holding up my end of the bargain lately. So I think whenever I start kicking it up three, four notches on defense and not worry about offense as much, I think it’ll all turn around.”
But as he went on to say, it’s tough for him to do so while also functioning as the go-to offensive player.
“You have to pick and choose your battles and save your energy for both ends of the floor now,” Butler told Broussard. “I’m not going to lie, I thought it was going to be easier than it is. But to go on one end and produce and then go on the other end and have to stop the best player on the opposing team is not always an easy task.”
That’s not going to change anytime soon. Butler will always have to pick which hill he wants to expend his energy scaling, and not every choice is made equal for the Bulls.
The Case for Offense
Considering the Bulls still boast the services of a former MVP at point guard (Derrick Rose) and a five-time All-Star in the frontcourt (Pau Gasol), it might be a bit strange to prop up a player who was previously a defensive specialist as the best offensive option. But such is the case for Butler.
At this point, making a case for Rose as Chicago’s No. 1 scorer is rather difficult. Not only is he coming off myriad injuries, now four seasons removed from his MVP campaign, but there are too many glaring flaws in his game. Turnovers and poor shooting percentages continue to plague him whenever he steps onto the court without multiple days of rest, and those sparse stretches are tough to come by in a busy NBA schedule.
Even during the Bulls’ 2015 playoff run, Rose mixed in inexplicably poor trips up and down the floor with the flashes of his old form. For all the slashing plays he made in crucial situations and the occasional throwback moments, he still finished with a 39.6 field-goal percentage.
Was Chicago better with him running the show? Certainly. But it was also devoid of any other legitimate options at point guard, and Butler was still just…better.
It’s that simple.
“Butler is a phenomenal foul shooter—anytime he draws a shooting foul, he gets his team 1.67 points per possession. It may not be pretty, but it’s definitely effective,” Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry wrote during the 2014-15 campaign. “And the good news for Bulls fans is that very few young players get to the line as much or knock down their free throws as much as Butler.”
This past season, Butler took 7.5 free-throw attempts per game when the Bulls won. But when his team was on the wrong end of the winning margin, that number shrunk to 6.5.
That discrepancy isn’t mere happenstance.
Chicago was at its best when he was constantly attacking, and that’s not going to change under new head coach Fred Hoiberg. In fact, it’ll be even more important for him to continue using some energy on the offensive end, making the most of his slashing ability as much as possible in a system that prioritizes off-ball screens and movement along the wings. He needs to be constantly seeking out lanes to the hoop.
“Jimmy’s an attack player,” the former Iowa State head coach told reporters after the Bulls hired him. “If you can get him the ball on the run, on the move, and attacking the basket with pace, it’s an ideal system for him.”
The identity of this team has now shifted dramatically. Under Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls were always going to be a grind-it-out squad that focused on defense, but Hoiberg’s arrival promises quicker tempos, more points and increased levels of creativity on offense.
It could be time for Butler to keep shifting right along with it.
Maintaining an offensive focus won’t prevent him from serving as one of the better wing defenders in professional basketball. He’s talented enough to continue developing as a two-way player, especially because it’ll be easier for him to expend energy on both sides after a year of adjusting to the increased offensive responsibilities.
As the years continue to roll on, it’s tougher for Rose to turn back the clock. The same is true of Gasol, whose lumbering and ball-dominant style of offensive basketball makes him more of a novelty item than a go-to option in Hoiberg’s offense.
But Butler is a perfect fit.
The Case for Defense
For a while now, Butler has believed that he’s the leader of this team’s defense. At the end of April, he said as much to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:
The numbers say I’ve scored the ball pretty well this year. I think I get stuck on that at times, to prove I can play on the offensive end instead of doing what got me to this point where I could prove I could play on the offensive end, which is defense.
I really do have to get back to it. I’m not saying it because the cameras are on me right now. I’m saying it because that’s what it’ll take to win. Somebody has to lead us defensively.