As he entered the locker room on December 14 in Miami, the 25-year-old swingman showed the exhausted demeanor of a player who’s led the NBA in minutes played and miles travelled per game since October of 2013.
His availability for the game against Miami should have been uncertain. But with Joakim Noah sidelined with an ankle injury, Butler would not let his already-shorthanded teammates face off against the rival Heat without him.
“You can’t say enough about him,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told SheridanHoops. “He’s old school. Last night, before the game he was not feeling well but he said ‘Hey coach, don’t cut my minutes. I’m going to run that out of me. Keep me in there.’ I respect that.”
Butler logged 36 minutes in Miami, scoring 17 points and logging a team high 5 assists — not to mention 7 rebounds and two steals — en route to a 93-75 victory for Chicago.
“The guy wants to win, Thibodeau added. “He fights hard on every play and goes after people. He makes tough plays. That’s Jimmy. That’s Jimmy. The guy is having an All-Star season.”
Entering the season, Butler was merely considered to be a very good role player on a very good team. Now when Thibodeau proclaims that Butler is an All-Star, nobody bats an eye.
Butler scored 20 or more points in only five games all of last season. So far, he’s scored 20 or more points in 16 of the 24 games he played, including four games with more than 30 points.
Butler is a restricted free agent at the end of the season. As recently as October, executives around the league were starkly divided on whether Butler’s next contract should exceed $10 million in annual salary. Now, just two months later, the conversation has shifted to whether Butler is worthy of a max-contract in the range of $15 million annually. The consensus from two Eastern Conference scouts I’ve spoken with appears to be an emphatic “Yes.”
Butler’s scoring has ballooned from 13.1 points per game last season to 21.5 in 2014-2015. His increased output has coincided with increased efficiency. He’s shooting 48.6-percent from the field (up from 39.7-percent last season) and ranks third in the league behind James Harden and Kobe Bryant in free throw attempts with 8.2 per game.
“It’s just confidence,” Derrick Rose told SheridanHoops. “It’s him just knowing how good he is. He’s on a mission right now and I can respect him for that. I know what he’s thinking right now as far as taking care of his family. I take my hat off to him for that cause he’s performing.”
Butler is delivering in areas of the floor that he’s never paid much attention to in the past. With defenses prioritizing their schemes around stopping Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol on the interior while containing Derrick Rose’s penetration on the perimeter, Butler often finds himself with either a smaller or slower defender on his back.
Unlike last season when he would camp out behind the 3-point line to keep the floor spaced, Butler has become more proactive in setting up and forcing action into the post.
Watch on this play where the Bulls sprint up the floor with a plan to get Butler the ball near the paint. Butler sets a pick, which forces the Kings to switch Darren Collison onto him. With at least sixty pounds and several inches on the point guard, Butler backs down:
The Bulls go back to that same play in the fourth and convert again:
Among all players averaging at least three points per game from shots within 12 feet from the basket, Butler ranks seventh in the entire league with an outrageous 70.5-percent field goal percentage on those shots. Of the top 20 most efficient players from the interior, Butler is the only non-big man of the bunch. In fact, Butler is also the only top-20 interior scorer in the league who also averages more than three points per game on drives to the hoop — per NBA.com/stats.
In simpler terms, Butler is shooting 70.5% on field goals within 12 feet despite a fair number of those attempts coming in the form of legitimate shot attempts. On the other hand, guys ahead of him on the list like DeAndre Jordan and Tyson Chandler have nearly all of their shot attempts come in the form of dunks and tip-ins. Butler has shot more efficiently from within 12 feet than both Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins.
“I’m just taking the shots that the defense is giving me,” Butler told SheridanHoops. “I’m getting to the right places on the floor. I think that’s a big part of my game to be 12 feet and in.”
But knowing his efficiency in the post, how much concentration does it require for a player who’s played on the wing his entire career to consistently return to the post on offense?
“That’s a big part of it,” Butler acknowledged. “I think I have an advantage over a lot of different two-guards. With me being 6-7 or however tall I am and with my physical play, that would be the smart thing to do.”
Watch below as the Clippers’ Reggie Bullock battles Butler aggressively off of the blocks. Regardless of catching the ball out of position, Butler recognizes his advantage with strength and speed to power through for a layup.
And when the defense sends a quicker defender to intimidate Butler from putting the ball on the ground — as Chris Paul prioritizes in the clip below — Butler is just as inclined to pop a close range shot, which he’s rarely missing:
In comparing Butler’s style of play from last season to this season, it’s as if he’s become a different player. Setting the results aside for a moment, it’s just fun to watch Butler approach the offensive end with newfound appreciation for physicality.
Last season, Butler allowed 38.5-percent of his field goal attempts to come in catch-and-shoot situations. This year, catch-and-shoots account for less than 30 percent of his attempts.
Conversely, Butler’s field goal attempts coming within 10 feet of the basket have increased from 3.8 per game last season to 6.3 per game this season. The results have been staggering; Butler is making as many shots from within 10 feet per game this season as he attempted per game last season.
Listed at 220 pounds, Butler was already strong for a swingman. This season, he looks even more physically imposing.
“275, let’s go with that,” Butler quipped in response to a question about current playing weight. “I probably weigh 277,” he added with a smile.
Be it 220 or 277 pounds, Butler has been able to use his strength as a decoy of sorts when he posts up against smaller defenders.
Watch below as Courtney Lee concentrates on preventing the entry feed, only to forget that Butler is explosive enough to spin off and beat him with a backdoor cut:
Butler’s agility also enables him to show for screens and quickly slip out for open jumpers before the defense can react:
Credit must be given to Noah and Gasol, as their passing abilities open up space for Butler to operate on the inside.
“Any time when your bigs can pass it adds a lot to your team, it makes everyone else that much harder to be guarded,” said Thibodeau. “They can play at the elbow. They can play in the post. And when the defense collapses or double teams, they’re going to hit the open man.”
Butler also recognizes that Rose’s presence has made a big impact in freeing up space on the court, “Derrick’s return gives a lot more room for everybody. The defense is really keying on him and always watching him.”
One thing is clear: Butler’s in a pretty good situation to continue developing with this roster in Chicago.
Butler owns a combination of strength and speed that few players in the league can match. And with an improved understanding of how to work the post, he has become one of the league’s most unique players.
So if I’m Chicago’s front office, the question should not be whether to give Butler the max but rather, “What do we have to do to be able to afford Butler under the luxury tax threshold?”