Culture of Hoops

Sonny’s Top 50 NBA Players: #18 Jimmy Butler

Resume: 20.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 386 free throws made (4th in league), 463 free throw attempts (7th in league), 38.7 minutes (1st in league), 46% FG, 38% 3PT, 83% FT … Team Record in Games Played: 40-25 (10-7 without) … Playoffs: 22.9 points (career best), 5.6 rebounds (career best), 3.2 assists (career best), 2.4 steals (career best), 42.2 minutes, 44% FG (career best), 39% 3PT, 82% FT (career best), 6-6 record … Most Improved Player, 2nd Team All-Defense, All-Star

The Chicago Bulls enter the 2015-16 NBA season as one of the co-favorites in the Eastern Conference, and it’s just as remarkable as it is simple that they are once again in position to make an NBA Finals run. On one hand, it’s a deep and talented roster that is loaded with a former MVP, an NBA Champion, a former Defensive Player of the Year and the reigning Most Improved Player of the Year. If you just look at those pieces alone, it makes all the sense in the world.

On the other hand, the Bulls were bounced before the Conference Finals last postseason for the fourth straight year. Tom Thibodeau was fired in the offseason, and replaced by former NBA player Fred Hoiberg, who saw his Iowa State Cyclones get upset in the 1st Round of the NCAA Tournament this past March. Joakim Noah was banged up for much of last year, Pau Gasol isn’t getting any younger and Derrick Rose had, umm, another rough offseason.

I won’t get into the sexual assault accusations, but Rose did break an orbital bone just a couple of weeks ago, and it’s clear that there is still enough residual bad blood between he and Jimmy Butler that the Bulls should be calling on Dexter Morgan to analyze the situation. The biggest saving grace for the Bulls is Butler, who emerged last year as a solid two-way star in a similar fashion that Paul George did just a couple of years ago.

The emergence of Jimmy Butler and the legitimacy of his Most Improved Player of the Year win was a bit of a surprise in my book. I didn’t even have Butler on the Honorable Mention candidates for last years Top 50 Countdown. It looked like he could only max out as a stingy perimeter defender and nothing else. His shooting percentage from the field dipped below 40 percent (yucky) and his three point shooting was below 30 percent (not what you like to see from your shooting guard.

Butler must have worked his ass off in the offseason, because he came into the 2014-15 season on fire, averaging 22-6-3, eight free throw attempts per game and 48/33/83 shooting splits over the first two months of the regular season. Usually a huge increase in numbers like Butler saw can be attributed to more minutes, and thus, many more scoring chances. To a degree, Butler took advantage of more opportunities, but those opportunities didn’t come because the Bulls were in dire need of guys who were able and willing to jack up shots.

Even though Derrick Rose missed a rather large chunk of the season, when he was on the floor he was still the primary ball-handler and facilitator for the Bulls offense. The Bulls also had post-maestro Pau Gasol to find touches for, and Joakim Noah, the previous seasons third runner-up for MVP, could still operate as the hub of the offense even though he was gimpy all season long.

The way it worked out, Butler ranked fourth on the Bulls in touches per game, per, behind the three aforementioned teammates. Still, Butler found a way to get almost four more shots and two more free throws per game than the previous season, and unlike the 2013-14 campaign, Butler wasn’t a horrendously inefficient scorer. As is the case with other young guards in the league, Butler needs to learn to not be so reliant on contested mid-range jumpers, and rather do most of his damage working in the post or near the basket, where he’s arguably at his best as an offensive weapon. Per, Butler shot 48 percent from the post, and he drew a foul on 16 percent of the 92 post-up possessions, the fourth highest rate for all players in the league last year.

Of course, it was nice to see Butler’s stroke from the perimeter improve so greatly in just a one year span. That’s not just a statement made because more of those kind of shots went in; Butler looked far more at ease jacking jumpers than he ever did in the past. It would be unfair to expect another similar jump in efficiency from the perimeter, but as long as Butler can maintain that consistency from the outside it provides nice balance to his offensive game. It also means Chicago has yet another spot up shooter to put around Pau Gasol, or the hopefully healthy and relentlessly attacking Derrick Rose.

There’s plenty of star power on the Chicago Bulls roster, but it’s the most unheralded of those stars who is now the one capable of getting Chicago over the hump. To get to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference, it seems pretty clear that you need a wing who can either pester LeBron James on the defensive end, or out-duel him on the offensive end. For a while the guy in the East with the best chance of doing that was Paul Pierce. Paul George came damn close to toppling The King a couple of times too. Now that distinction is passed on to Jimmy Butler. Best of luck with that.

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