For Butler, it was the high point of an already brilliant season, with his leadership qualities on full display. The Bulls were resting the legendary Dwyane Wade, who continues to stave off a decline in production, despite his advancing age. It was the perfect occasion for Butler to prove that he is the franchise player. He did exactly that.
His performance has epitomized Chicago’s strategy this season – he scored heavily without hitting a three-pointer. The Bulls rank 28th in three-point attempts. Many observers – myself included – predicted this method to be ineffective, and that the Bulls would miss the playoffs.
Playing His Own Way
Despite the skepticism, the Bulls have shot out to a 9-5 start and currently sit fourth in the Eastern Conference. Chicago has been potent in transition and through isolation plays, proving that three-pointers alone aren’t essential to success in the NBA. The Bulls have been excellent in the paint.
Jimmy Butler’s driving game been integral. He has scored on 55 percent of his drives, provided an assist on 10 percent, and only turned the ball over on 2.7 percent. That type of efficiency has overridden the Bulls’ lack of outside scoring. Their system goes against the current consensus, but the Bulls have thrived nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Butler’s perimeter defense is menacing. He only allows 31.8 percent of three-point shots to find the basket against him, reinforcing his reputation as a premier wing defender. His 1.7 steals per game also add to his defensive prowess.
Putting In The Hard Yards
Butler was always the type of player who would improve. He is a hard worker on the court -he covers 2.56 miles per game – which was central to his early defensive promise. It’s important to note that of the top five players for distance covered, two have won the Most Improved Player award (Butler and C.J. McCollum) and the other three are potential winners in 2017 (Harrison Barnes, Otto Porter, and Avery Bradley). It’s clear that players who work hard on the court tend to work hard off it, and therefore progress.
And boy, has Jimmy Butler progressed. He was regarded as mostly a defensive player prior to the 2014-15 season, but since then, he has become one of the league’s best two-way players. Although he is a relatively infrequent three-point shooter, he has shot 41.7 percent from beyond the arc this season. The figure dwarfs his 33.3 percent career mark. He’s also brilliant from the free-throw line, which is vital, given his propensity to drive.
Chasing Kawhi Leonard
Butler has morphed into a genuine scorer, putting up 25 points per game, while maintaining his defensive ability. His rise has mirrored that of Kawhi Leonard, as the two chase LeBron James‘ crown for the best two-way player in the league. Like Butler, Leonard was drafted in 2011, and like Butler, the San Antonio Spurs wing has added a dangerous offensive game to his stingy defense.
But while Leonard has already claimed a title under one of the league’s most experienced coaches, Butler is still toiling under an inexperienced one. The Bulls still don’t seem on the Spurs’ level now, but with a talented free agency class on the horizon, the balance of power could soon swing.
For now, Butler’s main challenge will be to remain healthy. He only played 67 games last season and his absence wounded the Bulls. They were 37-30 with him and 5-10 without him. It ultimately cost them a playoff spot. Chicago can’t afford for Butler to miss 15 games again; his influence seems even stronger this season.
Butler’s offensive development has been a revelation over the past few years, and this season, he has taken it a step further. The Bulls have been superb so far and Jimmy Butler has lead the way. Who needs three-pointers?