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Jimmy Butler’s Sweet Charity: How Drives and Free Throws Unlocked the Chicago Guard’s Offense

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more rapid case of player development outside of Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio.

If the only thing Jimmy Butler could do was this …

or this …

… he would have a career in the NBA. Yet the fourth-year Marquette product has become much more than a defensive menace. Over the past few seasons, he has gradually morphed into a multifaceted offensive weapon, making him perhaps the best all-around player on a team that has a decent chance to get to the NBA Finals (if it can just get past these pesky Bucks). You’d be hard-pressed to find a more rapid case of player development outside of Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio.

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In a few short years, Butler has become a much more effective jump-shooter and a terrific attacker. Looking at Butler’s shot chart from just two years ago, it’s hard to believe it shows the same player who is now scoring 26.6 points per game in the postseason. When Derrick Rose suffered his first major knee injury, the 2012-13 season became a huge opportunity for Butler, then in his second campaign, to emerge as a key contributor for the Bulls. The reality was that Butler just wasn’t ready, and he put up only 8.6 points per game, while typically shooting from only a few discrete locations on the court. He was a low-usage, low-efficiency scorer.

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That’s the shooting chart of a very raw offensive player. There’s no activity near the elbows or above the break, two zones where many wing players make their hay. Fast-forward to this season, and suddenly Butler is among the most versatile and unique scorers in the Eastern Conference. It’s a remarkable transformation — not only has he developed a much more diverse scoring portfolio, he’s become much more efficient at the same time.

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Just a few years ago, Butler was a train wreck beyond the arc (compared to other shooting guards). Now he’s doing stuff like this:

Still, as impressive as that shooting growth has been, the biggest element of Butler’s offensive evolution doesn’t show up on a shot chart. At some point in the last year or so, he has cracked the code to the NBA’s most efficient scoring action: getting to the line.

A routine shooting foul elevates the value of an average NBA possession more than almost any other single action. Last week, I described how just getting Kyle Korver an average look transformed the Hawks into an insanely efficient offense. Generally speaking, anytime the Hawks get Korver any kind of shot, they score an incredible 1.34 points per possession.

Butler is a phenomenal foul shooter — anytime he draws a shooting foul, he gets his team 1.67 points per possession.1 It may not be pretty, but it’s definitely effective. 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.


1.

Points per possession numbers are courtesy of Stats LLC.

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During the regular season, Butler drew a whopping 5.2 fouls per game. Only five NBA players shot more free throws per contest:

Most Free Throws per Game

  1. James Harden: 10.2
  2. Russell Westbrook: 9.8
  3. DeMarcus Cousins: 9.2
  4. LeBron James: 7.7
  5. DeMar DeRozan: 7.2
  6. Jimmy Butler: 7.1

Whether we want to admit it or not, the league’s best players are also its best ref-whisperers. Butler went to the stripe more often than many superstars, including hack magnets like Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, and Anthony Davis. While those wonky foul stats may seem trivial at first glance, don’t be fooled. All of those trips to the line represent something really meaningful. At the very least they indicate that Butler has become quite difficult to guard, but they also tell us that he has a mature awareness of the charity stripe’s value. And if we know anything about Butler, it’s that the dude likes to get buckets.

Butler’s development is evidence of the ripple effects that stem from becoming a better jump-shooter. NBA defenders love to sag off of guys who can’t shoot, which in turn makes it very difficult to attack the basket. By improving his jump shooting, Butler also greatly improved his driving — not to mention the Bulls’ overall offense. According to SportVU data provided exclusively to Grantland, Butler drew fouls on 25 percent of his drives this season. Leaguewide, drives only result in foul calls 13 percent of the time. The Bulls scored 1.23 points per possession each time he drove. Considering that the team averaged 1.05 points per possession, that’s pretty good.

Those drives are among the most influential factors in the Bulls’ fate in the playoffs. The Bulls become a much more dangerous offense when either Rose or Butler is attacking the basket. Whether they are getting fouled, getting buckets, or creating for their teammates, you’d have a hard time finding a better pair of attackers anywhere in the league. Call them the Slash Brothers.

It was three years ago this week when Rose first hurt his knee and the future of the Bulls franchise was put on hold. If the orthopedists can stay away, the future is back. Rose may never be the same ferocious talent he was before his ACL broke down, but he’s still pretty darn good. And in Butler, he now has one of the best two-way shooting guards in the league by his side.