Has Jimmy Butler’s Offensive Growth Come at the Expense of his Defense?


Jimmy Butler‘s story is one of shock and awe. The Bulls’ star was born in Texas, and his father abandoned him as a kid. Then when Butler was a teenager, his mom kicked him out of the house. Butler bounced around living in the houses of his friends on a week to week basis until finally Jordan Leslie gave him a more permanent home. Butler’s basketball skill-set has grown every year since then, when he averaged around ten points per game his junior year of high school. Now he averages over double that amount in the NBA as the star player for the Chicago Bulls.

Butler’s elite offensive play is a marvel, but Butler made his reputation in the NBA as an all-NBA defender. Butler has been on the NBA’s all-defensive team for the past three seasons, but the player who once was as good a defender as any has lost his defensive edge over the years.

Stacy Revere / Getty Images
Stacy Revere / Getty Images

Jimmy Butler’s win share numbers have shown an overall progression from 2013-14 to now. There was a slight dip from the 2014-15 season to the 2015-16, but in terms of percentage of team win shares, the progress remains. Since 2013-14, Butler’s win shares have followed as shown:

Advanced Table
Season OWS DWS WS WS/48
2013-14 2.4 4.6 7.1 .131
2014-15 8.2 3.0 11.2 .214
2015-16 6.5 2.7 9.1 .177
2016-17 0.9 0.0 0.9 .234
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/6/2016.

Those win share totals of 7.1, 11.2, 9.1, and 0.9 through just six games this season are very impressive, but notice the dip in defensive win shares over the years. 4.6 to 3.0 to 2.7 to now 0.0 through six games this season. Butler is obviously still getting win shares – that .234 per 48 minutes this season is the highest of his career, but they are all at the offensive end! This is a player who is supposed to be an all-NBA defender.

The other members on the all-defensive team with Butler last season were Tony Allen, Paul George, Paul Millsap, and Hassan Whiteside. If Allen’s minutes are adjusted to match Butler’s, than Butler had the lowest defensive win share amount on the team. In fact, Allen (projected 2.9 with Butler’s minutes) was the only player who’s defensive win share number was even close to Butler’s. George (4.8,) Millsap (6.0,) and Whiteside (5.3,) finished 7th, 1st, and 5th in the league respectively. Butler’s 2.7 was good for 56th in the league. 2.7 is a decent figure, but it does not merit an all-defensive team selection nor is it high on a personal level for Butler.

Jeffrey Becker / USA TODAY Sports
Jeffrey Becker / USA TODAY Sports

Another good indicator of Butler’s decrease in defensive success in defensive rating. Whereas defensive win shares is how much a player contributes to a team defensive effort, defensive rating is the amount of points a player allows per 100 possessions. The old Jimmy Butler could be counted on to defend the other team’s best perimeter player brilliantly. The new Jimmy Butler simply relies on out playing his opponent offensively while contributing an average defensive effort. Here are Butler’s offensive and defensive ratings since 2013-14:

Per 100 Poss Table
Season ORtg DRtg
2013-14 108 100
2014-15 122 104
2015-16 116 106
2016-17 130 113
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/6/2016.

Butlers net rating is not the issue. +8, +18, +10, and +17 are very good marks – especially for a perimeter player. But Butler has allowed increasingly more points on the defensive end each season, to the point where his opponents are now scoring 13 more points per 100 possessions than they did in 2013-14.

Of the 274 players who played at least 1000 minutes last season, Butler was only 100th in defensive rating at 106. Butler’s all-NBA defensive teammates each finished higher than Butler. Whiteside (95,) Millsap (96,) George (101,) and Allen (105) finished at 1st, 4th, 22nd, and 77th in the league respectively.

Michael Reaves / Getty Images
Michael Reaves / Getty Images

This season Butler’s defensive rating is even worse – by a considerable margin – at 113. Of the 201 players who have played at least 20 minutes per game for at least least three games this season, Butler’s 113 is a pathetic 190th. This is the first year in Butler’s career that he is a below average defender in this aspect.

Butler’s offensive growth has counter-acted his worsening defensive play to an extent, but Jimmy Butler was simply a better player in 2014-15 when his play merited all-defensive team selections. Box plus/minus is defined as “a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team.” Here are Butler’s offensive and defensive box plus/minus values:

Advanced Table
2013-14 0.0 2.4 2.4
2014-15 4.1 0.6 4.7
2015-16 3.6 0.3 4.0
2016-17 5.2 -2.3 2.9
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/6/2016.

In 2013-14 Butler was producing entirely as a defender. All 2.4 points per 100 possessions came from the defensive end. Last season, 90% (3.6/4.0) of Butler’s production is this sense was from the offensive end. Now Jimmy Butler’s defense is poor that he is hurting his team. His -2.3 value is nearly as below average (0.0) as his 2013-14 mark (2.4) was above average. Of that same 274 player pool who played at least 1000 minutes last season, Butler’s defensive box plus/minus was 114th. Of the other same 201 person player pool who have played at least 20 minutes in three or more games, Butler’s -2.3 defensive box plus/minus is 170th.

Michael Reaves / Getty Images
Michael Reaves / Getty Images

The fact that Jimmy Butler could be considered a below average NBA defender should be concerning to Butler, Fred Hoiberg, and the Bulls organization. Statistics have the opportunity to be deceiving, but these ones are not.

The Bulls are 3-3, and opposing wings are producing at a relatively high level. In the six games the Bulls have played so far, opposing starting small forwards have averaged 16.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, and shot 52.2% from the field. Those numbers are very unacceptable from Butler. Butler was once the player who held LeBron James without a free throw in a game (3/9/2014) for the first time in 332 games for James. Now Butler is getting burned by mediocre NBA wings like Bojan Bogdanovic.

No one can blame Butler for his decrease in production. Butler finished in the top three in minutes per game each of the last three seasons. He’s been asked to lead the offense, play heavy minutes, fight through injuries, and guard the opponent’s best player every night for the past three seasons. Butler is only human, and he is prone to fall short in doing one or more of these things, but it is up to Bulls management and coaching to put Butler in a role under which he can succeed on both sides of the ball, which they are simply not doing this season. With the old Butler’s defensive production, the Bulls 3-3 record would jump significantly.

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