The Bulls, as I mentioned in a humor piece earlier in the year, weren’t supposed to be good. They were supposed to collapse after a desperate attempt by the Bulls management to keep Chicago relevant post-Rose and Gasol. Experts questioned whether a team with a dearth of natural shooters could survive, whether Butler was a viable first option on a winning team, and whether the egos of three traditionally dominant players could coexist with a still-fresh and dangerously passive coach. 15 games into the season, the Bulls are sitting at 9-6, with impressive wins over Portland, Utah, Indiana, and Boston to their name. Spearheading their impressive start is Jimmy Butler, the unquestioned franchise centerpiece in the wake of the Rose trade, endorsed by Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, and handed full responsibility of the offense by Fred Hoiberg. Butler’s rise to stardom is no new story. But following his 2014-2015 breakout season, in which he defeated Draymond Green in the Most Improved Player race and made his first All-Star game, Butler (and the rest of the Bulls) had something of a down season in Fred Hoiberg’s inaugural season. There were assorted injuries and a general lack of chemistry that, while not quite crippling, presented an insurmountable hurdle in the playoff race for a Bulls team that had given the title-contending Cavaliers a scare only one year prior. Butler himself had lapsed, taking ill-advised shots at both the basket and teammates. Missing the playoffs had to sting, and there was no shortage of mystery as to the team’s makeup in the following October. Now with a whole new lineup that defers to him when the offense struggles, Butler has again exploded out of the water. His current stats through approximately a sixth of the season are nearly all career highs:
Most notable is perhaps the efficiency on which he’s doing his scoring — Butler is playing the least minutes per game since 2012-2013, shooting 48% from the floor (up ~3.5% from his career and 3% from last season), 42% from behind the arc (a whopping 9% better than his career and 11 percent better than last season!!), and 89% on free throws (7% and 6%, respectively). While some of those splits, particularly his outside shooting, are likely to drop off, it still represents a significant uptick in Butler’s scoring acumen. He’s not forcing up the silly threes that he did last year, or trying as hard to draw fouls on jump shots. Instead, Butler is playing to his strengths; he’s powering through weaker wings for shots at the rim or easy foul calls (thus his career high of 9.7 FTA per game), using his post game to create in isolation, and taking logical threes. When those options fail, Butler can fall back on a midrange game that has been his bread-and-butter during his three-year scoring outburst or distribute to equally-capable teammates like Wade.
It helps that the Bulls are better than they were last year, though that doesn’t entirely make sense. From a raw stats perspective, Robin Lopez is no Pau Gasol and Rondo is no Rose. But the makeup of the team lends itself to Butler’s talents. Isaiah Canaan, Doug McDermott, and Nikola Mirotic have provided extraordinary floor spacing for Butler and Wade to cut and drive at the rim. Rondo is a true playmaker, which is a role that Rose never really wanted to embrace. Lopez and Taj Gibson both are sound box-out bigs that don’t compete with teammates for stats, allowing the guards to rebound and run the break instantly. Rondo, Wade, and Butler are all average-to-above-average rebounders as guards, and it makes for exciting and efficient basketball when they can move in transition. Chicago was 28th in transition scoring last year, despite Hoiberg trying his darndest to speed everything up. This year, they rank ninth. When they can keep it running smoothly, the offense is a thing of beauty and efficiency, with Butler scoring 1.43 points per possession (PPP) in 44 transition situations this season. That efficiency ranks fourth among players with at least 30 such possessions, putting the Bulls wing behind just Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Damian Lillard.
Of course, the real difficulty in declaring Jimmy MVP comes in proving that Butler deserves it over bonafide superstars like LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Blake Griffin. The idea is simple: Butler and the Bulls need to be a force in the regular season for him to even have a shot. Think 55 or more wins. Unlike the aforementioned players like Curry (Kevin Durant) and Griffin (Chris Paul), Butler doesn’t really have a player on his own roster threatening to steal votes from him. And unlike LeBron, there’s no voter fatigue working against Butler. His reputation as a tough two-way player also gives him a certain edge over offense-first players like James Harden and Damian Lillard. However, Butler needs to show he can carry the offense as an MVP is expected to do. Similar to Kawhi Leonard, Butler is not usually viewed as someone who can take over the whole offense. However, this far into the season, Butler sits 10th in points per game and more importantly, 2nd in Win Shares. There’s no doubt that he’s central to team success.
It won’t be an easy road for Butler to win the award, but nothing has ever come easy to him. This is hardly the biggest hurdle he’s leapt in his career. If the Bulls can continue their against-all-expectations success, Jimmy should almost certainly be on the minds of the voters come May.