Jimmy Butler’s a guy who’s been playing out of position his entire NBA career, so it’s fitting to start with a prelude: in today’s NBA a player and his position, in the traditional sense, are growing increasingly less intertwined. A player’s skills are viewed with autonomy apart from the team’s needs. It’s more – ‘how can he help us most?’ – and less – ‘what do we need most?’ Maybe that’s nothing new by NBA team-building standards, but there sure feels like a transposition occurring in today’s NBA between the two, three, and four positions.
Seemingly, we’re seeing more tweeners, or what would be called 2.5s or 3.5s in olden NBA lingo. Guys who are caught in a blend of being able to play multiple positions well, but not one position great (which one could argue over which is the better value). Flexibility and versatility have long been coveted skills by NBA talent evaluators, and it was a premium trait then and it's a premium trait now more than ever.
Take Butler and the Chicago Bulls as an example, which has become an interesting case study of the modern day swingman. Butler’s measurables are a prototypical three at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds. Butler’s sturdy yet slender frame, 6-foot-8 inch wingspan, 39 inch vertical, strong hands, quick feet – when Butler was drafted in 2011 it seemed reasonable to assume he could one day replace Luol Deng and be transitioned into Chicago’s next defensive stopper on the wing.
So far, Butler has been just that as strictly a defender. Let’s take a look at last season, Butler's first as a full-time starter. Butler’s defensive rating, per NBA.com was a stellar 97.3, but individual defensive metrics aren’t always telling the whole story. From 82games.com, per 48 minutes opponents scored 101.1 points per 100 possessions against the Bulls with Butler on the floor, but with Butler off the floor the Bulls surrendered 102.5.
Essentially, Butler’s worth on defense when he’s on the floor saves Chicago 1.4 points over 100 possessions whereas most players typically allow more points when they’re on the floor. But perhaps even more important would be to look at how much time Butler spent playing the two and playing the three last season.
Again according to 82games.com, Butler played 90 percent of his minutes last season as Chicago’s two-guard. More so, he held opposing two-guards to an effective field goal percentage of 45.8. He held small forwards to 34.6 percent, but again only played ten percent of his minutes there on the season.
Regardless, Butler’s conventional numbers will still tell you how exceptional of a defender he is because while he’s capable of shutting his man down one-one-one and being a bother impeding opponents to get clean looks, he also forces his opponent to be mindful of protecting the rock. Butler averaged 1.9 steals a game last season, good for fourth best in the league.
On defense, Butler can be anywhere on the wing guarding the opposing team’s best player, which is how Tom Thibodeau has used him since Butler’s gained regular minutes in the rotation. Butler’s versatility enables him to guard anyone from Washington’s Bradley Beal to LeBron James.
But on offense, this is where the similarities between Butler and Deng end, mostly because Butler has been willing to play the two with an explosive scoring option on the wing being nonexistent on Chicago’s roster besides Derrick Rose. So the question it boils down to is how much does Butler’s position really matter with Chicago?
Take a look at Butler’s shot chart from last season.
Butler shoots very well from corner 3-pointers but took 66 more 3s from the wing. With today’s NBA being on high alert defending and trying to take away the corner 3-point shot, it’d be a incredibly shortsighted to conclude Butler needs to take more 3s in the corner and less from the wing. Not nearly that simple.
But would Butler’s 3-point rate from the corner increase if he played at the small forward position? Mike Dunleavy played 68 percent of his minutes at small forward last season, and he actually shot 11 less (72-61) 3s from the corner than Butler. So in Chicago’s offense, it seems that’s its basically interchangeable between the two-guard and small forward as to who ends up in the corner more often.
Personally, the doubt in Butler playing the two appears self-perpetuated. If the difference on offense between the two and three positions are marginal in terms of production (although Butler isn’t an efficient shooter), than as long as Butler’s on the floor continuing to defend at an elite level it doesn’t appear to matter much what he’s classified as in the starting lineup.
If Butler becomes the de-facto open shooter due to Chicago's newfound floor spacing combined with frontcourt superiority, Butler's going to have to knock down the clean looks he should get. The past two seasons without Derrick Rose forced Butler into carrying a burden offensively he's not ready for yet. This season, no matter where he's at on the wing, Chicago will have three or four options (as opposed to Butler being the second or third option in the past) to score before Butler, which is how it should be.
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