Charlie Johnson (@CjohnsNBA) contributed to this story.
The Minnesota Timberwolves preseason is here. Additional player profiles below.
Jimmy Butler was selected by the Chicago Bulls with the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA draft. The Tomball, Texas native was a Junior College and Marquette University standout, but he didn’t earn amateur accolades like most other players toward the top of their sport.
Under the tutelage of head coach Tom Thibodeau, though, Butler grew into his superstar self; he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award for the 2015 season, was named to his first All-Defensive team in 2016, and was awarded All-NBA status the following year.
Then, in June of 2017, Butler was acquired by the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of a blockbuster draft night trade. He went on to lead the Wolves to their best regular season record since 2003-04, and their first playoff appearance in the same span of time.
Let’s dig into his player profile.
- As is proven by his Heatmap, Butler would rather attack from the right.
- Butler played in fewer games (59) than he has during all but his rookie season.
- He averaged two steals per game for the first time in his career.
- Butler finished with career highs in field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage, true-shooting percentage, steal rate and steals per game.
- Butler ranked first of 106 shooting guards by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM).
Role on the Wolves
Not much figures to change about Butler’s role on this team. When he’s healthy, he’s the Wolves’ most effective two-way player; he’ll shoulder a similarly heavy load for as long as his knees can carry him. But there are two areas – clutch-time scoring and positional logistics – worth diving into.
Before being traded to Minnesota, Butler compiled 23.9 points per game on 16.5 shot attempts during his final season in Chicago. Anticipating the addition of his elite scoring chops, those that follow the Wolves were surprised the see the way that Butler deployed his talents to begin the 2017-18 season.
First 11 Games
|Offensive Rating (rank)||Net Rating (rank)||Butler’s points per game||Butler’s FGA per game|
|106.2 (11th)||-2.7 (22nd)||14.7||12.1|
Over the team’s first 11 games – of which their all-NBA wing appeared in nine – It was evident that Butler was embracing a back seat in the Wolves’ offensive hierarchy. During that time, the Wolves were 7-4; still, their minus-2.7 net rating ranked just 22nd in the NBA.
Then, following a loss to the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 10, Butler committed to embracing a larger role in his new team’s offense.
“I’m going to go back to putting the ball in the basket,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jerry Zgoda.
And his proclamation bore out in reality. Over the remainder of the season (71 games), the Wolves finished 40-31 (30-20 in games that Butler played) to claim the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
71 Games Following Butler’s Proclamation
|Offensive Rating (rank)||Net Rating (rank)||Butler’s points per game||Butler’s FGA per game|
|111.5 (3rd)||3.2 (7th)||23.5||16.2|
In hindsight, it’s difficult to argue that Butler’s alpha insistence was detrimental in many ways. But what can be improved in this regard is the Wolves’ approach to clutch-time scoring.
A clutch field goal attempt occurs when a game is within five points with less than five minutes to play. During those first 11 matchups, when Butler chose to defer, the Wolves were 5-1 in such situations.
First 11 Games (Wolves 5-1 in Clutch Time)
|Player||Crunch-Time FGA per game||FG%|
Though Butler was certainly a factor, he was merely one of the numerous potent options the Wolves would rely on when a game turned dire. In fact, he was averaging fewer such attempts than Wiggins through the first month of the season.
But when Butler decided to change his approach, the team’s clutch-time play became somewhat less effective.
Final 71 games (Wolves 17-19 in Clutch Time)
|Player||Crunch-Time FGA per game||FG%|
Though the sample sizes are meaningfully different, the Wolves finished a pedestrian 17-19 in games that went down to the wire after Nov. 11; during those contests, Butler took almost half of their end-game heaves.
In all, the Wolves’ minus-6.4 clutch time net rating ranked 22nd in the NBA.
While analyzing this data, a late-December, Target Center game against the Denver Nuggets comes to my mind. The Wolves won in overtime, and it seemed like Butler took every shot down the stretch — he scored 12 of his 39 points in just five minutes of extra time. He carried the Wolves to victory, and he’s among a unique breed capable of doing just that. But based on the evidence, a greater degree of diversity in their late game attack could help the Wolves all things considered.
As it further relates to his role, a structural shift that is somewhat likely — based on Thibodeau’s comments and the construction of his roster — is more time for Butler as the Wolves’ power forward in small-ball lineups.
During their first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, the Wolves’ five-man combination that saw the most minutes (64 over five games) was their starting unit – Teague, Wiggins, Butler, Gibson, Towns.
But the group that came in second by minutes played was far less predictable: Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose, Jamal Crawford, Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns enjoyed 27 minutes of action together over four postseason matchups.
Of just three lineups that ended the series with more than 15 minutes of playing time, this was the only one to produce a positive net rating (plus-6.7).
If Thibodeau is indeed inclined to follow the rest of the league toward smaller, more interchangeable player combinations, lineups like this figure to be afforded a longer leash in 2018-19.
Within the context of today’s NBA, shifting Butler up a position generally makes sense. On offense, a group that excludes Gibson would create more space to attack for players like Teague, Wiggins, Butler and Towns. And on defense, smaller players tend to be able to cover multiple positions.
For the Wolves, though, these factors are less advantageous than they are to some competing organizations. Because Thibodeau frowns upon players switching on defense – and instead relies on a drop-coverage pick-and-roll scheme – executing concepts is far more valuable than being able to switch. If a player like Wiggins, who might figure to fill Crawford’s shoes within that lineup, isn’t able to further grasp his responsibilities as a help defender, moving Butler to power forward (and sending Gibson to the bench) could hurt the defense more than it helps the offense.
In that scenario, it’s possible that Thibodeau would turn to Luol Deng as a cog he finds more reliable than Wiggins.
It is almost always the case that when a player’s statistics deviate from the norm — as Butler’s did early on in Minnesota — that a deviation also appears in the film. This usually shows up in one of two ways:
- A player enters a new environment (team) and his role inherently changes. Think Kevin Love after his departure from Minnesota. Love’s overall productivity dropped playing alongside LeBron James but his 3-point volume and effectiveness increased. This showed up on film through Love’s placement on the floor that led to an evolution of the shots he was asked to take or threaten to take.
- A player makes a strategic change to the style of his game even if his role on the team has not changed. Think Blake Griffin during his later years in Los Angeles with Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick on the Clippers. After a sequence of injuries plagued Griffin in his early days, he made a concerted effort to change the frequency in which he puts his body to task. This materialized as an increased volume of shots from the perimeter and more utility as a ball-handler.
In the case of Butler, joining a new team would logically draw parallels to the Love example: a player finding himself in a new environment. But the film on Butler during his first 11 games with Minnesota suggest he took the Griffin path: a conscious objective to change one’s style.
Functionally, this looked like a greater propensity to create for teammates and a willingness to be a tertiary offensive weapon. Two things he was not with the Bulls.
Power and craft define so much of Butler’s game. Because of this, as he fell into distributor mode his entire game slowed down. Early on, Butler shied from contact; became reliant on fadeaways and when he did decide it was time to attack he looked a step slow — often getting blocked.
This is Butler in the first game of the season. Earlier in this game, he had been finding success getting to the middle of the lane and finding Andrew Wiggins or another perimeter threat for spot-ups on the perimeter. But here, he does not have a clear kick out option. Instead, he decides to attack but his hesitation slows him and allows Pau Gasol to meet him at the rim.
This was definitively not the Chicago Butler or the Butler that showed up a month into the season. It’s not that Butler stopped being a distributor when he re-found himself, rather, he simply became more decisive when the attack opportunity presented itself.
The difference in Butler’s film during situations where he has a step on his defender greatly differs from early on in the season to when he was in mid-season form — capitalizing on that step and finishing with the previously missing power.
Here, during the third game of the season, Butler has a step on Josh Huestis but decides to rely on his craft of drawing a foul rather than simply exploding through for a finish.
Two months later, Butler is in another reverse layup situation, this time against Joel Embiid. This time, rather than trying to draw a foul, Butler takes advantage of the step he has on Embiid and bursts up to the rim for the reverse slam.
Butler wasn’t himself at the beginning of his Timberwolves tenure and it got into his head as his supreme confidence appeared to waver. His shooting stroke seemed to have an aim to it that was anything but natural.
Watch Butler’s body language after he misses one of his patented fallaway jumpers. (Also in the third game of the season.)
Again, as the season progressed, Butler changed.
Everything not only became more decisive but there was an added force-of-will to his game. The fadeaway jumpers did not disappear but they were not the mainstay of his diet. In situations where he had a physical advantage — as he does here against Mario Chalmers and then Lou Williams — Butler finished through the defender, rather than straying away from the contact.
In ways, it makes a great deal of sense that the Wolves had their best stretch of the season from mid-December through mid-January — a 12-3 run. It took a month (mid-October through mid-November) for Butler to find himself and then another month (mid-November through mid-December) for Butler’s teammates to understand him.
Specifically, Towns and Butler began to mesh.
While the volume of Towns-Butler pick-and-rolls many called for never materialized, a different type of synergy did. Given the frequency with which the Wolves — and notably Butler — prefer to isolate rather than use pick-and-roll, Towns had to learn where and when to pick his spots so as to not get in Butler’s way. Often times this looked like Towns hot on the tail of Butler isolations waiting to gobble up an offensive rebound.
Would it have been a positive thing to see more of a synergy for Butler with his teammates? Of course. But a progression did happen; making it a stretch to suggest that this team, with Butler as their leader, has plateaued.
Jump ahead another month from mid-January and to mid-February and Butler is injured. Perhaps this unit was ascending but simply became flattened by Butler’s absence.
Sometimes as followers of a sport or team we can be caught in a recency bias of the last thing that happened. For the Wolves (and Butler), that was the rather dismal playoff showing.
But if we look closely at the film from that series and compare how Butler — specifically Butler — played in that series, buried in disappointment is a nugget of optimism: Butler reverted to his early-season self in the playoffs. He reverted to passivity on offense; shied from contact; played slower and lacked vertical explosiveness. The player in those five games against Houston looks very similar to the player in the first five games of the season.
The optimistic take is that Butler was forced to revert to this lesser style because he was not yet at full-health.
Here, underneath the hoop in the playoffs, Butler opts to step back away from his defender (Chris Paul) rather than finish through him.
In that third game of the season, Butler catches in an almost identical spot and makes a move that sacrifices a bit of expected value for less contact. This is passive Butler.
Again, on a separate play, Butler opts to flare towards the corner for the 3 rather than heading to the block for what could be a potential and-one situation.
(Aside: The corner-3 in this situation may be the smartest play in terms of analytics, but it is not the decision Butler would have made mid-season.)
It’s certainly not that Butler was playing “soft” in the playoffs; he defended tirelessly throughout the series and was undoubtedly the effort leader of the team. But he did not have that same power to his game, due to the recent injury. Without that power, Butler’s game changes. And when Butler changes, the Wolves change. When Butler forces his will, more often than not the Wolves as a whole force their will.
Following (and during) the playoffs, much consternation was directed towards Towns for his inability to assert himself — a rightful claim given Towns’ numbers and the series’ result. However, a Butler at full-health could have changed that narrative because healthy-Butler would have likely further asserted himself and taken some of the onus off of Towns.
This season, healthy-Butler should be back. The passivity should be gone and the plateau should break into another positive slope.
While it is optimistic to assume Butler will be that mid-season form of himself for the entirety of the season, it is certainly not outlandish. When Butler is powerful and assertive, the Wolves are an extremely difficult team to beat. Better yet, his surrounding teammates will only get more comfortable the more time they spend with him at the helm.
Butler is not just a superstar, he is a star that can still grow through a growing team-wide synergy around him.
To find additional Zone Coverage player profiles follow the below. Links to be updated throughout September.