To this day, attempting to comprehend how Jimmy Butler managed to transform himself from a fringe role player to a fully fledged All-Star is a difficult task. Given how far he's come, it's hard to imagine that Butler can continue to build his game as he embarks on his prime years. At some point, the safe best is to assume he'll eventually stop defying the odds, but who's to say it's not possible?
Breaking out last season by evolving into 20 point scorer, Butler extended his offensive output in 2015-16, taking on a larger role as a primary ball handler within the Bulls' halfcourt offense. Increasing his usage and distributing the ball more on dribble penetration, Butler continued his emergence into a complete offensive force, capable of being a triple threat for defenses to fear.
Even with these individual improvements, the recent focus surrounding Butler has been his unwillingness to adapt to Fred Hoiberg's desired style of play, which has led to criticism questioning Butler's desire to do what's best for his team.
For better or worse, Butler is who he is. We're unlikely to see a seismic shift in Butler's offensive approach. Reshaping the slow and methodical, isolation based approach where he chooses to dominate the ball, to a quick and dynamic style with more movement, will not happen. Because of this, Hoiberg will need to reconfigure an offensive game plan that adapts to Butler's style of play. At the very least, they must come to some compromise, in order to make things work.
Butler, too, must work on some minor flaws that currently exist if he's to take the next level to justify an entire offensive system to be geared to his strengths. Focusing on Butler's game and picking up on the smaller tendencies that must be ironed out, minimizing the use of the following bad habits will ensure Butler's growth into a complete offensive weapon continues, particularly if his desire to play more as point guard transpires.
Stop With The Jump Passes
I'll be upfront. When a guard barrels into the paint with intention of getting to the hoop for their own score, but then decides to pass at the last moment, often results in a turnover. And it may be my biggest pet peeve in basketball. Every high school coach harps against the jump pass, drilling players not leave the ground unless we're certain a move can be completed. It defies logic that the star's of the league continue to commit this basic basketball taboo.
I'm not sure why player's fall in love with leaving the ground without having a plan. Perhaps they're bored in making the simple, routine play that will keep coaches happy? Maybe they need more excitement and variability in a long and mundane NBA that making such a move is their form of a mid-air expression?
I don't know what the reason is, but I do know that I get angry when it occurs, even if it works.
A move that has virtually been patented by Derrick Rose over the years, Butler's increased usage has seen him handling the ball more as a playmaker, which has resulted in more turnovers coming from forcing the issue on drives and searching for a bailout assist.
As a dribble-penetrating guard whose focus is to attack a rim with full ferocity, the tunnel vision that comes with this objective can quickly lead to incorrect decisions and reckless attempts at aerial acrobatics. Realizing this whilst airborne, a player will look to correct the initial mistake - the drive - by forcing a pass that must be executed in a split second. Not only does this increase the likelihood of a turnover, but a player's teammates are likely not in position to receive a pass as the assumption of a shot being taken is made.
In the following clip, on the road against the Phoenix Suns, Butler and Pau Gasol initiate a basic high pick-and-roll. Charging into the lane with only the intention of scoring, Butler realizes that Tyson Chandler has covered his penetration perfectly, coercing a change of mind, and ultimately a turnover.
On this occasion, Butler needs to understand when an efficient layup attempt is on offer. Without having a step on his man and the penetration being defended well, the erroneous decision to attempt a driving layup was compounded further by throwing a pass mid-air without assessing the position of all other player's in the offensive set.
Sure, there are times when the jump pass is unavoidable. But if Butler must push forward for a layup that can't be completed, an option exists to pick up his dribble for an up-fake to get Chandler in the air, then powering into a shot that draws contact and free throws. Even better, evaluating the situation earlier and keeping his dribble alive - like all good point guards do - would allow Butler to initiate another shot attempt by simply choosing not to jump and pass when a perceived option is nonexistent.
Keeping The Dribble Alive
Subsequently, another aspect of his game that Butler needs to quickly cut out is the habit of making a move that doesn't produce the desired result, then accepting defeat by killing off your dribble.
Submitting to good defense by picking up your dribble and forcing yourself to remain flat footed in one position is never a good idea against the elite defenders Butler typically must navigate through. By giving up his dribble, not only is he helping his defender complete his job, it requires Butler's teammates to react to his trapped position and to help by moving towards him, which is something the Bulls struggled immensely with all season.
Attempting a move toward the basket, Butler is defended well by Phooenix's P.J. Tucker, who is able to stay in front of Butler by moving his feet quickly enough to deny the sideline drive. Discouraged by Tucker's quality defense, Butler picks up his dribble, finding himself stuck on the block with very few options. Fortunately for the Bulls, Nikola Mirotic is in position to receive a pass from Butler for a bailout 3-point attempt, but by stopping his dribble, Butler makes the job of the defense a lot easier by reducing his potential options.
Similar to the logic Butler should have employed with the jump pass example, knowing when to attack and having a counter move is critical. Maintaining your dribble not only increases your choice of available moves to use when your first attempt fails, but by extending the play, it builds continuity in possessions and for the defense to think a lot harder when guarding Butler.
Stop Dribbling Into Corners
For year's, Butler was a key piece in Tom Thibodeau's defense that attempted to trap the opposition offense onto one side of the court, preferably on the baseline or corner. For this reason, it is rather ironic that Butler is prone to submitting himself between his defender, the corner and out of bounds.
As defense's league-wide have adopted Thibodeau's defensive principles, an understanding that a team's goal to force an offensive player into a defensive blackhole must be acknowledged. If the ball handler does not possess the dribbling skills to change direction and move the defender laterally, they'll end up trapped in a corner, which occurs in this example against the Charlotte Hornets.
Guarded by Nic Batum, who denies the middle of the floor by shaping his stance to the sideline in hope of enticing a drive, Butler takes the bait and streams to his left. Inadvertently dribbling directly into the awaiting Frank Kaminsky, Butler is now locked into the corner, who uses the baseline and the corner to act as an additional defender to trap Butler.
Fortunately for the Bulls, this play does create a mismatch, with Butler now being guarded by a power forward, enabling Nikola Mirotic post position against the smaller Batum. Picking up his dribble and caught in a corner, Butler attempts a bounce pass into Mirotic, who has failed to establish position. A turnover is caused in large part to Mirotic allowing Batum to easily maneuver past him for a steal, but the sequence of events begin with Butler assisting the defense by dribbling into a position of weakness.
Ideally, Butler should have tried harder to get into the middle of the court, be it with his own dribble or dictating where he needed the screen to be placed. If that wasn't possible and dribbling into a corner was a must, passing back out to Gasol and resetting the offense at the top of the key would have been good option. If this had occurred, Butler could have followed the ball to Gasol for a dribble hand-off and a potential driving opportunity against Gasol's man, Al Jefferson, who can taken off the dribble with ease.
Relative to most advancements we expect player’s to take, the outlined development opportunities for Butler’s continued progression are minor. Given the scale of his talent and skills, only slight improvements are likely to be made as he nears his fully formed basketball self.
Almost unnoticeable if not actively looking for them, these small adjustments will help Butler become an even more prominent offensive figure, and will help both himself and his team in developing an efficient offense, which should be the primary objective of all the key decision makers involved with the Bulls given the intolerable scoring output on display this season.