An Ode to Jimmy Butler

In 1912, legend has it that the eight-member band aboard the Titanic kept playing their instruments in an effort to keep passengers calm, despite knowing that the ship was sinking. In 2019, Jimmy Butler saw the Minnesota Timberwolves sinking…and he got the hell out of there.

While showing up to your job and berating your teammates isn’t the most professional move, Butler made it clear that he had no time for losing. The five-time All-Star is not your typical max player, he’s not your typical shooting guard, but he is a winner—just ask the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Granted, Ben Simmons’ injury was a major contributing factor to the Sixers’ disappointing postseason, however, the numbers show that Butler’s exit after last season might’ve had an even greater impact. This season, the 76ers’ best five-man lineup of Simmons, Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson outscored opponents by 44 points over 246 minutes of play. Compare that to the 2018–2019 season, where their top lineup of Simmons, Embiid, Butler, JJ Redick, and Wilson Chandler was +82 over 293 minutes of play. And truth be told, if it wasn’t for Kawhi Leonard’s unbelievable late-game shot during the conference semifinals, the 76ers could’ve been the team playing for an NBA Finals berth instead of the Toronto Raptors.

Butler’s annual salary is top-20 in the league, even though his career average in points per game (17.0) ranks in the bottom third of that group. Unlike your favorite superstar, Butler stans travel to the “misc” and “hustle” sections of NBA stats to get their Jimmy Buckets fix, but do the Miami Heat care? No…they don’t. Butler’s performance this postseason is a big part of the reason they’re just one win away from the conference finals.

Always a threat from the midrange, Butler’s offense features many trips to the free-throw line (9.5) and second-chance points that come from offensive rebounds (2.2). The typical shooting guard might not get 41.3% of his points in the paint, but Butler excels in absorbing contact and coming out on top. Per cleaning the glass, this postseason, Butler ranks in the 77th percentile in points per shot attempt, and within the 100th percentile in both shot-fouled percentage and offensive rebounding field goal percentage.

The key to Butler’s high free-throw rate is patience and strength. He’s savvy enough to draw whistles from the refs, and he’s earned enough respect in the league to garner the occasional star call or two. He’s also strong enough to keep possession of the ball as he elevates to the rim when defenders try to swipe it away. Currently, Butler ranks fourth in the playoffs in free-throw attempts, and with the exception of Anthony Davis, everyone above him has exited the postseason bubble.

Midrange game aside, Butler is shooting 44% from the three-point line, albeit on just under two attempts per game. And while it’s quite possible that the mystical powers of the bubble, which have increased just about everyone’s shooting percentages, have given this career 33% three-point shooter the Mario Kart-star boost, Butler is hitting these shots when it matters most (more on that later).

Maybe the strongest indicator of Butler’s grit is his ability to follow shots, whether they’re his own or his teammates’. Possessions matter so much in the postseason, and Butler’s ability to extend plays and give his team second-chance points is so important to the Heat’s success. The box-out may be a dying art, but not with Butler. As a Knicks fan, I remember when statisticians started crediting Tyson Chandler with all the tap-out rebounds he accumulated during the 2012–2013 season. Likewise, Butler is adept at tapping errant shots into space, either to himself or to a teammate.

Outside of offensive rebounding and free throws, Butler’s playmaking has also been on display this postseason. Back in March, Butler essentially told the world on J.J. Reddick’s podcast that, last postseason, Sixers head coach Brett Brown took the ball out of Ben Simmons’ hands and made Butler the primary ballhandler, especially in the fourth quarter. For his part, Butler was ninth overall in points per possession as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, and fourth among shooting guards.

This postseason, Butler’s playmaking is a big part of why Tyler Herro is becoming a household name. Herro’s true shooting percentage during the playoffs is at 59%, up from 55% during the regular season. Herro’s scoring average has, accordingly, seen an uptick, going from 13.5 points per game to 16.6. Of course, give Herro credit for his positioning, quick release, and confidence to hit shots. Still, Butler’s ability to hit shooters, right in the shooting pocket is a major plus. 

The last video in this group has nothing to do with Herro, but it’s still a sick pass to set up an easy layup for Goran Dragic.

And of course, you can’t talk Jimmy Butler without extolling his defense. Per cleaning the glass, Butler is in the 80th percentile in block percentage and the 93rd percentile in steal percentage. Averaging over two steals per game this postseason, Butler has put on nightly clinics on how to keep your hands active on defense and how to jump passing lanes. As a team, the Miami Heat are fourth in points off turnovers (17.3). And for a team that was 15th during the regular season in points per game, the phrase “defense leads to offense” is just not just a cliché in South Beach.

Finally, as Paul George found out the hard way, you actually have to play well when the pressure is on and lights are at their brightest. This postseason, Butler is shooting 58.8% from the field, 89.5% from the free-throw line, and is a +4.1 on the floor during clutch possessions (per NBAstats). The clips below feature two shots from Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals that were just ice cold, especially the drive-and-finish over a long defender in Jayson Tatum. But as you’ll see, Butler’s clutch shots in the fourth quarter come from every part of the court.

Butler was an All-NBA third-team selection this season, the third time he’s made All-NBA in his career. During an era of basketball where analytics departments feverishly track three-point attempts, Butler has carved a different path. Butler is one of three players in NBA history to average 20 points per game, five rebounds, four assists, and two steals, while shooting at least 45% from the floor and over 40% from the three-point line (minimum 10 games played). The other two players were Larry Bird and Stephen Curry. Butler has finally found his niche in Miami, and in just his first season there, the rest of the NBA has been put on notice. The next time you hear Butler’s name and “the band kept playing” in the same sentence, it might just be during a Miami Heat championship parade.

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