The Case For Jimmy Butler As A Franchise Player

(Photo Credit: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
(Photo Credit: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

(Originally published on The Bulls Zone)

There’s been a lot of offseason bickering about whether or not Jimmy Butler can be the alpha dog you build a team around.  Many fans believe that Butler is, at best, a B-player and the Bulls need to pursue an alpha dog.  Some fans even believe that Derrick Rose is still that alpha dog after multiple knee injuries.  It’s become somewhat divisive among fans.  Some believe the Bulls should sell high on Butler and pursue a total rebuild.  Some fans are even clamoring for Derrick Rose to continue being the long-term solution and are maintaining loyalty to the former MVP.  Either way, the Bulls have the alpha dog many fans are searching for and his name is Jimmy Butler.

It’s easy to dismiss Jimmy Butler as a franchise player.  He wasn’t a big name in college, he began as a role player, and as such, he’s been generally dismissed as a potential franchise player.  When I define a franchise player, I want him to be all about the team, super competitive, have the ability to make his teammates better, and to be self-driven.  Basically, all of those qualities describe Michael Jordan, who took them to new heights, and they used to describe Derrick Rose before the injuries.  Jimmy Butler meets all of those criteria.  He wants to win a title and is super competitive.  Here’s a recent quote from him:

“I don’t want to be working out in May next year, I want to be playing for a championship.” – Jimmy Butler

— Athletic Gaines (@AthleticGaines) May 24, 2016

In training camp last year, Doug McDermott mentioned how Jimmy Butler dragged him out of bed at 5am in the summer to workout. He wanted to help McDermott get better and invited him out to workout with him. Here’s the tweet from KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

McDermott joined Butler’s offseason workouts for 2 weeks in San Diego. Said Butler would wake him up at 5 am even tho alarm set for 515.

— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) October 1, 2015

McDermott also said it didn’t feel like Butler was on their team during scrimmages because of his competitive mentality in this article from CSN’s Vincent Goodwill:

“It didn’t feel like he was on our team for a second,” McDermott said. “Talking crap to all of us. That’s just kind of the way he is. He has a completely different mindset. He really wants to win. It’s been really obvious the first few days of practice.”

This is the type of guy I want representing my franchise.  But all of those qualities don’t mean anything if the production doesn’t back up the talk.  Butler’s does.  Jimmy Butler had a season only two other Chicago Bulls have ever had averaging at least 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists.  Who were the other two guys?  Michael Jordan (11 times) and Scottie Pippen (4 times).  That’s pretty nice company.  Both Jordan and Pippen were clearly franchise players.  Butler, statistically, broke into that exclusive group with those two legends.  Also, Butler was one of six players this season that averaged at least 20 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 steal: Steph Curry, Lebron James, James Harden, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook were the other five.  Do you notice anything about those guys?  They’re all franchise players and superstars.  Butler was in that elite group this season.

Many fans will argue that his stats were the lowest amongst his peers, but let’s put those numbers into perspective: Of all those players on that list, Jimmy Butler has the lowest USG%.  In fact, Butler was third on the Bulls this season in usage behind Derrick Rose and narrowly behind Pau Gasol.  Of all players this season that played 60 games, Jimmy Butler was 43rd in usage behind guys like Zach Randolph, Ryan Anderson, Jamal Crawford, Charlie Villanueva, Mareese Speights, and Trey Burke to name a few.  Also, Butler found his usage drop as the season progressed: Before the All-Star break his USG% was 24.9 and after the All-Star break it dropped to 23.4, which was actually 3rd (4th if you count Bairstow’s limited playing time). He had dropped behind Rose, Gasol, and Aaron Brooks.  When you consider his lower usage rate compared to his peers, it’s pretty impressive that he had the season he had.  Rose had the highest usage rate on the Bulls, put was 151st in PER amongst NBA players that played at least 60 games. What if the Bulls utilized him more this season?   What if the team truly ran things through Butler? Would things have been different?  We’ll never know.

We also saw a small sample size of Butler being the man without Derrick Rose this season.  Without Rose, the Bulls were 9-2 and Jimmy Butler averaged 27.7 ppg, 7.2 reb, 7 ast, 1.4 stl, on 50.5 percent FG, 38.2 percent 3pt, and 82 percent FT.  To put that into perspective, nobody averaged 27/7/7 this season and it’s only happened 15 times in NBA history.  I don’t think that stat line is sustainable, but I’d love to find out before trading him for someone like Blake Griffin (who I think has peaked and is overrated).  What if he settled on something like 25/5/5?  Only Steph, Lebron, Harden, and Kevin Durant averaged that this season.  That’s elite company and totally realistic.

We’ve made it this far without mentioning Jimmy Butler’s defense.  Defense wins championships and Jimmy Butler is a two-way force.  You could argue he’s the second best perimeter defender in the NBA today behind San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard. He was recently named All-NBA Defensive second team for the second year in a row.  Two-way players win championships.  Think back over NBA history: How many one-way players can you remember winning a championship?  Champions have to be as good on defense as they are offensively.  That’s why in the past 42 years, there have been only two champions with a defensive rating outside of the top 10.  Defense matters and you want your best player to set the tone on both ends of the floor.  D-Rose was criticized a lot this season by fans, writers, and even Bulls’ VP John Paxson for not setting the tone defensively.  Butler is able to do that and does it at a high level.

Also, remember the games Butler had without Rose this season: He had the 40 point half against Toronto53 against Philadelphia, and he secured his first two career triple-doubles (against Detroit and Philadelphia.  And some fans criticize the Bulls’ record saying they played fluff teams, which is true, but remember, the Bulls struggled against lesser opponents and they put them away.  You couldn’t always guarantee a win against these lower tiered teams even with Rose healthy.

I understand the desperation of Bulls fans to see a relevant basketball team on the court next season.  Fans want change, they want this team to be great, and they desperately want another contender.  But trading Jimmy Butler could be a huge mistake and Gar/Pax shouldn’t even consider it.  He is a franchise player and the Bulls have him secured in a long-term contract.  In “Can or Keep” on, I advocated for trading Derrick Rose and I still believe the Bulls should pursue it.  I don’t think Butler and Rose are a good pairing. Jimmy Butler needs to be the centerpiece of this franchise, but the shadow of Derrick Rose seems to hover over this franchise and will continue to do so until Derrick is gone. It’s Jimmy’s time.  The Bulls found a diamond in the rough five years ago and it’s time to let that diamond shine.

Brandon Pence is the founder/editor emeritus of “The Bulls Charge.”  You can follow him on Twitter @thebullscharge.

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