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Jimmy Butler and analytics: Defying the myth

NBA Insider
Jimmy Butler
NBC Sports

Jimmy Butler delivered an NBA Finals masterpiece on Sunday night to put the Miami Heat on the board 2-1 in the series. It wasn’t just that he posted a 40-point triple-double, it was how he did it. Butler was the first player to score at least 40 points in an NBA Finals game without attempting a 3-pointer since Shaquille O’Neal in 2002. 

In an era where wing players are universally expected to launch 3-pointers because of quantitative insights, Butler’s style of play stuck out as a cudgel against analytics.

While Butler was taking over the game in the first half, ABC broadcaster Mike Breen made reference to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra labeling Butler as an anti-analytics player. A discussion about Butler’s competitive fire and intangibles ensued. The actual quote from Spoelstra came during a Game 1 pregame press conference in which he said of Butler, “He's the anti-analytics guy because he can't really, you can't put a number to how much he impacts winning.”

Fran Fraschilla, ESPN’s college basketball analyst and international scout/guru (and a great one at that, I might add), tweeted out a similar portrait that painted Butler as some sort of intangible wizard.

“Analytics are for the regular season. The playoffs are about competitive spirit,” Fraschilla tweeted, relaying the words of long-time NBA assistant coach Gordon Chiesa who last worked in the NBA in 2004-05. 

This type of rhetoric surrounding Butler needs to end. Butler is a hero in the analytics community. If anything, it was traditional evaluation methods -- not modern analytics -- that vastly underappreciated Butler. 

 

It wasn’t analytics that kept Butler from being recruited heavily in high school and forced him to go the junior college route. It wasn’t analytics that left him off first, second and third team All-Big East at Marquette (the trusty coaches did that). It wasn’t analytics that made him the last pick of the first round in the 2011 NBA Draft. 

The truth is, if willpower and competitive spirit are traits that only grizzled scouts and old-school coaches can detect, they certainly weren’t doing a good job of seeing these things in Butler.

But the analytics believed in Butler. The Tomball, TX., native was a darling of the analytics community well before he stepped foot in the NBA. His reputation has only caught up to what the numbers projected.

In his junior year at Marquette, Butler averaged a pedestrian 14.7 points and 6.4 rebounds for a team that finished fifth in the Big East -- nothing mind-blowing. However, analytical measures loved his game. 

In 2009-10, Butler ranked No. 1 in the NCAA in Offensive Rating thanks to his impressive shooting percentages, keen ability to get to the line and microscopic turnover rate. Synergy Sports tracking mirrored that assessment that season, placing him in the 97th percentile in efficiency. Butler ranked fifth in PER (Player Efficiency Rating) ahead of Syracuse’s Wesley Johnson (No. 4 pick in the 2010 Draft) and Georgetown’s Greg Monroe (No. 7). 

And yet, Big East coaches left Butler off every single All-Big East team. Nine Big East players were drafted into the NBA after that season. Butler wasn’t one of them. 

With little to no NBA buzz, Butler decided to return to Marquette. Heading into his senior year, DraftExpress wrote this line in Butler’s draft stock profile: “Arguably the most efficient offensive wing in the NCAA last season, if Butler takes another step forward he could garner some NBA attention.”

Read that again. Arguably the most efficient offensive wing in the NCAA. The analytics saw Butler as one of the top players in all of college basketball and yet, talent evaluators weren’t on board with Butler having an NBA future. Big East coaches gave him an honorable mention certificate along with Notre Dame’s Tim Abromaitis and Providence’s Jamine Peterson.

In Butler’s senior year, he went back to work. The story was much of the same: high efficiency, low accolades. His efficiency ranked in the 98th percentile, per Synergy, but Butler was again named merely honorable mention in the Big East while the posting second-highest Offensive Rating and the seventh-highest PER in the conference. Dogged by a supposed lack of athleticism, Butler went 30th in the 2011 NBA Draft to the Chicago Bulls. Even the Miami Heat passed on Butler.

In the NBA, the analytics continued to see more than the conventional wisdom did.

 

Butler’s analytical superpower

Butler joined a juggernaut Bulls team that won 62 games the year before. In his rookie season, Butler struggled to get off the bench and his traditional box-score numbers didn’t scream “star.” 

By conventional methods, you would have never have guessed by his early NBA work that Butler possessed an elite offensive quality to his game -- getting to the free throw line. In 2011-12, Butler averaged just 1.3 free throws per game, which ranked 10th on his own team. 

But the analytics shed light on this premiere aspect to Butler’s style of play. If you accounted for playing time by adjusting his free throws to a per-36-minute scale, you find that Butler’s free throw rate (5.6 free throw attempts per 36 minutes) ranked second only to Derrick Rose on the Bulls -- the guy coming off an MVP season. 

But even per-36-minute stats underrated this Butler skill. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau played an extremely slow brand of basketball that artificially deflated per-game as well as per-minute measures. Players only had so many possessions to put up numbers. But on a per-possession basis, Butler racked up 8.4 free throws per 100 possessions, which topped all rookies that season. In fact, to this day, Chris Paul and Luka Doncic are the only active guards who have posted higher free throw rates than Butler during their rookie season, per Stathead.com.

Butler may not have a knockdown 3-point shot, but it was clear he possessed something that the analytical community holds even more dear: the ability to draw fouls. It’s a wild exaggeration to believe that analytics only believes in 3-pointers. It’s far more accurate to say the analytics community likes 3-pointers, but they love free throws. 

It’s simple math. Using today’s percentages, the average 3-point attempt yields 1.07 points, but the average free throw trip is 1.55 points. It doesn’t take a MENSA member to see why the Houston Rockets went so hard after James Harden and why they aggressively pursued Butler before Miami got him.

Butler’s time at Marquette and early years in Chicago suggested that he was elite at one of the  analytical pillars -- getting fouled. In his final season at Marquette, Butler finished second only to Kemba Walker in made free throws. But that skill was overlooked when he became a role player in Chicago. By the time he was handed the reins of the Chicago offense, Butler’s ability to draw fouls shined through. In 2016-17, he ranked third in free throw attempts in the NBA behind James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

 

Butler’s free throw rates dipped slightly in Minnesota and Philadelphia, but they have roared back in Miami. Shane Battier, who runs the analytics department for the Heat, owes much of his affinity for the numbers to his time with the Rockets under GM Daryl Morey and Morey’s then-second-in-command, Sam Hinkie. In Miami’s offense, Butler is having a banner year at the line, averaging a career-high 9.1 free throw attempts per game, which is more than Dwyane Wade and LeBron James did in any season during the Big Three era.

And sure enough, Butler, in his first Finals, is leading all players in free throws -- making more than James and Anthony Davis combined. 

Butler, always a major plus

The analytical community loves Butler for other reasons, too. When basketball purists say you can’t measure heart, championship DNA or desire to win, don’t believe them. These are all intangibles that can be tracked in different ways. Would most basketball people say Butler is more clutch than Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant or Damian Lillard? Maybe not. But as I wrote last month, Butler ranks third among all active players in career clutch win probability added -- beating out Irving, Durant and Lillard in late-game prestige.

Butler makes winning plays that don’t pop up in the traditional box score. Do that enough in the long run and it’ll show up in your plus-minus. And this is where Butler’s analytical prowess truly rises to the surface.

One measuring stick in the analytical toolbox hinted at Butler’s intangibles becoming tangible: his on-court/off-court analytics. When Butler was on the floor in his rookie season, the Bulls outscored opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions. When he sat the bench, that fell to 8.3 points per 100 possessions. Most of this improvement could be found on the defensive end, which is a notorious blind spot of the box score.

This was the start of an incredible run of raising his team’s level of play. According to Basketball Reference tracking, Butler’s teams have done better with him on the floor than with him on the bench in each and every season of his nine-year career -- even before he was considered a go-to player. That’s not something that fellow 2011 draftees Irving, Kemba Walker and Kawhi Leonard can claim. Again, analytics were able to track Butler’s subtle greatness and ability to excel in between the lines.

Butler is one of the best players in the NBA if you look at the all-in-one metrics that fall under the “analytics” umbrella. This season, Butler ranked top-ten in win shares, BPM and VORP. One measure called RAPM (regularized adjusted plus-minus), has him as a top-six player over the last five seasons, ranking only behind Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Joel Embiid and Kyle Lowry.

 

What we’re really talking about with Butler

Butler has been beloved by the advanced stats throughout his collegiate and NBA career, so why is there any assumption that he’s an anti-analytics guy? 

It probably comes down to his 3-point shooting, or lack thereof. Butler doesn’t take many 3s and he’s not particularly good at making them. In the regular season, Butler shot 24 percent from downtown on 2.1 attempts per game. Bucks center Robin Lopez made more 3-pointers this season than Butler. Again, Robin Lopez. Not Brook.

For some reason, the term analytics too often has become a reductive way to say “More 3-pointers!” But taking and making 3-pointers is just one component of effective analytical strategy. In the same way, vegetables are good for you, but nutritionists aren’t demanding everyone to eat only piles of Brussels sprouts.

Butler eats his veggies and gets his nutrition in other ways. He compensates for his lack of 3s by attacking the rim (super efficient) and getting to the free throw line without coughing up the ball at a high rate. He has an elite ability to draw contact when he needs to and create space when he doesn’t. That last skill makes him a lethal force in clutch situations, something that analytics have highlighted.

It’s a complete myth that analytics are incapable of capturing things that make Butler a “winner.” On the contrary, this is precisely why analytics exist. Analytics is simply the study of what wins. Butler may not shoot 3-pointers, but he’s a case study in why analytics isn’t just about 3-pointers.

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