Can Jimmy Butler be the league’s Most Valuable Player?

Sam Smith looks at Jimmy Butler's season so far

By Sam Smith

It’s not as implausible as it perhaps seemed certainly last season and even a few months ago.

But with this current five game stretch in which the Bulls have won four of five and Butler is averaging a superb 28.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 3.2 steals and shooting 41.2 percent on threes, Butler is presenting the case for being more than just another All-Star.

“Just got to keep getting better, wanting to get better. Stay in the gym, stay watching film. That's where it all comes from, my work.”

Butler - after Tuesday’s dominating win in Portland.

Working has always been Butler’s business card. But this season with the Bulls 7-4 and playing the Utah Jazz Thursday, Butler is taking his game to that proverbial next level, the step that separates the stars in the league, the All-Star game attendees like Butler has been the last two seasons, sending them to the statistical stratosphere reserved for the truly elite.

Rajon Rondo with a sprained ankle remains uncertain for Thursday’s second game of the road trip. Doug McDermott is out with a concussion.

Many players can average 20 points per game in the NBA; that next step is when a player can average 25 points while also contributing to his team’s success. Butler’s current streak has he and the Bulls going there, which enables one to crack open a door to that special MVP trophy room.

Butler is averaging 24.5 points per game on the season and 6.1 rebounds, both career highs. He’s averaging 4.3 assists, his second highest and career bests in shooting at 44.7 percent on threes and 48.8 percent overall in a more player friendly 34.1 minutes per game. Butler also is in the top 15 in the league in just about every vital statistical category, displaying a versatility reserved for the best in the game.

He is 13th in scoring overall, 12th in rebounding among perimeter players and fourth in assists among forwards. He is 14th in steals and three point shooting and 15th among perimeter players in overall shooting.

Consider those last five games:

  • Portland, Nov. 15: 9-16 FGs; 1-1 threes; 8-8 FTs; 12 rebs; 5 assists; 27 points;
  • Washington, Nov. 12: 11-12 FGs; 1-3 threes; 14-14 FTs; 8 rebs; 9 assists; 3 steals; 37 points;
  • Miami, Nov. 10: 5-11 FGs; 1-2 threes; 9-10 FTs; 4 rebs; 5 assists; 3 steals: 20 points;
  • Atlanta, Nov. 9: 13-24 FGs; 4-9 threes; 9-12 FTs; 4 rebs; 7 assists; 6 steals; 39 points;
  • Orlando, Nov. 7: 5-13 FGs; 0-2 threes; 10-10 FTs; 5 rebs; 7 assists; 4 steals; 20 points.

The MVP usually is a blend of the best individual player having an excellent season while playing for one of the most successful teams. That usually means a team in at least the top four in its conference. Currently, the Bulls are tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference, just two games behind leading Atlanta and Cleveland. More significantly, at least from an offensive standpoint, the Bulls are having one of their best offensive seasons in decades thanks to Butler’s play and the philosophy of coach Fred Hoiberg.

The Bulls are averaging 106.8 points per game, the team’s most since the 1991-92 season with an offensive rating, according to basketball-reference, that is its best since the 1996-97 season. The team’s pace of play is its fastest since the 1989-90 season. More significantly, the Bulls are second in the Eastern Conference and fourth overall in the NBA in margin of victory, the most accurate barometer—though it is a small sample thus far—of long term success. A basketball-reference formula considering margin of victory and strength of schedule has the Bulls at their highest rating since the 2011-12 season when they led the league in wins.

Hoiberg’s promised faster play is succeeding even with the roster concern there was not enough shooting, spacing and young players.

Butler has been a beneficiary of those factors as well as the Dwyane Wade factor.

With Wade, a fellow former Marquette U. player whom Butler idolized, Butler is perhaps for the first time in his Bulls career in a position not only as the primary offensive option, but relieved of the stress of considering his role among his teammates.

The 30th pick in the 2011 draft, the 6-7 swingman was somewhat extraneous with the team as a rookie, averaging 2.6 points playing in half the games. He wasn’t in the rotation his second season until a Luol Deng injury forced him on the coaching staff. From there, he became a long playing iron man, but broke down each season and never played as many as 70 games since in making the All-Star team the last two seasons. Last season after signing a big contract extension with the Bulls, Butler struggled in trying to achieve a leadership position. It’s not his nature, which is more private, a model of leading by example.

Wade’s presence seems to have alleviated the pressure on Butler to concentrate on playing and performing.

It’s hardly an unusual situation on an NBA team that the leading and go to scorer would not be the leader.

Bill Russell was the leader on the dynasty Boston Celtics as Sam Jones and then John Havlicek were the scorers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the finisher while Magic Johnson was the leader on the champion Lakers.

Wade is one of the most commanding and respected figures in the NBA, and Butler often speaks of seeking advice, assurance and acceptance from Wade.

“I knew he was a guy who goes hard both ends of the floor. Now it’s for me teaching him little things I know to help him as a scorer, to be even more efficient and effective. He and I talk a lot about different ways he can get his shot off, different ways because he is going to be isoing for us. It’s hard. He’s not going to just walk out there and get those numbers. He’s going to be tired at the end of the night. But he can do that on a consistent basis. He knows we have his back and the nights he doesn’t have it we’re going to have to pick him up and have nights. But he is leading us.”

Wade, on Butler

That’s been clear, and why Butler can begin to make the case, assuming the Bulls continue to have a successful season, to be in that MVP conversation.

Here’s a look at the other early season favorites for MVP:

1. LeBron James. The Cavs star should be the leader even though his scoring is down and he’s deferred more to Kyrie Irving. He runs the offense and with 8.9 rebounds and 9.6 assists close to that elusive season triple double.

2. Russell Westbrook. If anyone can get that season triple double, it’s Westbrook averaging almost 10 assists and 10 rebounds with more than 30 points in an Oscar-like season. The question is whether his team can sustain successfully, which seems questionable. If your team isn’t in the top four in the conference, you’re usually out of the MVP running. This isn’t baseball.

3. Kevin Durant. Voters probably have Stephen Curry fatigue after two MVPs, though with Curry’s presence they’ll likely divide the vote enough that Durant probably isn’t a serious contender even as the Warriors again should win at least 60 games. Similarly, Blake Griffin could also slice off some Chris Paul votes.

4. Chris Paul. The Clippers have been the West’s most dominant team and Paul has to begin answering those questions of playoff substance. He’s been putting up career high shooting and rebounding numbers while being among the leaders in assists.

5. Kawhi Leonard. He’s moved up like Butler into that unexpected role of both leading scorer and most valuable defender. The Spurs probably aren’t the dominant force they have been, but should be top four. He’s also become a 40 percent three-point shooter while averaging 25 points with an impact for his team similar to Butler’s. Butler should contest Leonard with others like DeMar Derozan, Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard and James Harden getting consideration depending on how well their teams finish.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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