The Early-Season Unselfishness of Jimmy Butler

photo via David Sherman, Getty Images

Let’s talk about Jimmy Butler.

More specifically, let’s talk about how he’s played his first three games in a Minnesota Timberwolves uniform. While Butler’s stats are not yet up to his career norms — he’s averaging just 13.3 points per game on 39.5 percent shooting — the thing that has stood out in his (very) early-season play is his unselfishness. Butler, the newbie in the Wolves new core, has played each game with a conspicuous intent on setting his teammates up for good shots while forcing no bad ones of his own. More than any other “eye test” observation through three games, I find this to be the one with the greatest implications for the team’s future.

Is Butler’s unselfishness a surprise?

Yeah, sort of.

Butler gained a reputation as a “playmaking wing” in Chicago. His average assists per game increased in all six of his first NBA seasons, maxing out last year at 5.5 per game. After trading for him, Tom Thibodeau correctly called Butler one of the league’s best playmaking wings. That Thibs followed up the Butler acquisition by trading away his pure-passer point guard, Ricky Rubio, sent a strong signal that he planned to orchestrate his half-court offense around his new wing’s passing abilities.

But even with that in mind, Butler was a an All-NBA performer last season who — along with the 5.5 assists — scored a whopping 23.9 points per game, good for 14th in the entire league. When pundits discussed this new-look Wolves team, a natural consensus formed that went something like this: “Jimmy Butler and Karl Towns are the team’s first options. The offense will run through them, and the biggest question mark is whether Andrew Wiggins can find ways other than scoring to help his team win.”

Perhaps more illustrating than his points per game drop is his usage rate of 20.2 percent, which would mark his lowest since the 2013-14 season. I don’t think many people expected to see Butler defer to both Towns and Wiggins as much as he has through three games.

Is Butler’s unselfishness a good or bad thing?

Let’s begin with the argument for why Butler’s early-season unselfishness might be a bad thing. Or put differently, why Butler has possibly been “unselfish to a fault” through three games.

When Butler has been on the floor, the Wolves offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) is just 104.1. That isn’t very good — last season, it would’ve ranked 22nd in the league (ironically, right after Butler’s Bulls who ranked 21st at 104.6). Butler’s individual stats have a clear area where his early-season performance is dragging behind his typical averages: free throws.

Through 3 games, Butler has attempted a total of 3 free throws. Last season, Butler got to the line at will, shooting 676 free throws (8.9 per game), which was good for third in the NBA. If Butler was making the same 7.7 free throws per game that he made last year, instead of the 1.0 that he’s made so far, his overall points per game would be up to 20. Assuming those additional points came at little expense to his teammates’ scoring, that offensive rating would likewise climb up to a more respectable number.

But that assumption might not be a reasonable one, and I think Butler’s style of play has actually been a really good thing to see for a few different reasons.

First, any dissection of the Wolves offensive stats needs to take their opposition into consideration. The Wolves have faced the Spurs, Jazz, and Thunder so far. Those teams were respectively ranked 1st, 3rd, and 10th in defense last year. In the Utah game specifically, they had Rudy Gobert patrolling the paint and deterring dribble penetration better than any other defender in the league. That Butler deferred to jumpshooting teammate Jamal Crawford down the stretch was probably wise, even removing the 20/20 hindsight of J-Crossover’s heroic night from the equation. Therefore, it kind of stands to reason that the Wolves’ offensive stats are going to skew on the low side after this three-game sampling. Scoring numbers should pick up after a few matchups with the Lakers and Suns.

Second, Butler is playing next to a pair of not only incredibly capable, but incredibly anxious scorers. Karl-Anthony Towns is the franchise player, the guy a plurality of general managers would choose first if they were starting a franchise today. Andrew Wiggins is a score-first (second and third) wing who averaged almost 24 points per game last season and just signed the most polarizing max contract in the league. Both players need shots to contribute. From my psycho-analytical vantage point, I think Towns is more stats-conscious (friendly phrasing for “selfish”) than Wiggins, but that might just be blaming him for his own immense talent. While Towns clearly has the ability to be both scorer and effective passer, it sometimes seems as if Wiggins is best suited to just attack and shoot, rather than risk turnovers with more complex decision-making. Whenever KAT forces a shot — and through three games, he has forced a lot of bad ones — it’s hard not to think he could’ve done something simpler and better for the team.

Whatever their motivations, these two guys need the ball and Butler is giving it to them. Towns is currently averaging 21.7 points per game on 59.1 percent shooting. If his three-ball were dropping (he’s currently 2-9 on the season, having missed some wide open looks) that would be up a couple points even higher. Wiggins, the player with the biggest question marks coming into this season, is leading the team at 24.7 points per game. He’s been the biggest beneficiary of the Butler unselfishness. Butler has purposefully drawn defenders before slipping passes to a cutting Wiggins for dunks, and to a spotted-up Wiggins for open three-point shots. Their chemistry is still developing but already something for defenses to worry about.

Third, and most importantly, Butler’s unselfish style of play is great leadership by example for a team that could greatly benefit from it. This sort of thing is infectious, particularly when it correlates with winning games as the Wolves have managed to do against a difficult schedule. If Butler’s team-first approach has a lasting impact on Towns and Wiggins, it will do wonders for this team’s development and its culture.

To this one might say that they already had Rubio, who was as unselfish a player as any in the league today, but that would miss the point. Rubio passes because he’s a passer; it’s the thing he’s great at and the reason he plays professional basketball at all. Butler, on the other hand, is a multi-tooled superstar, fresh off an All-NBA Team performance, who can do whatever he wants on a given possession. He is by far the current Timberwolf with the greatest stature in the league, and when he approaches teamwork the way that he has thus far, it sends a message about what it takes to win.

Will Butler’s unselfishness continue?

This entire concept of Butler — smack in the middle of his athletic prime and recently joining the ranks of “NBA Superstar” — joining 21-year old Karl-Anthony Towns and 22-year old Andrew Wiggins is fascinating and difficult to place in historical context.

When the Celtics acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, they were all over 30 years old and on the tail ends of their prime. Unselfishness comes easier to players who have already racked up individual accolades and now only care about team goals.

When the Thunder ascended to playoff and then contender status, they were carried entirely by youngsters; they had nobody like Butler. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden were drafted in between 2007 and 2009, and were somehow playing in the 2012 NBA Finals. They barely knew what they were doing, but were just riding raw talent as far as it would take them.

Other three-star teams past and present are similarly distinguished from this Wolves group by virtue of having core players with similar age and experience. The LeBron-Wade-Bosh big three was all drafted in 2004. The current Warriors juggernaut is led by a couple 27-year olds (Klay & Draymond) and a couple 29-year olds (Steph & KD).

Aside from the early-season unselfishness on the floor, it’s hard to know where Butler’s head is at as he enters this stage of his career. He recently turned 28 years old, so it’s not like he’s nearing the end of his career or even the end of his prime, but he’s also not young by NBA standards. He’s playing at his peak, right now. Butler has a good contract, but not as good as the recent salary cap boom has allowed lesser players. He will earn about $19 Million this year and $20 Million next, before likely opting out of the final year of his deal so that he can sign another long-term contract. By then he’ll be 30 years old and facing the end of his prime. Assuming he can command it, he will be up for something absurd like a 5-year, $184 million deal, according to Business Insider.

For a player with Butler’s career (and life) history, does that looming payday factor into his on-court decision-making? And if it did, would that necessarily make him more aggressive as a scorer? This is a man who says that “God made me a dog,” but that term might be evolving from what it meant in Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s day. In the modern NBA led by Golden State, pass-first players like Draymond Green can absolutely be “dawgs,” respected for their leadership and toughness without jacking up shots to prove anything.

I don’t think anybody expects Butler to end this season with his current average of 13 points per game. He will attack the basket more aggressively and assert himself as a scorer more frequently.

But whether he does in fact maintain this early-season unselfishness and continues to defer to teammates like Towns, Wiggins, and Crawford is a big question that could have lasting impacts on his future as well as this franchise’s.

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3 Responsesso far.

  1. Tom says:

    I agree with your assessment that Jimmy is giving KAT and Wigs opportunities to score and he is focusing on doing the other things that need to be done. I also agree that he can turn it on and score more if needed. Let’s not forget that the pace of play is going to slow down with Thibs and Teague, especially when playing defenses like Utah and San Antonio.
    My one concern is KAT and Wigs adding those other parts to their game, especially passing and defense, that will allow Butler to open up his. KAT, last year finally seemed to understand that passing out of double teams didn’t hurt his scoring. This year, he seemed to have reverted back to forcing his game, and not let it just come through the offense until the second half of the OKC game. Hopefully, he will continue to let the flow of the offense guide his shot selection. I believe Butler showed with some of his clutch shooting, that he is still an elite scorer. I’m sure we will have three 20 pt scorers by January.

  2. Tom says:

    I had to add that it will be interesting to see how the Wolves do against a team they should beat. Last year, Wiggins was very good at playing the tough teams, but seemed to float during games that were against inferior talent. Tonight with Turner on concussion protocol, they are definitely playing that type of game. I think here is where Jimmy Butler makes sure that either Wiggins and others bring their A game, or he will take over and score 40 himself. His attitude will be a driving force to keep our young players from getting full of themselves and push to step on the gas and crush a team. Let’s hope that Andrew plays at least as good as he has the first three games and KAT doesn’t float outside when he should dominate in the paint.

  3. pyrrol says:

    I’ll put this simply: Butler is a good passer and facilitator from the SF/SG position, but the way he’s playing now isn’t a choice. He’s simply not playing very well. He’s a little lost out there and D intensity along with facilitating is what remains less eroded by his slump. Looking forward, he’s going to score more, he’s going to the line more. He will keep facilitating, and probably play better defense. What we are seeing isn’t some new Butler strategy to look like a clunky player on offense so he can pass more. It’s a guy struggling to fit on a new team. This is surprising because (up until the Pacers game sans Butler) Wiggins has looked very comfortable, Gibson has looked comfortable, Towns OK, Teague not that good yet. But you’d expect Butler to be one of the first to click, and he hasn’t. Yeah, on this roster he may defer a bit more, but this sample so far is a ridiculous 180 on his general approach to offense if he’s actually trying to do it out of principal.

    I heard someone say over at CH something like: “Wiggins is benefiting from not trying to be a facilitator on offense and instead being a finisher. This works to his strengths.” I found this to be a simple truth of Wiggins’ play this season. He is a poor facilitator, an average decision maker at best, and benefits from getting the ball in obvious or more easy to score situations rather than trying to be a creator. (To split hairs a bit, he’s not even that strong a finisher. I’m from the future, and without Butler to draw attention Wiggins looked bad. He couldn’t finish some layups right a the rim. And honestly, through his career we’ve seen a lot of that. Athletically, he’s capable of strong finishes, but it’s just as common for him to arm it in and even miss than it is for him to dunk when in traffic. Simply finishing wasn’t his only problem and the entire team played like butt. Still, it was interesting and unsettling to see inconsistent Wiggins come back so soon.) For this reason, any comparison between Wiggins and a player who can consistently create his own [relatively efficient] offense is not accurate. In this way, we are a team very reliant on Butler. Even if Towns is red hot, he can’t do it all. Wiggins needs a facilitator, a guy who takes up attention, and a creator/finisher to work along side. (Also from the future, we are very shallow at wing–yeah big surprise, I know. The Pacer game revealed that. We had to start Shabazz because we need Crawford on the bench and at 37 he can’t play that many minutes. It shockingly didn’t work out well to start Shabazz.) Additionally, if we are looking to Teague to alleviate any of these shortcomings, we’re barking up the wrong tree most nights. More on this later I’m sure, but guys such as Collison would have been much better and cheaper choices for PG, not to mention keeping Rubio. Collison has holes in his game but also strengths. I think he’s just as good of a passer, maybe a little better than Teague. He’s quicker—speed is his major advantage as a player. He’s really improved his shooting and is as good at that as Teague. So why did we spend so much on Teague? I think we will be asking ourselves this a lot throughout the season as PGs outplay him and we miss the facilitating and offensive organization of Rubio (despite his flaws). It isn’t so much that Teague sucks, he’ll be OK for us, but he doesn’t have one elite ability that sticks out like Rubio (Passing, Size, D) or even Collison (Speed). I guess I got off track a bit, but the point is we have holes and they are very hard to cover or improve upon with Bulter out or not up to par.

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