Tag Archives: free throw rate

Checking in on the Rookies

We’re already more than 20% into the NBA season with the Bulls having played nearly one third of their road games. Let’s check the early temperatures on the Bulls’ three rookies (we didn’t forget you, Cameron Bairstow!).

Nikola Mirotic – HOT

It’s early yet, but Mirotic has been a revelation for Tom Thibodeau with Taj Gibson on the shelf indefinitely due to a severe ankle sprain. While Niko was drafted in 2011 and is 23 years old, it’s rare to see a rookie take to the offensive side of the game so quickly. Mirotic has been a nightmare for bench forwards to guard thus far with his mix of pump fakes, quick threes, drives to the hoop, more pump fakes, and nice dishes. While he clearly will have to learn when to pump fake and when to launch a bomb, the depth of Mirotic’s skill-set has been wildly encouraging.

Thus far, he’s shooting 44% on 39.5% from distance, where he takes nearly half of his field goal attempts. Yet Nikola has still accrued a .413 free throw rate, a top-notch rate for a stretch four. He’s also shot 81.8% at the stripe, making him an extremely efficient scorer. Since Taj went down in Portland, Mirotic has played 27.6 minutes per game as the third big man. While consistency in Thibs’ defensive system will only come from lots of hard work and repetition, Mirotic’s averages of 1.0 steals and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes are through the roof. Of course he’s racking up 5.4 fouls per 36 as well, so there is plenty of room for growth.

Doug McDermott – COLD

As a four year college player and a coach’s son, McDermott was expected to be more NBA ready than the younger whippersnappers entering the league with him. Thus far, that simply hasn’t been the case. Dougie Fresh is shooting a paltry 23.1% from the three point line and has looked lost on both ends of the court more often than not. While he almost certainly is skilled at navigating screens and getting open on offense, his constant activity has created a storm of turnovers whenever he gets the ball. He’s simply not ready, or good enough, to be Kyle Korver, as sad as that may make Gar Forman. He has been surprisingly solid at getting to the rim and drawing fouls, though.

It’s obviously been a very small sample size, but Thibs is losing any trust he had in the rookie. McDermott only topped 12 minutes once on the circus road trip, in the blowout loss to Portland. McDermott will have to keep working in practice to earn Thibodeau’s trust back and make the most of the limited minutes that he’s still getting (pour one out for Tony Snell). You shouldn’t close the book on Doug, but there are many who never would’ve chosen to read this one to begin with.

Cameron Bairstow – What’s Cooler Than Being Cool?

Ice Cold! Not that we expected much out of Bairstow after last year’s misguided optimism over Erik Murphy, but he looks beyond terrible out there. When Cameron was inexplicably forced into starting duty with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson out of the lineup, he struggled to make an impact on either side of the floor. His jump shot is uglier than James Harden’s feet. He will be out of the league by this time next season.

The Butler: An Unexpected Journey

Jimmy Butler has been a fan favorite for most of his Bulls career, but it wasn’t until this season that he’s played like a true All-Star on both ends of the floor. I won’t get into his incredible life story, but it’s well worth a read if you’re unfamiliar. Most players as talented as Jimmy are great offensive players who take longer to become consistent defenders, if ever (like James Harden or Carmelo Anthony). Butler is the rare player who came out of the gate as an elite defender and has, early on this season, developed into a high level offensive player as well.

While the Bulls are no doubt ecstatic about this development, it has come at a particularly opportune time for Butler financially. In the NBA, first round picks are under cheap, cost-controlled rookie contracts for their first four seasons. The deadline for teams to agree to extensions with these players is on Halloween of their fourth season. (You might remember Taj Gibson receiving his contract extension at the buzzer two seasons ago). After Jimmy’s extremely disappointing campaign on the offensive end last year (which we’re about to dig into), the Bulls were hesitant to hand Butler the $12 million per year plus he wanted. With Butler on the shelf to start the year, the two sides agreed it would be mutually beneficial to revisit contract talks after the season.

jimmy butler

Of course, this could be horrific for Bulls fans. After the season, Butler will be a restricted free agent, where any team can sign him to an offer sheet that the Bulls will have the ability to match. While the Bulls have expressed that they’re happy to match a big contract if Jimmy is worth it, one only needs to look at Houston, Dallas and Chandler Parsons to see how dicey things can get when a savvy team gets creative with the offer sheet. In fact, stay in Houston for a moment and you’ll remember that the Bulls lost Omer Asik to a backloaded offer sheet that had more consequences for Chicago than Houston. The Bulls’ front office was confident about retaining Asik as well.

If Butler keeps up his current level of play, the Bulls will likely match a maximum offer sheet, especially if Derrick Rose’s health issues exacerbate and it becomes time to consider building around other young players like Butler. Let’s take a look at how Butler’s game has gone on the titular unexpected journey towards stardom. Here are Jimmy’s traditional box score statistics over the last three seasons (he didn’t get much run his rookie year):

(stats via Basketball-Reference)
(stats via Basketball-Reference)

The numbers that stand out first are the constant increases in scoring. What’s important to note is that Butler’s minutes increased by nearly 50% from 2012-13 to 2013-14 but have remained at the same insanely high level for this season. He’s fluctuated wildly in terms of efficiency from range, but this season’s small sample size is probably the most indicative of his true rate. While Jimmy’s not bricking his threes this year, he’s upped his scoring in multiple ways. Originally thought to have the ceiling of a “3 and D” guy who could lock down top scorers and knock down shots from the corners, Butler has instead become a dynamic playmaker.

To really dig in, we need to look at the advanced stats, which are actually quite simple. Usage % is an estimate of the possessions that a player uses while he’s on the floor. With five guys on each team, an average usage rate would be 20%. Free throw rate (FTr) is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt; it tells us how proficient a guy is at getting to the charity stripe. Three point attempt % (3PA%) is the percentage of FG attempts that come from long distance. Assist, rebound and steal rate measure how often a player accrues those statistics. Finally, Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WP/48) quantifies the number of “wins” a player contributes on a per game basis. It’s a stat that encompasses many aspects of the game and the career leaders are MJ, David Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, Chris Paul and LeBron. (All advanced stats besides FT rate do not include Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets):

stats via Basketball-Reference
(stats via Basketball-Reference)

The most shocking development in Jimmy’s game has been his usage rate. For his first three seasons in the league, Butler was a markedly below average player in terms of volume on offense. At times last season he would disappear for entire halves. Of course Butler was playing through turf toe, but his role was severely diminished regardless. Jimmy has not just been an important part of the offense this year; he’s been the integral part. Using almost 23% of possessions has made Butler the first or second option most nights on a team that has played far more often than not without its highest usage player (Derrick Rose).

Key to Butler’s increased volume has been the efficiency coming with it. On last season’s anemic Bulls squad, Jimmy took a very high 34.6% of his field goal attempts from long distance. Because he shot so poorly from range, he brought very little value on the offensive side of the floor. By bringing that number under 20% in the early part of this season, Butler has regained his efficiency through a vastly improved post game and constant activity cutting and driving to the basket. Furthermore, taking less contested jumpers has brought Jimmy’s three point percentage up to a more acceptable 33%.

Of course, the most important part of Jimmy Butler’s emerging offensive game is his ridiculous free throw rate. After setting a career high with 18 free throws made in 20 attempts in Denver, Butler’s free throw rate now stands at .588 which is higher than DeMarcus Cousins and free throw legend James Harden!!! It’s no wonder Stacey King loves comparing Butler to Harden (.579 FT rate). Getting to the stripe has always been a big part of Jimmy’s game, but it’s been a delight seeing him continue to rack up free throws as his volume increases so significantly.

Finally, we can see by using WS/48 that Butler may truly be ready to join the league’s elite. Going into Tuesday’s loss to Denver, his WS/48 of .209 would have ranked in the top ten in 2013-14 and is notably higher than his two previous seasons. Combining Jimmy’s constant All-NBA defense with his improved offensive game is lethal. If Butler can keep up what he’s shown thus far, he’ll be a no-brainer All-NBA and maximum contract player.