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Jimmy Butler, the NBA's Most Improved Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler will be named the NBA's Most Improved Player for 2015. What's remarkable about that is that he did it just by being better at being himself.
May 7, 2015, 1:45pm
Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler has been named the NBA's Most Improved Player, which is a nebulous award even by the NBA's obtuse standards. What exactly constitutes "Most Improved" is undefined. Goran Dragic won it last year, though his play didn't improve so much so much as the attention to his play did. Ryan Anderson won it before that, mainly because he played more minutes than the year prior. Butler is the rare winner who has actually improved as a basketball player, and rarer still because that improvement amounted to being better at being himself.


The second half of the first round of the average NBA Draft is littered with could-have-been's, almost-were's, and never-were's. This is where we find Euro-stash players who amount to nothing (Christian Eyenga) or college seniors whose supposedly elite skills abandoned them the moment they left school (it's all love, Wayne Ellington). This part of the draft is also home to college juniors and seniors who, for one reason or another, manifest as question marks at the next level. It could be their size, questionable athleticism, or lack of a discernible elite skill. These are still extremely good basketball players, but also players that are not great at any one thing. In the NBA, where everyone is great, that presents a problem.

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This was the issue for Butler, who grew from being merely a scorer to a notably versatile all-around star at Marquette, averaging 15.7 points, six rebounds, two assists, and one steal in his last year. But while Butler's versatility was a strength in college, it was a negative coming into the draft—he could do everything well, but nothing he did stood out enough to present an easy role in an NBA rotation. The Chicago Bulls, who drafted Butler with the 31st pick, took a gamble on the possibility that they could find the one thing that Butler did well enough to make him a valuable NBA player.

As it turned out, Butler could do one thing very well, and it was the exact thing his team needed him to do: defend. Which is the quickest way to earn minutes in Tom Thibodeau's system, and to earn the notoriously rookie-averse coach's trust. Butler did this, showing the capability to guard multiple perimeter positions thanks to his combination of strength, speed, and footwork. With those minutes earned and assured, Butler could make mistakes on the offensive end without (much) fear of being yanked, because he'd already proven his worth on the most important side of the ball. Compound that with Derrick Rose's consistent absence and the consequent need for offense from other sources, and Butler was allowed to blossom into the do-everything threat he is now.

Just did something awesome, realized he will probably still be underpaid for it. — Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

With Rose out, or at least still shaking off the pounds of rust, the Bulls needed more than just points—they needed a player who could create for others as well as he could himself. Butler's not an exceptional passer, but he's more than able, and in the first month of his breakout season, in addition to scoring over 20 points in 13 of the Bulls' first 18 games, he dished more than five assists seven times. Butler's assist percentage, which is the estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on the floor, was a career-high 14.4 this season, a reflection both on his growth in this year and the Bulls' reliance on him in this respect.

When we speak of a player's potential, we're mainly talking about their ability to learn and develop new skills—molding them from raw material into a refined form. It's what Scott Brooks and the Oklahoma City Thunder did when they took a raw Serge Ibaka and turned him into a two-way destructive force, and it's what Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers are trying to do with Joel Embiid, although it seems like we should still be sticking an "allegedly" after everything pertaining to that relationship.

But there's a different kind of development than that, something that is not so much a complete transformation but an actualization, the process of becoming the best possible version of one's self. Butler didn't forsake all of his skills just to focus on one and become a specialist in that area. Instead, he took all of his skills, everything that made Jimmy Butler Jimmy Butler back when it was a name that demanded italics, and then raised them to their utmost levels. If he couldn't be elite in one aspect on offense, then he'd be elite at being pretty damn good in every aspect. Instead of becoming a specific type of player, Jimmy Butler just became Jimmy Butler.

The result being Jimmy Butler is a pretty kickass NBA player. His scoring did not come back down to Earth. Nor did his rebounding, or his efficiency. His defense slipped, slightly, over the course of the season, but this is the burden of a blooming star—he now had to play both sides of the ball. Butler is still a great defender, but for the Bulls to succeed, they can ill afford him to revert to being only that. Once, the hope was that Butler could eventually evolve into a top-tier three-and-D wing. That hope is now gone, in the brightest possible sense. The new truth of Jimmy Butler is, simply, that he is a great player. It's hard to imagine an improvement more worthy of an award than that.