Now free of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler is having the best season of his career, and there are no more questions about whether he or Rose is the “face of the franchise.” It’s quite clearly Butler. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stop having fun with comparisons.
I was asked a question on Twitter, and I keep mulling it over: Which would you rather have, Butler’s season this year, or Rose’s season from his MVP year? And the more I think about it, the harder it gets to answer.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Let’s dice this out.
First, let’s look at the basic box score numbers from Basketball-Reference.com. To adjust for minutes and pace, we’ll look at the per-100 possession stats:
Jimmy’s combined total is 54.7. Rose’s combined total was 54.7. So, that really doesn’t do a lot to clear things up, now does it?
The advanced stats, though, are a little more revealing as Butler’s numbers are significantly better across the board:
Butler’s been far more efficient shooting and is turning the ball over a lot less. That results in his metrics such as Win Shares per 48 minutes and PER being much higher. If we’re basing this solely on advanced stats, you’d have to give the nod to Butler. But the argument doesn’t end there.
The Case for Rose
Rose has a case, despite the inferior advanced stats, and they’re the same arguments voters made for Rose that won him the MVP in the first place.
Yes, the Bulls had a great defense. And no, Rose did not do much to help the defense. It’s also true that the Bulls did not have the world’s greatest offense that year, even with Rose.
But there just was no offense at all without him. This was a team that started Keith Bogans and Kurt Thomas in 29 games. And yet, the Bulls managed to stay in contest after contest with Rose carrying the team down the stretch.
He became the third player since the merger (after Michael Jordan and LeBron James) to score 2,000 points and drop 600 dimes in the same season, even with a verifiable lack of any semblance of offensive help, particularly when neither Carlos Boozer nor Kyle Korver were available.
And Rose was the right end of the difference between winning and losing. He averaged 47.9 points, 9.8 assists and 10.4 boards per 48 minutes, with his team boasting a +20.8 with him in clutch situations that year (up or down five with five or fewer minutes remaining in the game).
It is hard to “prove” this dynamic statistically, as a lot of the on/off numbers suggest that the contributions he gave on the offensive end were mitigated by the losses on the defensive end. But a historically great defensive bench unit skewed those numbers.
When Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson were on the court together, their defensive rating was 87.3 in over 500 minutes, per NBA.com. When Rose was on the court with those three, it improved to 86.8, and their offensive rating was 113.6 — a net rating of 26.8.
That’s an indication those on/off numbers were skewed more by the exceptional defense of the bench than the poor defense of the MVP.
The reason he won the award is that there was no offense whatsoever without him, and without any semblance of one, there was no way the Bulls would have had the best record in the NBA.
But they did, because he carried the burden on his back for 81 games.
People now look at it and try and measure who should have won by what happened afterward. But voters cast their ballots before LeBron James “stopped” Rose in the Eastern Conference Finals, before his knees went to trash and before he lost his popularity.
In evaluating his case here, we’re looking at that snapshot of him then, when he was still fire on the court, weaving through traffic and exploding to the rim like a ballet dance on a basketball court.
The Case for Butler
The numbers already make some part of the case for Butler, but there’s a bit of a narrative argument for him as well. As with Rose, it’s evident that the Bulls are a dramatically better team with Butler on the court.
After the Bulls lost to the Indiana Pacers, Butler had a few words for himself, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
“It’s going to have to be me to lead the charge when it comes to coming out with the right energy, making sure we’re doing everything we’re supposed to do at both ends. I’m definitely capable of doing that. I can’t come out lackadaisical. I have to make sure everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do. That’s on us. That’s not even on the coaches. I haven’t started out as aggressive as I should. I should always be the most aggressive one coming out of the gate.”
Since then, he’s been plenty aggressive, but he’s been pretty incredible in being so. Here are his splits before and after that:
On the season, the Bulls are a plus in net rating with every teammate he has been on the court at least 15 minutes with; the lone exception being Cristiano Felicio, with whom he has played just 12 minutes:
And unlike with Rose, Butler is a dominant player on both ends of the court.
According to SynergySportsTech.com, Butler is yielding just .815 points per possession (70th percentile) when he’s the primary defender. Offensively, he averages 1.157, good enough for the 96th percentile.
But just rankings like that can be unfair to evaluate a player’s defense. For example, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard is only in the 30th percentile. We all know he’s better than that.
There are multiple reasons for such anomalies. Elite defenders tend to guard elite players, so they’re often going to see such numbers higher, especially with a smaller sample size like we have so far. But “holding” LeBron James to .9 points per possession is a far cry better than keeping someone like Justise Winslow there.
Another reason is that high-volume offensive players tend to have less energy to spend on the defensive end. Players such as LeBron have learned to economize their effort so that they get stops when needed but without draining themselves.
That may involve losing a battle here or there to win the war, and that can hurt the defensive numbers a shade.
The following chart accounts for a lot of that. The further up the player’s dot is, the better his defensive points per possession. The further to the right, the better his offensive production is. The size of the dot reflects the total plays (on offense and defense) the player is in. The color of the dot (blue is good, red is bad) signifies the differential (offensive points per possession minus defensive points per possession).
The fully interactive version is here:
If you look in the top right corner, you’ll see Butler’s name near Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. You’ll note that it is also of a similar size and hue.
Those three and Anthony Davis have been the most dominant two-way players so far this season.
However, unlike Durant and Curry, Butler does not have a superstar teammate to help draw attention away from him or a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber player teammate like Draymond Green. Butler is essentially both of those guys for the Bulls.
And unlike Davis, Butler’s dominance is resulting in wins.
In fact, you could argue that there is no player who is consistently dominating both ends of the court as Butler has been. Sure, LeBron can, but he’s been doing as little as he can get away with. (And no apologies are necessary for that; that’s an observation, not a judgment.)
That coupled with the plus-minus numbers indicate that the Bulls aren’t just 26 points better with Butler on the court…they’re 26 points better because Butler is on the court.
That two-way dominance is an argument you could never make about Rose.
Now, Rose won the MVP, and Butler’s chances are not that great. It’s also a fair point that Rose did what he did the full season. Butler’s been doing it for less than a quarter of a season.
But if he keeps going like this, I’d have to take Butler by a hair, simply because there are more ways he can change a game.