Jimmy Butler has never been in love with 3-pointers. During his previous four All-Star seasons, he put up 21.8 points per game on just 3.2 3-point attempts. Attacking opponents through pick-and-rolls, storming to the basket, and getting to the free throw line at an elite rate have been Butler’s comfort zone.
This is why the Philadelphia 76ers traded for him. They had no one to create off the dribble from the perimeter. But Butler always had to adapt somewhat to make joining his new co-stars work. And for the most part, especially over the first month or so, the rate Butler has done that has been impressive, with more dribble hand-offs, physical cutting, and a sprinkle of spot-up 3s.
Lately, though, things have been a little different in the 3-point department.
Since the infamous film room incident with head coach Brett Brown in Portland — as ESPN’s Zach Lowe importantly detailed, Butler objected to his role once Brown had asked “if anyone wanted to add something” — Butler’s shooting has noticeably changed. In his 19 Sixers games before this happened on December 30, Butler was attempting 3.2 3s per night, including 2.2 catch-and-shoot attempts. Since then, he’s averaging only 1.9 3-point attempts and 0.9 catch-and-shoot attempts. Even for these small sample sizes, such a major difference is notable.
Too many times he has passed up shots like this for no reason. Ben Simmons neatly sets up Butler in space after driving through the reeling Atlanta Hawks defense, drawing in three defenders, only for Butler to pass up a wide-open look to swing the ball to Wilson Chandler (don’t get mad at Chandler for not shooting either, seeing as he actually had a simple read to hit Mike Muscala directly under the basket before the unfortunate turnover):
Even on a play like this where Butler managed to score after recovering under the basket, he rejected about 10 feet of space for an easy 3-pointer to barrel into the defense and a contested layup:
With this approach, Butler’s overall shot quality has taken a dip. Pre-film room objection, he was taking 7.1 open (4-6 feet of space) or wide open (6-plus feet) shots per game, including 2.6 3s. Since then, he’s taken just 5.1 such shots, including only 1.4 3s. As a result, his tightly (2-4 feet) or very tightly (0-2 feet) contested attempts are up from 6.9 to 8.6. And overall field goal attempt swings haven’t impacted this either. His attempts have remained identical before and after at 14.1 per game.
Again, these are small samples. It’s also important to remember that Butler has always taken his fare share of tough, long 2s throughout his career. Over the last four years, 21.1 percent of his shots came between 16 feet and the arc, which is actually down to 15.7 with Philly. Nonetheless, seeing him avoid catch-and-shoot 3s, often to pass unnecessarily or to dribble into contested looks, is eye-catching.
Some of these changes are the result of getting his wish — to a degree — for more pick-and-rolls. Take Philly’s 119-113 win over the LA Clippers on New Year’s Day, where Butler executed about 10, primarily with Joel Embiid. It taps into more of Butler's skill set and adds a new wrinkle to the offense. And even though there are reasons why he can only run so much pick-and-roll (it’s tough when Simmons is on the floor and defenders can help off, so I looked at ways to overcome it in more detail here), it can help the offense. But this has to be accompanied by adequate off-ball work, which he has neglected lately as a shooter.
The reasons his recent changes are problematic are simple. Simmons and Embiid need maximum space around them in the starting five. It’s why JJ Redick is so valuable. Redick firing up 7.8 3s per game (at an upward-trending 38.1 percent clip) from countless angles warps defenses and provides a level of gravity that not many shooters can match. The impact of that spacing is undoubtedly behind some of the Big 3’s success with and without him. With Redick and the Big 3, the Sixers have a 112.2 offensive rating. When Redick is on the bench and the Big 3 are left by themselves, that number plummets to 82.6. The stars are working when they have space around them.
Butler doesn’t need to match Redick’s 3-point artistry. Showing defenses he’s willing to take a fair volume of 3s (at least three or four per game) and never hesitate to pull the trigger from distance will still force opponents to close out in ways the Sixers need for their other stars. The more Butler puts the ball on the floor to take tricky step-backs and fadeaways, the less attention they’ll give him at the arc. Especially when opponents look to exploit any kink in the Sixers’ spacing they can in the playoffs.
So what’s the reasoning for Butler’s shooting changes? Could it be an attempt to emphasize that he isn’t meant to be overused as a spot-up player? Or simply because he's more comfortable attacking off the dribble, this is merely a stretch where he has looked to do that? It could be a combination of the two. Either way, he'll need a change of mindset.
And this isn’t to say Butler hasn’t been providing any value off-ball. He still has a lot to offer as a cutter. Whether he’s finding the right angles to break away in transition alongside Simmons or slipping behind the defense for smart cuts or mismatches in the post, Butler has a sense for where to be off the ball and all the physical tools to utilize it.
His 27-point outing in Philly’s 120-96 win against Indiana — maybe his most balanced offensive game with the team so far, and a demonstration of how good they can be together — provided a few examples:
Butler doesn’t need to be relegated to a catch-and-shoot specialist. He can still run a few more pick-and-rolls, create out of dribble hand-offs, attack the basket, and, when need be, isolate for buckets that the Sixers can’t get without him. All he needs to accept is that the Big 3 can’t reach its potential without consistent adjustment from everyone.
For Butler, this means spot-up 3s are essential. As the Sixers look to fine tune their offense as much as possible before the playoffs, and address their main problems (depth and perimeter defense), it’s something to keep an eye on.