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Stuck in the Middle with Jimmy Butler

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Editor’s Note: Please welcome our newest contributor at Liberty Ballers, Matthew del Rio.

In recent weeks—most notably since the arrival of Tobias Harris—there has been a growing concern among Philadelphia 76ers fans that Jimmy Butler’s scoring role has decreased. While, yes, this is technically true, the change has been minimal.

Per Basketball-Reference, Butler is averaging 12.2 field goal attempts in the nine games since Harris joined the Sixers. Although this is a slight drop off from the 14.0 field goal attempts he averaged in his first 32 games with the team, it should come as no surprise. With the addition of Harris—a volume shooter in his own right—an adjustment to the shot distribution across the roster was inevitable. Additionally, the drop off in Butler’s field goal attempts is a bit misleading. In the ten-game stretch since Harris was acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers, Butler is going to the free throw line 6.6 times per game (a 26% increase from the 4.9 free throw attempts he was averaging prior to the Harris trade). This increase in shooting fouls drawn accounts for some of the recent decrease in shot attempts.

This concern fits seamlessly into the larger media-driven narrative surrounding Butler—Will the Sixers new star be content with a complimentary role in the team’s offense? Despite attempting his fewest shots per game since the 2014-15 season, Butler has been prominently featured in the Sixers offense all season. Per NBA Stats/Info, his 13.6 field goal attempts rank third in the Sixers starry pecking order, trailing only Harris (15.3 FGA) and Joel Embiid (18.6 FGA). In the 4th quarter, Butler leads the team in scoring (6.0 PPG) and ranks second in shots per game (3.9 FGA). It is unclear whether Butler is content with his offensive role. However, his willingness to serve as either a primary or secondary option suggests his growing comfort within Brett Brown’s system.

Would the Sixers benefit from Butler taking a couple more shots per game? Sure. He is a versatile scoring threat that has a knack for getting to his preferred spots on the floor. When the playoffs arrive and Brown’s rotation shortens, expect Butler’s offensive load to increase. For the time being, the Sixers should feel comfortable with his 13.6 shots per game.

The issue isn’t, and never was, how many shots Butler is taking. Rather, the issue is where these shots are coming from. Using an array of shooting statistics provided by Cleaning the Glass, I will break down Butler’s reliance on mid-range jump shots and why he’d be best suited redistributing some of these shots to other areas of the floor.

Butler’s reliance on mid-range shots—broadly categorized as all two-point shots outside of four feet from the rim—is not a recent development. On average, during his 8-year NBA career (excluding the 10-games he played in Minnesota this season before being traded to Philadelphia), 41% of Butler’s total shots have come from this range. In his 42 games with the Sixers, 41% of his total shots have come from this range as well, which ranks in the 92nd percentile of NBA small forwards. In short, he’s taking a lot of them.

Whereas as his mid-range frequency has remained fairly consistent during his career, his mid-range accuracy this season has seen a notable decline. So far during his Sixers tenure, Butler is shooting 33% on mid-range shots, which ranks in the 28th percentile of NBA small forwards. This is his lowest percentage since the 2012-13 season (32%), his second year in the league. It also represents a sharp decline from last season, in which he connected on 44% of his mid-range shots.

Cleaning the Glass breaks the mid-range down into two sub-categories: short mid-range (shots between 4 feet and 14 feet from the rim) and long mid-range (two-point shots outside of 14 feet from the rim). With the Sixers, Butler is shooting 37% on short mid-range shots (down from 50% last season) and 30% on long mid-range shots (down from 37% last season).

Of course, there are moments like last night’s 4th quarter against the Orlando Magic where Butler catches fire from this area of the floor (3-for-3 on mid-range jumpers). These shots have been a staple of his offensive production for years. Considering his past success from this distance, there is a reasonable chance that Butler rediscovers his mid-range rhythm at some point between now and the end of the season.

Regardless of whether this happens or not, there are moments throughout the game where Butler appears to either settle for short jumpers or step inside the arc for long 2s. There are two such plays where this seemed to occur during Saturday’s match-up with the Golden State Warriors.

Play #1

On this first play, Butler drives towards the basket after receiving the pass from Harris. As he approaches the paint, Ben Simmons sets a pick on Kevin Durant, which frees up enough real estate for Butler to take it the rest of the way to the rim. He appears to have a half step on his defender, Jordan Bell, but instead chooses to pull back at the last second and shoot a short fade-away jumper. Even with the shot clock winding down, he still would have had time to attempt a shot at the rim.

Luckily for Butler, Simmons is able to clean up the miss, but this is a strange decision for a player that is shooting a career-best 69% at the rim with the Sixers (which ranks in the 78th percentile of NBA small forwards). Perhaps he felt he didn’t have a clear lane to the basket. Even so, there would have been an opportunity to draw contact and go to the charity stripe, a place Butler has thrived at this season. Since joining the Sixers, he is shooting a career-best 87.5% at the free throw line.

Considering the success he’s had this season shooting around the basket and hitting free throws, Butler would benefit from attacking the rim more often instead of settling for contested mid-range jumpers (especially on plays like the one above). This may be a case of Butler preserving his body during the regular season so that he’s fresh for the playoffs. Regardless, a few less contested mid-range shots per game could do wonders for his scoring efficiency.

Play #2

Here, Mike Scott sets a pick on Butler’s defender, Andre Iguodala. As he comes around the screen, DeMarcus Cousins sags into the paint, leaving Butler ample room to shoot an uncontested 3-pointer. Rather than take the shot behind the arc, Butler dribbles in a few feet and settles for a contested mid-range jumper.

While he could have certainly attempted to drive by Cousins, his best option was to take the open 3-point shot. With the Sixers, Butler is shooting 37% on non-corner 3s—his highest mark since the 2012-13 season. Compare that to his 30% accuracy on long mid-range jumpers and its clear that he turns down the better shot on this play.

Per NBA Stats/Info, Butler is averaging only 2.8 3-point attempts per game with the Sixers—his lowest mark since the 2012-13 season. While he is only shooting 34.5% from 3 since being traded to Philadelphia in November, it is far closer to league average than his 30% mark on long mid-range shots.

Butler’s reluctance to shoot 3-pointers has been a trend all season. Despite shooting 37.4% on catch and shoot 3s with the Sixers, he is only averaging 1.8 attempts per game. With Embiid’s willingness to kick the ball out to the perimeter when doubled teamed in the post and Simmons’ ability to drive and kick to open shooters, Butler should take advantage of the open looks presented to him behind the arc. If he would take a few less mid-range shots per game in favor of 3-pointers, the Sixers 9th-ranked offense could potentially climb even higher.

With all this said, Butler’s impact cannot be understated. He has developed into a very good secondary (and sometimes primary) facilitator, runs the pick-and-roll comfortably, continues to crash the offensive and defensive glass regularly, is an All-NBA level defender when fully engaged, and has been the team’s best crunch-time scorer all season. Additionally, the attention he draws from opposing defenses opens up the floor for Philadelphia’s other star players.

None of this is to highlight what Butler can’t do. Rather, it is to outline areas he can improve in. As it currently stands, his shot selection—and more specifically, his reliance on mid-range jumpers—leaves the most room for improvement. If Butler is able to redistribute some of these shots to other areas of the floor (such as around the rim and behind the arc), the Sixers’ ceiling will undoubtedly rise.