In a league brimming with athletes in peak physical shape, and on a roster with a well-known grind-it-out ethos, Chicago’s Jimmy Butler manages to stick out. The Bulls’ do-it-all shooting guard is leading the league in minutes (38.3 per contest) for the third consecutive season, and has covered more distance on a court through 44 games than any other player (2.74 miles per game, the equivalent of 4.6 marathons over the course of the season).
Regarding his inhuman yet quotidian workload, Butler said in 2014 that the heavy minutes weren’t much of an issue: “Whatever it takes. I just want to win. I want to help us in any way, shape or form. If that’s 48 straight minutes, if that’s 60 minutes, I’m willing to do it.”
The reigning most improved player is the midst of another career year, projected to set career highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocked shots, usage rate, player efficiency rating and — of course — minutes played. Should his average hold steady, the Marquette product will finish the regular season having played 3,139 minutes, the second most of any player in the past five seasons.
“For a guy that played 43 minutes, he didn’t look like he was tired at all,” Phoenix Suns Coach Jeff Hornacek said of Butler after a game in November.
Butler isn’t a stranger to playing hefty minutes: He led Marquette in total minutes his junior and senior seasons, and has logged more than 2,100 minutes in each of the past four seasons.
However, with the Bulls barreling toward another inevitable playoff berth — and considering the franchise’s well-documented history with injures, which have derailed most of the past five seasons, and most recently added Joakim Noah’s season-ending shoulder injury to its pages-long list — Chicago should consider intermittently resting Butler, or at least taking better care of him on a night-to-night basis.
In the last two weeks alone, on two sets of back-to-back games, Butler played 166.16 of a possible 197 minutes. He has played less than 30 minutes in just two games all season and appears impervious to fatigue.
For Chicago, this conundrum is difficult for two primary reasons: first, Butler prides himself on being a two-way player, and has made it clear that he intends to stay on the floor for as long as possible; and second, because Chicago Coach Fred Hoiberg relies on Butler to spark an at-times vapid unit on both ends of the court.
In his fifth year with the team, Butler is holding the ball for a career-high four minutes per game, hoisting a career-high 21.2 field goal attempts per 100 possessions, and is utilized on 24.7 percent of the team’s possessions while on the floor. Defensively, he’s Chicago’s linchpin, capable of locking down or at least mitigating the offensive production of the opponent’s top wing player. The vocal leader of the team, Butler tallied a steal in 44 consecutive games this season, and has two all-defensive second team selections under his belt.
Butler is not just a cog in Hoiberg’s system, either; he’s paramount to the team’s success: According to win probability added, as configured by inpredictable.com, he is the fifth most valuable player in the league (3.05 WPA).
Furthermore, the team is 15-17 over the past three seasons when he’s out of the lineup, and the Bulls have relied on his abilities more this season than any prior: In the team’s 115-113 win over Toronto, for example, he had 40 of the team’s 67 second-half points.
Chicago’s propensity to collapse down the stretch in recent years is worth noting, however. Last season, Chicago amassed 4.2 fewer points per 100 possessions in the playoffs compared to the regular season, and failed to eclipse a 100-point-per-game scoring average in February, March and April after averaging better than 100 per contest in October, November, December and January.
Butler’s career splits indicate regressions later in the season, too: He has shot a lower true shooting percentage and free throw percentage, grabbed fewer rebounds, dished out fewer assists and accounted for fewer points after the all-star break. Those regressions extended into the postseason last year; in Chicago’s playoff run, Butler saw a dip in true shooting percentage (56.2 compared with 58.3), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.81 compared with 2.28) and rebound percentage (7.5 compared with 8.2).
He has hardly performed poorly in the postseason, but as the now-focal point of Hoiberg’s offensive and defensive systems — and framed in the context of the team’s injury-riddled short-term memory — it would appear obvious that the Bulls should consider intermittently resting Butler. Moreover, should Hoiberg desire a litmus test before resting Butler in the final games of the season, consider the following: eight of Chicago’s 12 opponents in February have losing records.
San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich can attest to the benefits of granting rest to star players, and Hoiberg should take note. There are substantiated reasons why Chicago should consider alleviating some of the burden placed at Butler’s feet on a nightly basis, particularly when the past five seasons are a neon-lit bar sign that reads “caution: expect the worst-case scenario to unfold.” The paradox, of course, is that Butler will run until his feet bleed if given the option; despite missing 17 games during the regular season last year, he still managed to finish in the top 20 in distance covered. Barring any drastic alterations, he’ll likely lead the lead again in minutes played and distance covered, but those figures come with the risk of potentially preventing Chicago from getting where it so desperately wants to go.