The chants didn’t envelop the entirety of Target Center, but every time Jimmy Butler stepped to the free-throw line late in any of the Timberwolves’ recent home victories, a smattering of fans would chant, “MVP! MVP!”
The volume of those cheers suggests fans are trying to be nice to their own player, but perhaps they don’t really believe what they’re saying.
Nationally, Butler is not in those conversations alongside James Harden, Stephen Curry, LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
But there are subtle, yet important, improvements in the offensive game of this defense-minded star that show those chants have some legitimacy behind them.
Butler has blossomed into a perennial All-Star, improving every season since being the 30th overall pick in 2011. He began his career in Chicago as a defensive stopper under current Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, but didn’t contribute much offensively.
That has changed immensely, and the evidence is piling up this winter — especially when Butler takes aim on a shot.
In his past three seasons with the Bulls, Butler never cracked 40 percent shooting from mid-range — defined as a shot from five feet to just inside the three-point line — according to STATS. This season, Butler is shooting 44.4 percent from mid-range, 5 percent higher than last season, his best season from those distances.
“I’ll continue to shoot the mid-range if it’s there, the layup or a three, if I feel like I’m going to make it,” Butler said. “You can’t make them all. But 40 percent, 44 percent, whatever it is — just take the right shots.”
The right shots for Butler, who is averaging 21.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, are becoming pull-up jumpers. Butler has never been better off the dribble than this season. He is hitting 44 percent of pull-up shots this season, when he has never hit above 40 percent in any other season, dating to 2012-13. He is also shooting over 50 percent off the dribble for the first time in his career.
“Considering I get the ball a lot, I have to shoot off the dribble a little bit more,” Butler said. “When I do have the chance to catch and shoot, I can do that as well.”
Butler’s increased efficiency hitting mid-range shots has created a problem for defenses, according to Thibodeau. Teams don’t quite know how to defend him.
“He doesn’t see a steady diet of one thing,” Thibodeau said. “If a big has dropped back, he’s pulling up and he’s taking that shot. That makes them make another decision — are you going to continue to let him shoot that? Then they come up, and he goes around them. If they trap him, he’s going to get rid of the ball quick and we’re going to get the second pass and try to get an easy scoring opportunity off that.”
Butler’s versatility has led to a more effective offense for the Wolves (29-17), who play in Houston (30-12) on Thursday night. Butler’s offensive rating is 112.5, outpacing his career high of 107.9. That means for every 100 possessions, roughly the length of an average NBA game, Butler helps the Wolves generate 112.5 points per game when he is on the floor. Butler was tied for 11th in the league on that stat (for players averaging over 30 minutes) entering Wednesday, and second behind teammate Karl-Anthony Towns (113.3) on the Wolves.
In teammates’ eyes, that’s good enough to merit award discussion.
“With Jimmy, we always say how good he is; he’s the MVP,” guard Jamal Crawford said. “If you look at his numbers, it’s not like he’s averaging 30 [points] and seven [rebounds] and eight [assists]. They’re steady. The way he moves the ball, the way he makes sure other guys get involved … it has become contagious.”
Chris Hine is the lead writer for North Score, the Star Tribune’s new sports analytics beat.