Jimmy Butler

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler is an elite role player

Spike Eskin
April 23, 2019 - 8:27 am
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It’s taken almost a full decade in the league, but Jimmy Butler’s best opportunity to succeed is now clear. He’s an elite role player, and both the Sixers and Butler would be wise to recognize that during this summer’s negotiations.

Butler is pretty good at being great, but he’s great at being good, and his “little bit of everything” glue-guy responsibilities have allowed him to shine without putting too much pressure on him to be exceptional at anything. “Primary offensive option Jimmy Butler” is not winning you a title, but if he’s the third option? The fourth? The leader of the second unit? Now you’ve got something.

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Butler’s been a great piece during the final part of the regular season and now the playoffs, with solid perimeter defense, great minutes at backup point guard, and in the role as fourth quarter creator and scorer. This little bit of everything approach has filled in a lot of cracks for the Sixers so far.

Like former Sixer Andre Iguodala, Butler’s career would be extended with a realistic view of his role, his accomplishments celebrated, and the public scrutiny lessened by signing something like a four year, $80 million contract—more closely resembling what Eric Bledsoe just signed with the Milwaukee Bucks than what John Wall and Russell Westbrook signed with their respective teams.

Iguodala was once miscast as a No. 1 option. It wasn’t until the second half of his career, when his experience and ability to put the team in front of his own statistics, when he was able to truly shine in the way Butler can. Iguodala did have one elite skill in perimeter defense, but Butler is a far better creator off the dribble and a more dependable shooter. Iguodala was able to turn his role into a Finals MVP and at least in the discussion as a Hall of Fame player.

Before you scoff at the comparison between Bledsoe and Butler, they’re more similar than you think. I’m a big “watch the games” guy, but the numbers put them in the same class.

Both players are 29 years old, Bledsoe in his ninth season, Butler in his eighth. Per 100 possessions, Butler averages 26.3 points per game, Bledsoe 25.4. Bledsoe averages 8.8 assists to Butler’s 5.7 and they both average 7.4 rebounds. Butler’s true shooting percentage sits at 57.1, while Bledsoe is at 57.7.

They’ve got different strengths in that Butler is a better scorer and Bledsoe is a better defender, but even the advanced stats have them neck and neck at .173 win shares per 48 minutes, with a BPM and VORP within percentage points of each other.

A couple of months ago ago, Bledsoe signed a four year contract worth $70 million. Signing Butler to a five year max contract with an annual average value two and a half times what Bledsoe is getting paid will hamstring Philadelphia in building a winner, and put pressure on Butler to be something different than what he is. Bledsoe was probably a bargain, but if that’s what the market will bear for that kind of production, Butler’s deal should more closely resemble that than the five-year max he’s expected to seek.

Why is Butler in line for a max contract? Because that’s what we thought when the Sixers traded for him? I wouldn’t be so sure there are as many takers as you’d think.

Butler at nearly $40 million a year is an immovable albatross of a contract, and will be seen as such by fans and the rest of the league. Paying superstar money for a player on the back end of his prime, who is not the first or second best player on his team will create expectations that he’ll never live up to. A more reasonable deal more in line with his role is much better for the team, and for Butler (aside from the extra tens of millions of dollars).

Philadelphia is the best place for Butler, as well. A player who has worn out his welcome in two previous stops has finally found a place who can appreciate what he actually is and brings out the best in him.  The idea of Butler playing with LeBron sounds great, until Butler’s learns that 85-percent of playing with LeBron is shooting spot up three's, something Butler has been generally reluctant to do in Philadelphia. I’m not sure Butler would be the most patient in dealing with LeBron’s historic ability to blame anyone but himself when the team under performs.

Brooklyn’s already got three guards who need the ball, Miami still doesn’t have a top ten player or someone on the precipice of it, and the Knicks have bigger fish to fry.

Butler has proven me wrong, there is a place for him in Philadelphia. I hope both he and the team put him in the right one.