A potential Jimmy Butler trade has been a catalyst for endless discussion surrounding both his on-court worth and his price as an asset. The Toronto Raptors have been linked to Butler by every delirious fan with a Twitter account; we’re going to speak it into existence. And we should. In the context of the Raptors, Butler’s on-court worth would be such that even the highest price shouldn’t deter Toronto.
With a fully healthy Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors are a legitimate finals contender. With Butler, the Raptors would be a realistic championship contender who could feasibly defeat the Golden State Warriors in a playoff series. With real basketball news on the way soon, we may as well spend a few minutes dreaming. Let’s start by looking at Butler’s 2017-18 success at scoring in different ways, all stats per nba.com.
|Possessions per game||Frequency (in percentage)||Points per possession||Percentile|
Despite being cast in the role last year, Butler is not the world’s best offensive initiator. He’s a strong finisher, shooting a good-but-not-great 63 percent at the rim last year. He’s at his best using DeRozan-esque spin moves, hesitations, and eurosteps to set up finishing moves. He’s elite in the midrange, which is nothing new to Toronto. However, Butler lacks top-notch acceleration or vertical, so he is at his best putting his shoulder into a defender or two and rising up on-balance for a syrupy floater, jumper, or layup. He uses the glass like a vintage Dwyane Wade.
Butler is a solid passer out of the pick-and-roll, though not elite. Though his assist rate was stellar, at 20.5 percent, a disproportionate amount came out of ugly plays. (Blame Tom Thibodeau, whose offensive system left something on the table in terms of creativity.) Many Butler assists came via little backwards passes to bigs for open jumpers; there’s little creation value to this pass, and it’s not a shot Toronto will want as an offensive pillar.
Other Butler assists were created when he looked for a continuation pass, but Jamal Crawford or Karl-Anthony Towns hijacked the play and drained contested jumpshots. Hopefully no Raptor – save perhaps C.J Miles, gunner extraordinaire – takes the same shots as Crawford. Relatively few of Butler’s assists were entirely created by his own skill and vision; however, he certainly demonstrated the ability to manipulate the defence out of the pick-and-roll at times.
Butler would likely be his best as a secondary or even tertiary initiator. If he ran the second or third pick-and-roll of a play, attacking an already-scrambling defence, Butler would feast. As it is, he’s not a deadly pull-up shooter, notching a subpar 30.3 percent from behind the arc in such situations. An isolation or post-up that ends in a Butler shot yields a league-average chance at points – a luxury, to be sure, but not a desired outcome, as it is for players like James Harden or Kyrie Irving.
The true potential magic of Butler in Toronto is that he wouldn’t need to be an alpha scorer. Kyle Lowry is one of the league’s best pick-and-roll players, having led the league in pull-up 3-point percentage over the last two years, per John Schumann. Leonard is similarly devastating as an offensive initiator. Both are superior to Butler in isolation, shooting pull-ups, and running the pick-and-roll. Though Butler would still earn plenty of initiation reps in late-clock situations and with the bench, when alongside Toronto’s other stars, he would be able to rely on his incredible secondary skills.
Butler is one of the world’s best complementary offensive players. Like all support players, Butler’s shooting percentages plummet the longer he has the ball. He is great while shooting the ball in catch-and-shoot scenarios, shooting 38.7 percent from deep. He’s fantastic coming out of motion, either a handoff, a cut, or off of a screen. Here Butler combines off-ball movement, a nifty gather, and incredible balance and strength into one highlight layup.
If Butler holds the ball for more than two seconds, or if he dribbles more than twice, he’s a far less efficient scorer. Given an alpha pick-and-roll scorer beside Butler who can also hit a triple – which he has never had – it is reasonable to expect Butler to be one of the league’s most efficient scorers.
Though offence is fun to discuss, the largest source of Butler’s impact would be on defence. He was fifth in the league in deflections per game, with 3.5, and second in loose balls recovered, with 1.9. He accomplished that while also maintaining defensive positioning at all times – a rare feat for most ball-stealers. With Leonard and Butler together, the Raptors could lead the league in forced turnovers without even playing a trap-heavy defence. A conservative scheme could still allow the long-armed Raptors freedom to rip steals and run in the open court, where the young guns thrived. Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright both ranked in the 80th percentile or higher in transition, and Fred Van Vleet and Lowry are both masters at drifting to the corner for 3s.
Butler is hyperaware of opportunities to cheat off of his mark and interrupt passing lanes. Against teams with non-shooters in the playoffs, he would be best utilized matched up against weaker wings to allow him to collect steals on entry or swing passes. If that’s not a possibility, Butler is perhaps even better at navigating on-ball screens and destroying any advantage an offence hopes to gain.
Against a team like the Warriors, Butler could defend Steph Curry as well as anybody. Kawhi Leonard is practically engineered to bother Kevin Durant, and Kyle Lowry is elite at chasing shooters like Klay Thompson around screens. Jonas Valanciunas has had success against Demarcus Cousins in the past. They’d have a chance.
A big three of Lowry, Leonard, and Butler – all top-20 players – would be one of the best big threes assembled in history. They’d be far deeper than other historical teams that boasted three superstars, such as the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Heat. With good health, they could beat any team. With Butler, Toronto could manufacture high-quality shots at will offensively, and it would be even better on defence. Every team wants a star like Butler. The question, of course, is of cost.
For salary matching purposes, a trade structure would need to include either Serge Ibaka or both Norman Powell and C.J Miles. Neither package could possibly obtain Butler, even with his currently depressed trade value. The Raptors would need to add one of Siakam, O.G Anunoby, or a first-round pick. None of the above-mentioned players would be a franchise-altering loss, at least in terms of Toronto’s ability to challenge Golden State this year. The Raptors are so deep that they could afford the potential losses while remaining uber-deep.
Lowry, Butler, and Leonard fit together too perfectly. Lowry is an all-NBA offensive initiator and a great, if declining, defender. Leonard is another all-NBA offensive initiator and an unprecedented defensive talent. Butler could be the league’s best supporting scorer, and he’s also an all-NBA defensive talent. Combined with any of Ibaka, Anunoby, or Siakam at power forward, and Ibaka or Valanciunas at center, the Raptors would have one of the best starting lineups in history.
Of course, there are possible negatives. Butler would not be a guarantee to stay in Toronto, and losing him would kick-start another franchise rebuild. Such a downside would be somewhat meaningless, as the Raptors are already set up to enter a rebuild when Lowry’s contract ends after 2019-20. Neither Anunoby nor Siakam is a sure bet to become a star, and trading one would likely not change the franchise’s future. The potential benefit of acquiring Butler is far greater than the potential downside.
The most definitive franchise moment for the Raptors has been acting as LeBron James’ Washington Generals, as he’s defeated Toronto in 10 consecutive playoff games. Maybe it was Vince Carter’s missed jumper. If you’re pessimistic, it might have been some anonymous Andrea Bargnani brick. Whichever your choice, the franchise has been defined by misery for too long. Trading for Kawhi Leonard likely changed that. Trading for Jimmy Butler would be a definitive nail in the coffin of the Raptors’ past.