When Jimmy Butler pledged his commitment and sent in his National Letter of Intent to Buzz Williams and Marquette in 2008, he was introduced to a new position he had never played. Butler, a natural small forward, became a “switchable,” roughly defined by Williams as a wing able to defend multiple positions and use that versatility as a matchup problem for opposing defenses.
By his senior season, the 6-foot-7 Butler was the third-tallest player on the roster, pushing him inside to play the majority of his minutes as a power-forward "switchable." And while the Marquette roster necessitated the move inside, Butler’s skill set also warranted it. As a junior-college freshman in Texas, Butler averaged 7.7 rebounds, and the year before he averaged 8.7 rebounds as a high school senior. Butler arrived at Marquette with a Big East-ready body and played more naturally around the basket than the perimeter, so the move to power forward worked on both ends. In 106 career games Butler averaged 5.4 rebounds, peaking as a junior (6.4 rebounds) and finishing his senior campaign with 6.1 rebounds per game.
Within those numbers were Butler’s contributions on the offensive glass, where he totaled 90 offensive rebounds as a senior, fifth most in the conference and far and away the most for a non-traditional big. Between his stellar athleticism and basketball IQ to find the open spots off missed shots, Butler became a premier offensive rebounder while also carrying a Marquette team that eventually went to its first Sweet 16 since Dwyane Wade’s 2003 Final Four run.
And while Tom Thibodeau doesn't use the same terminology as Williams, through two seasons it’s evident that Butler has taken on the same “switchable” role for the Bulls. Thibodeau has already dubbed Butler the starting shooting guard alongside Derrick Rose next season, and within his “new” position -– Butler played back-and-forth between shooting guard and small forward his first two seasons –- he is again proving his value on the offensive glass.
Last year’s raw numbers show that Butler, who made an immense leap from his rookie season in which he averaged just 8.5 minutes, averaged an impressive 1.7 offensive rebounds per game in 26 minutes. In 82 games he had single-game totals of seven, five and four (seven times) offensive boards, and his offensive rebound rate -– calculated as Butler’s offensive rebounds divided by the total number of rebounds available -– of 7.2 percent was seventh in the NBA among small forwards, and second among shooting guards (P.J. Tucker, 7.7 percent).
While those numbers do Butler’s dominance on the glass as a wing justice, it goes deeper than that. Not only was Butler a frequent visitor to the offensive glass, he finished off those plays, too.
Of Butler’s 136 offensive rebounds last season, 68 of them resulted in scoring opportunities, per Synergy Sports. On those 68 possessions, Butler scored 96 points, 1.412 points per possession.
Using 27 possessions as a baseline (one offensive-rebound scoring chance per three games), Butler’s 1.412 points per possession ranked second in the NBA, behind only Vince Carter (1.514 PPP), who had just 35 such possessions last year. For reference, LeBron James scored 92 points on 66 offensive-rebound scoring chances (1.394 PPP) and Zach Randolph, who led the league with 4.1 offensive rebounds, ranked 115th in the NBA with 1.026 PPP (234 points on 228 possessions).
It should come as no surprise then that Butler made 68 percent of his offensive-rebound chances, seventh best in the NBA and tops for any shooting guard. Of the notables in front of him, he trailed LeBron James (seventh) and Tim Duncan (sixth) by mere percentage points. Carter (76.7 percent) led all players, but again his 35 possessions barely made the 27-possession minimum.
Given the Bulls’ pace (92.0) last season, tied for fourth slowest in the NBA, possessions have always been at a premium for Thibodeau's group. Rose’s return to the lineup should speed up the tempo -– though they actually played slower in 2011 than they did last season without him. Still, the Bulls were second in the league last season with 13 offensive rebounds per game, and Butler’s play on the offensive glass gives Thibodeau a major asset at the shooting guard position to go with Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Rose, an above-average rebounder for his position in his own right.
Butler will need to continue his growth in Year 3 on the perimeter while also meshing with Rose in the backcourt, but his rebounding numbers -– specifically his efficiency on the offensive glass -– will do wonders for Thibodeau’s blue-collar mentality. The natural small forward honed his rebounding skills at a “switchable” power forward at Marquette, and now he’s using it as one of the better rebounding shooting guards in the NBA.