As all college students probably know, "midterm" isn't necessarily synonymous with the exact "middle of the season/semester." With that in mind, since we've reached a convenient stopping point in the NBA schedule, let's discuss the performances of the key players on the teams. Next up: Caron Butler.
First instinct: The absolute MVP of the team. After rigorously working out to reshape his body this summer, he's reaped the benefits, somehow increasing his scoring efficiency from last season. He's growing into his role as an offensive facilitator, and while he could stand to go to the free throw line more, suffice to say, he's the franchise's one untouchable at this point (despite what Sam Smith might say).
A deeper look: No doubt Butler's been great this year, but there have been a couple somewhat disturbing signs that developed even before his hip injury. Mind you, these aren't terrible concerns, but they do put a bit of a damper on what otherwise has been a breakout season.
All that is very good, obviously. He's scoring more, mostly because he's added a deadly three-point shot to his arsenal. He isn't rebounding quite as much, but he's dishing more, and I don't think that assist number does justice to his improved passing skills. He creates many openings for his teammates that don't necessarily show up in assist totals, which is the real sign of a player becoming a true focal point offensively. Most importantly, though, he's solidified his reputation as a wing player who can score efficiently even as his bread and butter move is a 15-20 foot jump shot. People like that are so rare, because statistically, the one shot with the lowest payoff is the mid-range jumper, seeing as it's far from the basket, but not far enough to be worth the extra point.
But as the old cliche goes, if you live by the jump shot, you die by the jump shot. As opponents have keyed more on Butler, his efficiency has gone downhill. Note that the following graph doesn't include the opener against Indiana or the two games Butler played this month.
Butler was absolutely smoking through the first month of the season, with a true shooting percentage above 63. There were games like this one where he simply wouldn't miss. But in retrospect, it seems that one of the major reasons for his hot start had to do with the unfamiliarity factor. Defenses just weren't used to him shooting threes, so they played him to drive and got burned.
But as December and January rolled around, teams caught on. In November, Butler was hitting 54 percent of his three-pointers, but that number fell to 31 and 30 percent in the subsequent months. Not so terrible, considering he never had a three-point shot before this year, but still not very good. He was still hitting a lot of mid-range jumpers, but not nearly as many as before.
You would think that Butler would adjust by taking the ball to the basket, like I've implored so many times on here, but he's still learning there. It's very encouraging to see his true shooting percentage improve in January, because it accounts for free throws attempted, but he's still only averaging 4.6 per game this year, down from 5.2 a game last year. As always, it varies game by game. He'll have games like the Houston loss where he will not even try, but he'll also have games like the second Boston one where he is actively trying to get to the rim. Still, the fact that his free throws attempted are down, even as his usage is up, isn't a great sign.
What does that really tell you? Butler is a great second option, but to be a prime number one guy, he needs to shoot more free throws. In a way, that's a good thing, because his game meshes well with the drive-at-all-costs Arenas. But without Arenas, it becomes a problem. Not a large one, mind you, because Butler is having a career year even with his downhill shooting trend, but a problem nonetheless.
Jake's thoughts: In Hollinger's now semi-infamous 33 win prediction he anticipated a drop off from Caron to be one of the culprits in the decline since he was coming off a career year in '06-'07. Of course, I disagreed that with Hollinger's final conclusion that Caron would fall off to the point where they'd only win 33 games but I though that he'd more or less reached his ceiling as a player. Sure, there might be some minor improvements in his game, but not anything that would raise his player level any higher than it already was.
Then again, I also had Mavs beating the Bulls in the NBA Finals which just goes to show I shouldn't make predictions ever. Caron's improvement is more than anyone could have anticipated or asked for. Let's just hope that the All-Star break has done him some good in getting rested because the Wizards are going to need a lot of (healthy) Tuff Juice over the final stretch of the season.
Your thoughts: Comments section. Go.