The runners-up in the NBA Finals over the past few years have started the following season in a deep malaise. After falling in the 2018 Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost 16 of their first 20 games to start the 2018-19 season. Likewise, after dropping the 2019 Finals, the Golden State Warriors opened the next season by losing 16 of their first 20. True to form, the Miami Heat, fresh off of their 2020 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, started their 2020-21 season losing 13 of their first 20.
Of course, the post-Finals Cavaliers had just parted ways with LeBron James, and the Warriors had lost Kevin Durant to free agency and Steph Curry to injury four games into the season. The Heat carried into this season 13 of their players and 84 percent of their minutes from their championship-contending squad, a top-five mark for continuity. But the early absence of Jimmy Butler from Miami’s lineup sent it down the same path as its two most recent predecessors.
In the 10 games Butler missed in January because of COVID-19, the Heat went 2-8 with the second-highest turnover percentage in the league. That shouldn’t be shocking; among Heat players, only Butler and standstill shooter Max Strus have turnover percentages better than the 50th percentile for their position, and without Butler to initiate, the Heat ran into trouble. None of their lead ball-handlers increased their turnover percentages by drastic margins in the stretch without Butler, but he controls the ball with such care that shifting his reps to his less sure-handed teammates had a domino effect. Butler has the highest assist-to-turnover ratio of any high-usage1 player in the league. That can’t be replicated easily.
But Butler returned on Jan. 30 and scored 30 points (on zero made threes) with eight rebounds and seven assists. He didn’t commit a single turnover.
It was a sign of things to come.
In the 21 games since Butler’s return,2 the Heat have gone 15-6, the third-best mark in the NBA. They’ve returned to their successful profile of last season, when they played with the fourth-slowest pace yet boasted the highest true shooting percentage. The Heat constantly ratcheted up pressure and minimized the number of possessions, a style that maximized their winning chances last season because Butler was the grandmaster moving the chess pieces.
Possessions used by Goran DragiÄ, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro with Bam Adebayo in the pick and roll while Butler was out have morphed into Butler-Adebayo pick and rolls. That’s driven turnovers down, and though it hasn’t increased the points scored directly out of the team’s main actions, per Second Spectrum, Miami has been able to shift its players to more natural offensive roles. Secondary actions have become far more effective.
All of DragiÄ, Nunn and Herro are more effective attacking closeouts than handling in the pick and roll. They’re combining to shoot a solid 37.8 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. Butler’s presence allows Miami’s orbiting guards to exist as their best selves. He is the lodestone of the offensive structure, and his immense core strength doesn’t just hold off defenders — it also props up the entire Heat’s offensive hierarchy.
Butler is able to boost his teammates to such an extent because he is such a unique force. He plays offense unlike any other player in the league. He’s a brilliant driver and passer, but he’s increasingly unwilling to shoot the ball from deep.
Butler has been trending in this direction for his whole career, but never before has he taken so few shots from deep and so many shots from the short midrange. Among non-bigs who attempt double-digit shots per game this season, he takes fewer threes per game than anyone not named Ben Simmons — and is actually shooting a worse percentage than Simmons. Yet for Butler, that’s a strength, not a weakness. He’s recording the highest assist percentage of his career, a top-10 mark just ahead of Nikola JokiÄ and LeBron James on the league leaderboard.3 Butler makes up for the efficiency deficit caused by eschewing threes by shooting a career-high 71 percent at the rim and drawing the fourth-most free throws per game in the league.4
No one is able to combine Butler’s volume of ball control with his ability to limit mistakes. That has benefits. The Heat average more points after a Butler drive than after one from any other player on the team with at least 20 drives this season. Butler is enormously strong, able to create contact on the floor while maintaining forward momentum, thus ensuring defenders can’t challenge his shots. He has the footwork and balance to maneuver in tight spaces, with crafty fakes to shift his balance and defenders at the same time. Opponents try to wall off the paint because he doesn’t like to shoot, but he uses that defensive approach to his advantage; close out short, and he’ll use the space as either a runway to the rim or to create passing angles to the whirring cutters surrounding him.
Even though Butler shoots poorly from deep, the team connects on 35.9 percent of threes with him on the court versus 34.2 percent with him off. He hasn’t shot so inefficiently from the floor relative to the league since 2013-14, but his on-/off-court offensive point differential per 100 possessions is the second-greatest of his career.5 Butler has a knack of turning his few individual weaknesses into his team’s strengths.
The Heat have been the slowest offensive team since Jan. 30, and they’ve used that grinding offense as a means to empower their defense. In that stretch, opponents have shot 43.6 percent against the Heat, lowest in the league. And with Butler contesting, opponents have shot only 41.7 percent; it also helps that he’s contested the second-most shots on the team, at 12.4 per game, only 0.8 fewer than center Adebayo. He’s led the team in deflections. On the season, he has a 99th-percentile steal rate and a 100th-percentile foul rate; he somehow takes the ball away from opponents without creating contact.
The Heat force opposing offenses to the longest average possession time in the league, and they’ve been even slower since Butler’s return. With his hand guiding the team on both ends, opponents play basketball games in mud rather than on hardwood.
To that point, the Heat have used zone more than any team since Butler’s return, but they actually avoid it when Butler is on the court. Of their 171 zone possessions since Jan. 30, only 49 have come with Butler playing; put another way, roughly 30 percent of their zone possessions have included Butler, even though he plays for around 70 percent of games.
As with the offense, the setup works. The defense holds opponents to 5.8 points fewer per 100 possessions, excluding garbage time, when Butler plays. That’s the best such on-off defensive mark on the team. Opponents are held out of transition, go to the free throw line less often, shoot worse from the field and are limited to one shot per offensive possession. It seems Miami uses a zone in part to hold the fort while Butler sits.
That’s a microcosm of the entire Heat structure. They don’t make sense on either end without Butler. He’s both the tip of the spear and the hand that thrusts it. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric — which uses play-by-play, box-score and tracking data to measure player contributions — lists Butler as the third-most effective player in the league this year on a per-possession basis, behind only MVP leaders Joel Embiid and JokiÄ.
After starting 7-13, the Heat have already bounced back to 21-18, in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and with a 94 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based predictions. Miami may have started down the same path as the two previous Finals runners-up, but those teams lost their All-World stars. In Butler, the Heat still have theirs.
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