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Can Jimmy Butler Be the Heat’s Kawhi?

Miami has built the perfect team for Butler’s game, but is Butler good enough to bring Miami back to the top of the East?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jimmy Butler finally has his own team. After spending the past two seasons in awkward Big Threes in Minnesota and Philadelphia, the 30-year-old is now the undisputed centerpiece in Miami. The Heat, who had been desperately searching for a franchise player since losing LeBron James in 2014, have no choice but to build around Butler on both ends of the floor. Now he has to prove that he can handle that much responsibility.

The Heat have been a pleasant surprise in the first two weeks of the season, with a 5-2 record and the fourth-best net rating (plus-6.3) in the NBA. It’s a completely new team: Justise Winslow is the only regular starter from last season still in the starting lineup, and he has missed two games with a back injury. And they are still learning how to play with Butler, who missed three games while on paternity leave.

Butler has struggled to score efficiently so far, averaging 15.0 points per game on 35.4 percent shooting, but he has made up for it in other areas. He is averaging 7.0 rebounds and 3.8 steals and almost twice as many assists (6.5) as his career average (3.5). For as much as he stirs the pot off the court, he’s fairly unselfish on it. He’s a legitimate point forward, a skilled ball handler with the size to see over the defense, and the ability to make plays on the move.

The big change is that he’s playing in more space than ever before. For the first time in his career, Butler is driving into an empty lane instead of bulldozing his way through crowds. Look at where Miami ranks in 3-point attempts and 3-point percentages this season in comparison to his last season (or last half-season, in the case of Philly) with his previous three teams:

The Space Between: The Shooting Around Butler

Season Team 3PA 3P%
Season Team 3PA 3P%
2019-20 Miami 11th 2nd
2018-19 Philadelphia 19th 8th
2017-18 Minnesota 30th 19th
2016-17 Chicago 29th 24th

That type of floor spacing is a godsend for Butler. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, he’s at his best when he can use his physical tools to bully his way to the rim. He’s a decent outside shooter, with a career 3-point percentage of 33.9 on 2.7 attempts per game, but he can only be so effective if defenses can build a wall to keep him out of the paint.

Last season, Butler couldn’t make these types of passes—hitting players who cut through an open lane or dribbling under the basket before kicking it out to a shooter:

Miami has reshuffled its roster to complement its new star. Butler isn’t playing with a post-up center like Joel Embiid or a nonshooting point forward like Ben Simmons. Everyone on the Heat fits into one of three roles:

  • Ball handlers: Butler, Winslow, Goran Dragic
  • Shooters: Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Kelly Olynyk, Meyers Leonard
  • Roll men: Bam Adebayo, James Johnson, Derrick Jones Jr., Chris Silva

While it’s still a very small sample size, Butler has been better without Dragic and Winslow, both of whom also like playing with the ball in their hands. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Butler has a net rating of plus-8.0 in 45 minutes with Dragic and plus-22.1 in 77 minutes without him. The split is even more dramatic with Winslow: Butler’s net rating jumps from plus-3.7 in 26 minutes with the fifth-year forward to plus-18.2 in 96 minutes without him.

Dragic has had an easier time adjusting. Now in a sixth-man role, Dragic is shooting 41.0 percent from 3 on a career-high 5.6 attempts per game despite playing less (27.0 minutes per game) than he has since the 2011-12 season, the last time he came off the bench. Winslow hasn’t adapted as well because outside shooting is the weakest part of his game. He reinvented himself last season by moving to point guard, but that role is no longer available. Butler needs guys around him who can exist in his ecosystem instead of creating their own.

The player who best fits that bill is Bam Adebayo, a third-year big man from Kentucky who has blossomed now that he’s no longer backing up Hassan Whiteside. Adebayo can do a little bit of everything—he’s averaging 12.7 points on 51.9 percent shooting, 9.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game this season; the only other players averaging 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and one block are Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Bam will probably never score like Giannis or Towns; the 22-year-old’s best-case scenario is becoming a bigger version of Draymond Green, a Swiss Army knife defender who can switch screens, clean the glass, and start the fast break himself. Few players his size (6-foot-9, 255 pounds) have this passing vision:

Butler and Bam could become one of the best two-man games in the NBA if they have enough shooting around them. That was the biggest concern for Miami coming into the season: The Heat were an average 3-point shooting team last season, and they sent their best shooter (Josh Richardson) to the 76ers in a sign-and-trade for Butler. They would now be going nowhere fast had it not been for the unexpected development of rookies Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn.

Herro, the no. 13 pick in this year’s draft, was less of a surprise. He’s a well-rounded offensive player who combines an NBA-ready shooting stroke with the ability to put the ball on the floor and find the open man. The 19-year-old has already exploded this season, with a 29-point game in a win last week against the Hawks. Herro will need to prove that he can hold his own on defense, but it’s hard to imagine him not contributing on offense given the number of open shots that he will get.

Nunn’s performance has been a revelation. The 24-year-old went undrafted out of Oakland University and spent last season in the G League. He landed in the perfect situation in Miami. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, he’s more scorer than point guard, but that doesn’t matter when he’s playing next to a point forward like Butler. Nunn has a deceptive offensive game—he can shoot from anywhere, change speeds off the dribble, and finish from different angles around the rim:

The Heat are one of the best organizations in the NBA at finding and developing young talent. It’s not just Nunn. Derrick Jones Jr., Duncan Robinson, and Chris Silva are undrafted free agents, as were Rodney McGruder and Tyler Johnson, who started their careers in Miami and have been successful elsewhere. But winning on the margins doesn’t make much of a difference without a genuine superstar to build around.

Miami is hoping Butler can be that guy. Adebayo, Herro, and Nunn, for all their potential, still need a do-everything wing to carry them on both ends of the floor. Nunn and Herro are also inexperienced players without great size or speed for their positions. The Heat’s only other perimeter player who could defend the opponent’s best scorer is Winslow, which means that coach Erik Spoelstra has to decide between defense and offense when building lineups around his best player. Butler didn’t get a chance to showcase his game as much with the 76ers and Wolves, but those teams had much more star talent than the Heat.

Miami has options if it wants to change that. It could make a trade by packaging Winslow and some of its other young players with $30 million in expiring salaries between Dragic and Leonard. The problem is that the Heat have already dealt their first-round picks in 2021 and 2023, meaning they’re left with only offering trade swaps until 2025, and there aren’t many big names left on the market. Help might not be coming until the summer of 2021, when they would have the salary cap room to sign a player to a max contract. But that could be too late for Butler, an older player who relies on athleticism and has already put a lot of miles on his body.

Butler has shown flashes of the ability to carry a team. He fits the mold of the supersized two-way wing that is now the most valuable player in the NBA, and he held his own against Kawhi Leonard in a seven-game loss to the Raptors in the second round of the playoffs. The big adjustment the 76ers made after losing Game 1 was running everything through Butler, who averaged 24.0 points on 45.6 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists over the last six games of the series. Who knows what would have happened had Philadelphia benched Simmons and put three shooters around Butler and Embiid? The two had a net rating of plus-15.5 in 173 minutes without Simmons in the regular season and plus-28.6 in 49 minutes without him in the playoffs.

But that doesn’t mean Butler is ready to be an MVP-caliber player. He has never averaged more than 24 points per game in a season, and he doesn’t have the same tools as the best players at his position. He’s not as good a shooter as Kawhi or Paul George. He doesn’t have the size of LeBron James, the height of Kevin Durant, or the speed of Giannis. Butler has no margin for error. This is his chance to be the best possible version of himself, but even that might not be enough to turn Miami into a legitimate contender.