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Miami Is Showing the NBA How to Play Positionless Basketball

Jimmy Butler and Co. haven’t needed to trade for Chris Paul to take a giant leap forward. Here’s how the Heat built a contender without a traditional point guard.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jimmy Butler can’t wipe the smile off his face. After a whirlwind 2018-19 season that started with a trade demand in Minnesota and ended in a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis with Philadelphia, Butler is finally where he’s long wanted to be. For the first time in Butler’s career, he got to choose where he wanted to play, and he chose Miami. “I’m constantly smiling because I am happy. I’m home. Everything about this organization fits me. Everything about the guys that are on this roster fits me. I’m blessed. I’m lucky,” Butler said last week. Erik Spoelstra’s positionless, motion-fueled offense was part of the appeal. Butler is entrusted by Spoelstra to run a high volume of pick-and-roll and isolations, just as he’s always liked to do. But it’s movement, cutting, and passing that define Miami’s system.

When Butler runs pick-and-roll, Miami’s off-ball players aren’t stagnant. Watch the clip above: To Butler’s left, Duncan Robinson sprints through a flare screen; to his right, Kendrick Nunn relocates before alertly cutting for the layup. Butler also finds himself on the receiving end as a cutter who baits and batters opponents.

In this clip, Butler tosses the ball to center Bam Adebayo at the high post. He then fakes a down screen for Nunn before slipping toward the paint and burying Jamal Murray underneath the rim. Adebayo then delivers the ball for a bucket. Swirling actions are common from the Heat, who are the only team ranked in the top three in frequency for both cuts and handoffs, per Synergy Sports. They’ve played this way for years, and they were a tough out in their two most recent playoff series because of it, but it amounted to an average of only 42 wins in the past five seasons. Butler brought star power to Miami, and now the Heat have the sixth-best record in the NBA.

The Heat don’t use a traditional point guard; instead, they run their offense through score-first wings like Butler and playmaking bigs like Adebayo. Butler is averaging a career-high 6.8 assists per game, making him one of four Heat players to log more than four assists; guard Goran Dragic (five), Adebayo (4.6), and forward Justise Winslow (4.3) are the others. If they finish the season like this, the Heat will become the eighth team in history to have at least four qualifying players log four assists per game (most recently it was accomplished by Sacramento in 2003-04). In a positionless NBA, it’s become in vogue for teams to rely on multiple ball handlers. As more and more teams play this way and as pace increases to levels not seen since the 1970s, we may see more players log high assist totals like Miami’s have.

It almost didn’t work out this way. The Heat inquired about a trade for a relic point guard in Chris Paul but weren’t able to come to an agreement with the Thunder this offseason (or with the Rockets when a three-way deal was discussed before the Paul-for–Russell Westbrook agreement). At this point, Miami’s interest in Paul is extinct, according to league sources. Miami is more likely to chase someone like Jrue Holiday, multiple front office executives believe. Holiday was recently made available by the Pelicans, according to The New York Times Marc Stein. However, two front office sources told me that before New Orleans makes any significant roster moves, it’d likely make a change at head coach. Regardless, Holiday’s off-guard abilities and defensive acumen would make him a better fit on the Heat than a primary playmaker like Paul.

Pat Riley assembled a roster full of smart players who make good decisions off the dribble, regardless of position. Spoelstra is maximizing that talent. For example, Adebayo is Miami’s version of Draymond Green, a versatile defender who can serve as a playmaking hub on offense. Miami has him operate primarily from the high post as players cut, fake, and pivot around him. He’ll even go coast-to-coast after rebounds and initiate the offense:

Adebayo starts the possession by dribbling up the floor then handing the ball off to Tyler Herro, but he’s not finished. Then Bam screens and rolls, receives the ball, and immediately recognizes a cutting Kelly Olynyk for the layup. After a freshman season at Kentucky with 32 assists to 64 turnovers, Bam was projected to be an energetic, rim-running center like Montrezl Harrell. For him to become the player he is today is a shocker. When asked what surprised him most about Adebayo, Butler said last week, “That Bam is not his real name. I’m not saying it, though: He don’t like when I call him by his real name.” Bam may turn into Bamm-Bamm Rubble when he gets called Edrice, but he’ll do just about anything his team asks of him; he’s become a shining example of Miami’s unselfishness.

Even though the Heat aren’t quite a championship contender, players like Adebayo help make Miami the most dynamic offense that Butler has ever played for. Butler’s stops with Tom Thibodeau in Chicago and Minnesota featured less motion, while Philadelphia used a heavy dose of post-ups. Today, the ghosts of Butler’s past reveal the challenges in building a successful offense without a classic point guard.

Ben Simmons, a passing wizard with the body and jump shot of a throwback center, runs the show in Philadelphia. Simmons’s issues generating offense in end-of-game situations have been well chronicled, which is what made Butler’s presence so important. The Sixers ranked 30th in fourth-quarter offensive rating in 2017-18, jumped to eighth last season with Butler, but have fallen to 29th this season. They signed-and-traded Butler for Josh Richardson, but Richardson is not the playmaker that Butler is. This remains a concern across the roster. The Sixers have more than enough scorers and passers, but not enough shot creators.

Then there’s Minnesota, which began the season with point guard Jeff Teague in the starting lineup before turning to Jarrett Culver, a rookie wing. Andrew Wiggins has also absorbed more responsibility as a passer in the pick-and-roll. It’s been a bumpy season. Often, the Timberwolves fail to deliver the ball to their stellar scoring big man, Karl-Anthony Towns. Having a classic point guard like CP3 would help KAT, though Paul’s age (34) makes him an imperfect fit alongside the rest of their young core.

Butler’s final season with the Bulls in 2016-17 feels like a lifetime ago. Only two players from the team remain: Cristiano Felicio and Denzel Valentine; the rest have been replaced by combo guards like Zach LaVine and Coby White. The Bulls front office hasn’t prioritized passing in targeting players; LaVine fancies himself a star scorer, while White’s shot selection is headache-inducing. Big man Lauri Markkanen also entered the league without facilitating instincts. Tomas Satoransky, who leads Chicago in assists, is the closest thing resembling a primary playmaker.

Fewer and fewer teams are pigeonholing players into traditional positions because of their size. There hasn’t been an influx of players who fit the classic mold like Paul or Steve Nash, either. Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant and Hawks point guard Trae Young are new spins on the Paul and Nash models, but they’re exceptions to the norm. Sharing is caring in today’s league, and Miami has followed that blueprint in assembling its roster since the departure of LeBron James.

Spoelstra’s dizzying offense can accommodate another superstar, and the Heat have their sights set on the 2021 offseason to find one; it’s no secret around the league that they are planning on making a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo. Unless they make a trade for a player like Holiday, who holds a $27.1 million player option for the 2021-22 season, the Heat are unlikely to take on any long-term salary that compromises their 2021 cap space, according to league sources. As of now, they’ll be able to easily create cap space to sign a max player that summer.

It might be a pipe dream for any team to lure Giannis away from Milwaukee, but Miami is uniquely positioned to make a strong case because of its talented roster and financial flexibility. The Heat could theoretically create the cap space to sign Giannis and still retain Butler, Adebayo, and other core players like Winslow, Nunn, Herro, and Robinson. Miami would also has the assets to get creative and flip players for a second high-level free agent in a sign-and-trade. Even if Giannis ends up staying with the Bucks, the Heat should have options since the 2021 free-agent class could be loaded with stars like Paul George, Victor Oladipo, Gordon Hayward, and many others.

It seemed like the franchise would be in shambles once LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade moved on. They traded a host of picks to land LeBron in the first place, and others picks and assets to bolster their core. Today, only Udonis Haslem remains from those teams, but he’s essentially a highly paid assistant coach. Shrewd decisions and good fortune led Miami to where it is today. Things could have been different. When Butler was in limbo with the Timberwolves in 2018, most executives around the NBA thought he would land with the Heat, who were offering a strong package headlined by one of Adebayo or Richardson, plus a 2019 first-round pick and salary fillers, according to multiple league sources. But Thibodeau declined, hoping he could convince Butler to stay or land more by waiting. Minnesota only lost leverage as time passed. The Heat eventually pulled Richardson from trade talks, Butler got sent to the Sixers, Thibodeau soon got fired, and Butler had to bide his time before finally taking his talents to Miami in a sign-and-trade for just Richardson.

It’s all worked out for the Heat. They’re successfully rebuilding a roster that is one big move away from being a championship favorite. Butler’s ex-teams are a reminder that it can be a long and winding path to contention. Just when it seems a team is taking one step forward, it can take two steps back. For now, Miami is sprinting forward, and Butler is smiling.