When Jimmy Butler got traded to the 76ers it felt like it was over for the rest of the Eastern Conference. A starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Butler already felt strong. Then they added Tobias Harris to the mix at the trade deadline and it felt like nobody had a better starting unit.
That came pretty close to true as well. Philadelphia wasn’t always perfect in the regular season, but when it had everything clicking there were few teams that could stand up to them. The 76ers even came three ridiculous Kawhi Leonard bounces away from forcing overtime in Game 7 of their conference semifinal matchup with the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. This felt like a team that, if it brought everyone back together, would have a serious chance at making a run to the title.
Butler had other plans. He served his time in Philadelphia, but he’s always been a player that walks to the beat of his own drum. He wants to do things his way and that doesn’t always mean staying around on what appeared to be a title contender. He wanted to go play in Miami with the Heat and usher in the next era after Dwyane Wade. He wanted to be the guy. So he worked out a deal that would get him in Miami while also getting a max contract. The best of both worlds for Butler.
There was some criticism of this choice by Butler. He chose to leave a surefire contender in an Eastern Conference that saw Kawhi Leonard head west, but the team he was heading for was a pretty great fit. A player that can create his own offense while being an absolute bulldog on defense. A ridiculously hard worker and one that embodies everything about the culture that exists in Miami’s organization. This was always the place he wanted to be. That’s what he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports. Butler also chose to take that criticism of his decision as evidence that people don’t think he’s a good basketball player.
“I tried to get to Miami earlier than June, if you remember me coming out of Minnesota,” Butler told Yahoo Sports, referring to his trade request last season. “So, people are overlooking all the facts.”
“Mother——s act like I’m not a good basketball player,” Butler told Yahoo Sports. “Like for real. Just think about that. Like I can’t come in and make a huge difference. I’m not going to say ‘carry a team’ because nobody can do it by themselves and I mean that. I’m not putting it all on myself, but I know what I’m capable of. I know what I bring to any and all situations, and the group of guys that we have is the group of guys that I want to play with.”
It’s a rather interesting comment from Butler, as you’d be hard pressed to find someone that said he’s not a good basketball player, but some players thrive by creating criticism that they can use to fuel themselves. Butler chose to take those that criticized him leaving a contender personally and turn it into something. How have the results been so far? To be honest, they’ve been pretty great. For any headaches Butler can cause off the court, when he’s playing there just aren’t many players that impact it like he does.
The Heat so far are the only team in the NBA with a top 10 offense and defense. They lead the NBA in net rating. They’re coming off the absolute destruction of the Rockets on Sunday, and they even managed to snag an early season overtime win against the Bucks. These are all really good signs for a team that’s looking to find a new identity on the court and become a contender quickly. The Heat, a franchise known for their culture, has struggled to find that again since LeBron James left to head back to Cleveland.
The Heat have always been a defense first team, but they could never decide how they wanted to organize that defense. Offensively, their style has changed periodically between posting up Hassan Whiteside, to letting Goran Dragic dart around in the pick and roll, to now letting Justise Winslow be the true main guard. Throughout all of this though, they’ve always been at their best with someone that can put the ball down and go get their own shot. It’s what Wade did for years and it’s what Butler brings to them now. That he’s a total bulldog on defense is a massive plus. No player personifies the Heat culture better than him.
With Butler, the Heat also finally had reason to go all in with the pieces they liked. They finally traded away Whiteside in the summer, because that was simply not a partnership that worked anymore. Dion Waiters role has been reduced significantly — one that he’s not very happy with, but it’s clearly working for the team as a whole. They’ve given Winslow more freedom and committed to Bam Adebayo as a budding frontcourt centerpiece. The young Heat big man is extremely skilled and more versatile than Whiteside on the offensive end, which has just made for a better fit. Tyler Herro already looks like an NBA player. He has a beautiful shot form, can put the ball on the floor, and stays active on defense, even if not a tremendous defender. Fellow rookie Kendrick Nunn has proven to be a more than capable scorer in his own right.
What the Heat have are creators all over the floor and all of them can play off of Butler — who is still rounding himself into form after taking time off for paternity leave. What it has led to is a force that is surprising a lot of teams early in the season. It’s not that nobody ever thought the Heat could be good, but they’re ahead of schedule and are getting the most out of young role players on the roster. Usually, teams need time to gel with stars, but Butler’s fit has gone so smoothly that the Heat have taken what was looking like a fringe playoff team to potentially a top three seed in the East. Is it too early to guarantee homecourt in the first round? Probably. It’s only November after all. But the signs are so good right now it’s hard not to be excited about what’s happening on South Beach.