The Miami Heat haven't gotten off to the start they wanted this season, but things are turning around.
Expectations for the Heat were sky-high coming into the season after they came two games away from an NBA championship. The problem? Injuries and health and safety protocol have held them back from maximizing their potential.
Miami has the third most man-games lost to injury with a total of 127 over 13 players. Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has had to use 16 different starting lineups through the team's first 31 games. Bam Adebayo deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Heat respectable through the injuries, but everyone knows if they are going to make another run at the Finals, they'll need a healthy Jimmy Butler in the lineup.
And since getting Butler back, the Heat are finally starting to look like the team that blitzed through the East Conference last August.
Butler has missed 12 of the Heat's 31 games this season. His 10-game absences from the team as a result of COVID-19 and health and safety protocols came amidst the Heat's worst stretch of the season. The Heat went 2-8 without Butler, including a season-high five-game losing streak. But since he's been back, Butler is playing at an All-Star level.
With averages of 19.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists through 19 games, Butler is once again in the conversation to earn an All-Star spot. The only argument against him is games missed, but if Kevin Durant, who's played in 19 games, is a no-brainer, why isn't Butler at least in the conversation?
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With the Heat no longer playing two bigs, Butler has taken on more responsibility on the glass, leading to his career-high average in rebounds this season. With Goran Dragic also missing time, Butler has taken it upon himself to create even more opportunities for his teammates, leading to a career-high average in assists.
Butler may be the best chameleon in the NBA - whatever his team needs, he'll deliver.
Butler's do-it-all attitude isn't just reflected in his individual numbers, it has a tangible impact on the team as well. According to NBA Stats, Miami's defensive rebounding percentage is 77.4 with Butler on the floor. Without him, that percentage plummets to 69.8. The gap would be the difference between ranking first in the league and dead last.
Butler's selfless offensive game has also transformed the Heat's culture in the two seasons he's been in Miami.
Last season, the Heat finished third in assist percentage at 65.7. This season, they're first in the league with an assist percentage of 67.4.
If you're unaware, assist percentage is an estimate of the percentage of field goals that are assisted. It gives you a good indication of a team's ball movement and willingness to play make for others. The NBA's tracking data on assist percentage only goes back to the 1996-97 season. Since then, the Heat had only ever finished in the top 10 twice, once in 1998-99 (9th place) and again in 1999-00 (7th place). Butler's win by any means attitude is one thing, but as a star in this league, his willingness to take a backseat to others on his team has transformed the Heat into one of the most selfless teams in the league.
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On a more simplistic scale, Butler's presence makes Miami better. With Butler on the floor, the Heat are outscoring opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions. When he's not on the floor, Miami is being outscored by 7.4 points per 100 possessions.
Now that Butler is back and healthy, the Heat are slowly starting to turn things around. They've won seven of their last 10 and come into Wednesday night's game against the Toronto Raptors riding a three-game winning streak. They're far removed from the team that lost a season-high five straight games a month ago, which led Butler to make this statement, smiling after the Heat's win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday:
.@Rachel__Nichols: "Do you feel that you are on the way to where you have to be?"- NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) February 21, 2021
Jimmy: "I'm grinning. Better book it." pic.twitter.com/DTMsjZ4v3w
Don't look now, but Miami is figuring it out, and if you're looking for the solution to their problems, look no further than Jimmy Butler.
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