Can Jimmy Butler Make The Miami Heat Relevant Again?
Mediocrity Since LeBron’s Departure
In the 5 seasons since LeBron James left South Beach during the 2014 offseason, the Miami Heat have found themselves stuck in mediocrity. The team has only made the playoffs twice during this span, and neither of those postseason appearances resulted in anything better than a second-round playoff exit. To make matters worse, the Heat haven’t been bad enough to generate any top draft picks, with their highest selection coming in the 2015 draft where they had the 10th overall pick. The Heat can’t blame their defense, which has ranked in the top-10 each year since 2016, but the offense has clearly not been up to standards. After having an offense that ranked no worse than 8th during the Big-3 era from 2011-2014, Miami hasn’t posted an above-average offensive rating since.
With that being said, the Heat entered this free agency period with no available cap space to do anything about their offensive woes, but everything changed once Jimmy Butler decided he wanted to be in Miami. While the Heat’s lack of financial flexibility prevented them from signing him as an outright free agent, they were able to organize a four-team sign and trade to acquire the four-time all-star. It hurt to have to send Josh Richardson back to the Sixers, but they managed to offload Hassan Whiteside’s inconsistent play and terrible contract to the Trail Blazers so that they could make room for Jimmy’s max deal. Butler has been one of the more dynamic two-way wings in the NBA over the past several years, and his competitiveness and incredible work ethic are seemingly perfect fits for the Miami Heat culture. But does Jimmy have the game to turn around the Heat’s struggling offense and put the franchise back in contention?
Fitting in with Current Offensive Scheme
Given the Heat’s lack of a top offensive threat on offense, head coach Erik Spoelstra has had to resort to some more unconventional types of sets in order to try and generate more offensive success. The result was a system that was heavily reliant on off-ball movement rather than isolation sets. However, despite the Heat having the 7th highest cut frequency in the NBA last season, they were not able to convert from these positions at a high rate, generating the 5th worst points-per-cut-made number in the entire league. Jimmy should help solve this problem immediately, as last year he scored 1.68 points per cut, putting him in the 97th percentile in the NBA according to Synergy and 3rd among players who played in at least 50 games.
The dribble hand off is another example of an existing offensive option for the Heat, as Miami ran the most handoffs of any team in the league a season ago. However, they only ranked 22nd in points per handoff possession, which is a big discrepancy and great cause for concern. That being said, Butler should help alleviate these issues, as he showed during his time in both Minnesota and Philadelphia last year that he is one of the more efficient producers when getting the ball in handoff situations. If Butler can be the one getting the ball in these situations rather than someone like Dion Waiters, who led the Heat last year in handoff frequency despite falling in the 33rd percentile when it comes to handoff efficiency, Spoelstra should expect the offense to take a step forward.
Adding New Elements
While it appears that Jimmy Butler will be a great fit in the Heat’s existing offensive system, he can also help it grow by adding two elements that weren’t available before given the limitations of the team’s prior roster. Let’s start with the pick and roll, as Butler has showed great improvements lately as a playmaker and a scorer when someone sets a ball screen for him. In Minnesota he was elite, ranking in the 93rd percentile when it came to scoring efficiency out of the pick and roll. He didn’t have as much of an opportunity to showcase this skill in Philadelphia during the regular season, with head coach Brett Brown opting to play him more off-ball so that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons could act as the main facilitators of the offense, but in the playoffs when it mattered most Brown put the ball in Butler’s hands and he produced similar numbers to when he was in Minnesota. The Heat had the least efficient pick and roll offense last season, and Butler topped all of Miami’s guards in points produced out of this offensive play-type.
Another area where the Miami Heat struggled a season ago was converting on their transition opportunities, since they were in the bottom six in the league when it came to points per transition possession. With that being the case, the Heat rarely looked to push the ball in the open court as they were 27th in the league in transition frequency which resulted in them being one of the slower-paced teams in the NBA. These number should garner concern from Heat fans because scoring in the fastbreak is one of the more highly efficient and effective methods of putting up points, especially in todays modern NBA. Jimmy will help a lot here, as his 1.24 points per transition opportunity would already be the 2nd highest on the Heat behind Bam Adebayo, so putting the ball in his hands when the pace picks up will improve Miami in this facet of the game.
A Go-To Scorer
At the end of the day, the main prize that the Heat are getting with the acquisition of Jimmy Butler is an elite scoring option that can create offense for himself. Miami has only had one player average more than 20 points per game over the past four seasons (Goran Dragíc averaged 20.3 points per game in 2017), and that is not a winning formula for a team that wants to return to be a real playoff contender. The expectation is that Butler will change this right away, as Jimmy has accomplished this scoring threshold in four of the past five seasons, and the only time he averaged below 20 was last year, where he was traded during the middle of the season and had to adjust to a new offense in Philadelphia. Additionally, Jimmy’s ability to score in isolation will give the Heat another new element to their offense, since they were second to last in the league in isolation frequency (mainly because they had no good options).
Jimmy’s offensive impact also doesn’t wane when the game gets tight down the stretch, and as a matter effect it actually seems to rise to the occasion. Butler’s clutch player impact estimate of 18.0 during the regular season last year would rank the highest on Miami’s roster. Also, although it comes from an extremely small sample size, his clutch rating in the playoffs was an astronomical 48.3, ranking first in the league! The Heat can really benefit if Jimmy can replicate his clutch production from last year, as they were only 21-24 in games where the margin was five points or fewer during the last five minutes of a game, and turning some of those losses into wins could wind up being the difference between making some noise next year or being an afterthought yet again.
Will It Be Enough?
With everything taken into account, there is no doubt that the Jimmy Butler addition should spark the long-dormant Heat offense. By both fitting in with the currently established offensive system and also providing extra dynamics that weren’t feasible before, Jimmy will give this team an offensive identity that Miami hasn’t had since the prime days of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Now, does this mean that the Heat will be able to take a jump up in the standings? Given all of the fallout from this summer’s wild offseason, the Heat are still consistently projected to be in that 6-8 seed range in the eastern conference playoff picture. While that is an improvement from last season’s 10th place finish, there is no question that team president Pat Riley is expecting more from this team. The Heat have shown interest in acquiring a second star to pair with Butler to help speed up the process, but if Jimmy Butler can prosper as the lead guy in South Beach and the younger talent that surrounds him can take another step forward, this Heat team has the potential to be dangerous.