LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 17: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat reacts during the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 17, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Superstars in the NBA are usually easy to explain with numbers. Almost without exception, they have multiple statistical categories that they dominate or a combination of categories that converge in our most accurate catch-all metrics like PIPM. You know a superstar to see him both on the floor and on the spreadsheet. As mentioned, there are exceptions, but perhaps only one: Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat.
A look down the PIPM leaderboard on BBall-Index reveals the expected murderers’ row of superstars. Two-time defending NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the way, followed by Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, James Harden, Luka Doncic, Chris Paul and Anthony Davis. Any way you cut it, just about everybody’s top three or five players of the season appear in this list.
One notable absence is Butler. Youll find him a couple of tiers below, where his +3.54 has him just ahead of Eric Bledsoe and just behind Hassan Whiteside, Brook Lopez and Ricky Rubio.
In these days where the “unstattable” player becomes rarer and rarer (because let’s face it, you can stat almost anything), such an argument often sounds like an excuse from a coach or media who feels beholden to a player. Whether it be Avery Bradley or Rajon Rondo, “unstattable” is a term used with varying degrees of truth, but Jimmy Butler is the ultimate unstattable eye-test superstar.
You don’t need a dashboard full of stats to tell you his contributions on the floor, and in fact, that dashboard might actually confuse you as to his actual impact.
This season he averaged 19.9 points per game, the sixth-lowest scoring output of his career. His .474 effective field goal percentage was his lowest since 2013-14, his first full season as an NBA starter. He shoots 24.4 percent from 3-point range. Of course, to counter that awful shooting, he’s got the second-lowest 3-point rate of his career but a historic free throw rate, shooting .693 free throws per every field goal attempt.
He’s also found other ways to contribute than simply filling the scoring column by himself. Jimmy Butler is averaging career highs in both rebounds and assists and a respective 6.7 and 6.0 per game, and his rebounding percentage is a corresponding career-high at 11.0 and his assist percentage a career-high of 28.1 percent.
It’s not to say that his numbers are putrid across the board, by any means, but sometimes in the NBA, you’ll find on-court impact is superseded by the mere statistical output. For Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, we have such a scenario.
For decades, the San Antonio Spurs benefited from a coach and culture and star relationship between Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan. When Duncan would do what was asked of him without question, how could any of the lesser players argue Popovich’s commands? Now for the Miami Heat, while perhaps a more fiery synergy exists, we have the same.
Jimmy Butler had his Heat teammates in the gym at 3 am during training camp and the early season. Some of us laughed at the time, but in retrospect that continued building of Heat culture took place within the walls of that gym in those early morning sessions. If Butler, the most accomplished veteran on the team, was working hard at ungodly hours, how could the younger stars in the making object to doing whatever was asked of them in the name of winning?
Butler has a reputation of being an ill-tempered teammate, but by now we know some of that was brought about by the environments he found himself in both Philadelphia and Minnesota. There was no top-down buy-in from players on those teams, and Butler bounced from place to place until he found his perfect fit with head coach Erik Spoelstra, team president Pat Riley, and a cadre of young players like Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson.
Between Butler taking a backseat when needed to let his young teammates shine, and the times he steps up to show them the way when needed, you can’t PIPM or RPM his influence and impact on his team. And now that the Miami Heat are two wins away from the NBA Finals, his impact on the whole league might be about to manifest itself in a brand new way.
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