The Miami Heat are only nine games into the 2021/2o22 season, but that hasn’t stopped Jimmy Butler from playing at a level worthy of early-season MVP buzz.
At 32, Butler is enjoying his best season in the NBA so far. His raw numbers of 24.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists may not look like a line one normally associates with an MVP candidate, but those numbers only tell part of a larger story.
In a league where the three-point shot dominates NBA offenses, Butler has decided to go in the opposite direction. Since joining the Heat in 2019, Butler has taken shots closer and closer to the basket, in large part due to a highly effective ability at both absorbing contact and holding onto the ball.
The current average shot distance on Butler’s shots is just 7.9 feet this season. 39% of his shot attempts come from within three feet of the basket, and he’s converting those attempts at 78.9% accuracy, a career-high.
Butler’s relentlessness at getting to the basket also serves the rest of the team well, as opposing defenses often collapse due to his efficiency near the rim, opening up passing lanes. Butler’s favorite target – Tyler Herro – is currently shooting 50% from the field from Butler passes, including 46.7% from three-point range.
Duncan Robinson, another marksman, is hitting 41.7% of his three-pointers off of Butler feeds, a significant increase over his 32.5% mark for the season.
Of course, Butler’s combination of strength, ball-control and finishing ability also leads to an abundance of free throws. He’s currently attempting 8.6 free throws per game, having not been affected by the NBA rule changes that penalized shooters for creating unnecessary contact.
Butler isn’t throwing himself into defenders off long jumpers, as he rarely takes them, and instead relies on interior defenders to hack him, when he opts for hard drives towards the rim. He’ll often get fouled on his way to the basket via reach-ins, or opposing big men will hit his arms when he’s in the air.
One of Butler’s biggest strengths isn’t something that’s necessarily statistically quantifiable. He has proven to be very adaptable to new players, or to existing players experiencing growth. As he’s never been a high-volume shooter, Butler is extremely keen on sharing the spotlight and offensive responsibility. He’ll often take a backseat to players who have it going, and take on a more facilitator-driven role.
This season, Miami has not only seen significant growth from both Herro and Bam Adebayo – they also acquired former All-Star Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade worth $85 million over three years. Those are all fairly huge components to build around, but Butler has done just that.
Lowry, who’s averaging 7.5 assists per games, has been Miami’s primary playmaker and tablesetter, a role usually occupied by Butler. A lot of players would have had trouble relinquishing those responsibilities, but instead Butler decided to put more emphasis on being a target for Lowry’s passes, thus adapting to his new surroundings.
Butler is receiving 15.7 passes per game from Lowry, the highest of anyone on the team. Compared to last year, when 39% of Butler’s touches led to one or less dribbles, Butler is currently at 50% of his touches leading to one or less dribbles, handling the ball less in order to become a passing target, as opposed to being the primary passer.
It’s fair to wonder if the current nine-game sample size will carry over to the same extent for the rest of the season.
Currently, Lowry is only averaging 11.3 points on the season, taking a very modest 9.4 shot attempts per night. It stands to reason those numbers will go up as the season ages, especially when Miami will begin to prepare for the playoffs.
Furthermore, Robinson, who’s only hitting 34.9% of his shots this season, is likewise bound to return to form, suggesting both he and Lowry will need more shots and more possessions to be run through them, possibly lowering Butler’s numbers in the process.
Of course, one of Butler’s calling cards is defense, which should go nowhere regardless of the potential offensive sacrifices he might have to make. Butler’s 2.3 steals per game ranks in a three-way tie for third in the league (Alex Caruso and Matisse Thybulle also have 21 steals over nine games) and his defensive versatility has always been a main strength of his, both on-the-ball and off of it.
Surprisingly, FanDuel Sportsbook only has Butler 12th in Defensive Player Of the Year odds, which seems low considering the impact he’s had on every team he’s been on, but do have him seventh in MVP odds. The Heat currently own the fourth-best defense in the NBA, in large part due to the pairing of Butler, Lowry and Adebayo, who have forced opponents to hit a measly 41% against Miami in this young season.
Most importantly however is how the Heat are 7-2 and currently in the second seed in the Eastern Conference. If that seed sticks, the Heat remain a two-way juggernaut, and Butler is the connective tissue that makes everything go, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the 32-year-old finds himself in MVP discussions come April.