Jimmy Butler may not have reached NBA superstar status, but it’s a different story for ‘Playoff Jimmy’

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If you imagined what an NBA superstar wing looks like. You probably see a tall, chiseled player gliding through the air for a tomahawk dunk. The archetype has been drilled into our heads from bygone eras: LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant. All were high-flying dunkers capable of gaudy stats and record-breaking averages during the NBA regular season and playoffs.

For years, there has been a debate if Miami’s Jimmy Butler fits that archetype. He’s proven he certainly rises to the occasion during the playoffs. That’s where the term “Playoff Jimmy,” a name he doesn’t like, came from. But his regular season career average of 18.2 is far from gaudy.

His playoff career scoring average is only 20.9, but that’s where Butler defenders chime in with “points per game is an antiquated way of judging talent.” And there is certainly such an argument regarding secondary and tertiary scoring options. But a superstar? Part of the point is they dominate on the scoring front. Players like Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman are Hall of Fame players who were lockdown defenders but not considered superstars. That title is reserved for the first options on offense that were unstoppable during their time. Using their point averages to determine their status is fair game and a necessary metric to determine their dominance.

How Jimmy Butler has evolved

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Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler has never averaged over 24 points per game in the regular season, a surprising stat given the Miami Heat have depended so largely on his scoring output during his Heat tenure.

Before he arrived to the Heat, the question of Butler being a superstar was mute, as he was the second-best player on every team he played. In Chicago, he played second fiddle to Derrick Rose before playing Robin to Joel Embiid’s Batman in Philadelphia, then eventually serving as 1A to Karl Anthony Towns’ 2A in Minnesota.

In Miami, he has evolved into a first option capable of dragging a team of low-ceiling, high-floor
players to the NBA Finals, as he did in The Bubble during 2020. Last year, he took the Heat
back to the Conference Finals, and this season, he helped the Heat accomplish perhaps the biggest
first-round upset since the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors shocked the Dallas Mavericks in 2007.

The No. 8 Heat shocked the No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks in just five games. Giannis Antetokounmpo missed Games 2 and 3 with a lower back contusion. But even with that factor, nobody expected the Heat to beat the contending Bucks, especially since they were without their third- (Tyler Herro) and fifth-leading scorer (Victor Oladipo), this had placed an even bigger scoring load on Butler, who is averaging 35.5 PPG.

He took Games 4 and 5 into his own hands, scoring 56 points in Game 4 and 42 points in the series-clinching Game 5. In Game 4, he shot an astonishing 67.9 percent from the field while getting to the line 18 times. There is something to be said about players who elevate their game in the postseason. Butler is one of those players. He’s been the best player in these playoffs, which features MVP candidates and winners like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, and Joel Embiid.

In Game 1 of the Heat’s Eastern Conference semifinals series against the New York Knicks, Jimmy Butler was the best player on the floor, dropping 25 points on 50 percent shooting, plus 11 rebounds and four rebounds before rolling his ankle. Although he was clearly limping and in pain, Butler continued to play.

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“We’ve probably had more practice than anybody else in having to step up when guys get hurt, but that certainly is inspiring that he would not come out of the game and to be able to finish the game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters. “Just infused a bunch of confidence into the rest of the guys that we have to finish this off.”

Butler limped to the line and sank both free throws, essentially clinching the game on the way to a 108-101 road win for the Heat. In his postgame comments, Spoelstra summed up the team’s ability to play through injuries.

“This group has been through a lot … and we’re not being insensitive to when guys get nicked
up or get hurt, but our group has learned to compartmentalize and focus on the task at hand…”
Spoelstra told reporters.

When asked how his ankle felt, Butler said it felt like “a rolled ankle.” That type of grit-it-out performance is reminiscent of the mindset of the all-time greats. Like when a flu-stricken Michael Jordan willed the Chicago Bulls to a Game 5 win of the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz. Or in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals, a hobbled Isiah Thomas scored 25 points in the third quarter on a sprained ankle. Butler might not have the stats of a superstar, but he has the mindset of one.

Comparing Jimmy Butler to Wes Unseld

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It was a while back, but one of the best comparisons for Jimmy Butler’s status is Wes Unseld. First the Baltimore Bullets and later the Washington Bullets (after the franchise moved to D.C.), Unseld
has a career scoring average of 10.8 points. But as the league MVP in 1969, it’s tough not to
consider him a superstar in his prime.

Unseld won a championship with the Bullets in 1978 and was named Finals MVP. He was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All Time in 1996, the NBA’s Greatest 75 in 2021 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988.

Unseld was a stellar rebounder, averaging 14 boards per game for his career. But he only averaged double digits in points six out of his 13 seasons, never averaging more than 16.2 his second year. After his first five seasons, he only averaged double digits again once, in 1979.

Butler has had no problem averaging double digits, but he has only averaged over 20 points per game eight times in his 14 seasons. None of his other stats pop out, with career averages of 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists, although he has shown his defensive value with 1.6 steals per game. Those stats stay about the same in the playoffs, except for points, which rise slightly to 20.9 PPG. This indicates that Butler has historically upped his offensive game in the postseason. In last season’s run to the Eastern Conference finals, Butler averaged 27.4 points, dropping over 40 four times in the postseason.

So, is Butler a superstar? In the playoffs, there seems to be little doubt. Butler has routinely risen to the occasion during the postseason, twice taking the Heat to the conference finals as well as to the Finals. That’s an impressive feat, as the Heat routinely average at the bottom of the league in points per game, pace, and scoring rate.

The Heat have had some of the NBA’s premier talent wear their uniform, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Bosh, and Alonzo Mourning. Under team president Pat Riley, the Heat have cultivated a reputation for elite culture. One built on toughness, over-achieving, and defense.

James is the best Heat player, Wade is the most legendary. But Jimmy Butler probably embodies the Heat culture best.

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo

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