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Jimmy Butler is everything the Heat wanted him to be

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Butler is turning the Heat into a force in the Eastern Conference.

Jimmy Butler points out a play for the Heat.
Jimmy Butler is getting everything he wanted in Miami.

The marriage of Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat always made too much sense. Butler is the player who grinded his way to stardom from the humblest of beginnings in junior college, the self-made stud who is always eager to remind you that no one works as hard as he does. The Heat are a franchise that prides itself on putting in work, making players drop body fat and get into the best shape of their lives, with the before-and-after pictures to prove it.

Butler has longed for a team built around his superlative talents that would match his competitive drive. Miami was in a singular position to offer both. While some scratched their head when Butler left a 76ers team on the brink of a Finals appearance for a Heat roster building from the ground up, this was a perfect pairing of a player and organization on multiple levels.

The early returns have been as good as anyone could have hoped for. After snapping the Toronto Raptors’ seven-game winning streak on Tuesday night, the Heat are now 15-5 overall and tied for second place in the Eastern Conference. When the game is close late, it’s Butler who is counted on to be Miami’s closer. He continues delivering in the biggest moments.

On Sunday, Butler suffered through an off-night before willing the Heat to a victory over the Nets by taking over in crunch-time. He did it again against the mighty Raptors, scoring eight straight points to open overtime and finishing with a triple-double to give Miami the road win.

The Heat are rolling and Butler is at the center of everything. Right now, it sure looks like this is the mutually beneficial relationship it was always meant to be.

Butler remains one of the NBA’s most impactful players

The Chicago Bulls traded away Butler when he was at the height of his powers. Butler’s 2016-17 season, his last in Chicago, is one of the strongest individual seasons of this decade and compares very favorably statistically with Derrick Rose’s MVP campaign. While Butler’s numbers have slightly declined since he left the Bulls, he remains one of the 15 or so best players in the NBA any definition.

Butler is near the top of the leaderboard in whichever impact stat you prefer. Right now, he’s No. 5 in PIPM, No. 6 in 538’s RAPTOR metric, No. 8 in box score plus-minus, No. 6 in win shares per 48 minutes, No. 10 in Value Over Replacement Player. Bulls fans won’t want to look at how Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn are performing in those metrics.

Butler remains so valuable despite posting some of the worst shooting numbers of his career so far with the Heat. Butler is making just 23.8 percent of his threes this season, one of the lowest marks in the league for a volume shooter. He’s making up for it by being one of the league’s best in free-throw rate (8.6 attempts per game) and posting career-high numbers in assist rate, block rate, and steal rate.

Butler is a monster defensively even when it doesn’t show up in the box score:

Having a superstar like Butler changes everything. The Heat are living proof of that.

Butler deserves most of the credit for the Heat’s rise

The Heat finished 39-43 last year. This season, they’re winning because of the development of Bam Adebayo, breakout rookie performances from Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson, and the simple fact they’re making a lot more threes (39 percent on the season, No. 3 in the NBA). But mostly, the Heat are winning because of Butler.

Miami’s one-year jump from No. 26 to No. 11 in offensive efficiency can be traced directly to having a superstar like Butler make every decision on the offensive end. Butler has always wanted to be used as a reasonable facsimile to James Harden, and he’s damn good at it. As the NBA has gone away from pure point guards to oversized lead initiators, Butler is an ideal fit for the job: he’s a smart passer, rarely turns the ball over, and can always get to the free throw line. The teams that hesitated to use him as such (cough — Bulls! — cough) did a massive disservice to themselves.

The Heat are great defensively at No. 6 in the league in large part because Butler is great defensively. The Heat are winning close in crunch time because Butler is a tremendous closer. The Heat’s role players are having career years because defenses are keying on Butler and he’s finding open shooters and roll men. There are a lot of people who deserve credit for Miami’s breakthrough season, but none more than Butler.

The Heat are for real

Most preseason predictions had the Heat fighting for one of the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Instead, Miami is a legitimate contender to win the conference and reach the NBA Finals.

Butler feuded with teammates at times in Chicago because he knew his front office surrounded him with a bunch of guys who weren’t that good. He feuded with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota because he didn’t think they worked hard enough. He wanted a bigger opportunity than the one he was going to get in Philadelphia next to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

In Miami, everything is working in perfect harmony so far. Butler has been a tremendous teammate, taking Herro under his wing and earning praise from the other players on the roster after every star performance. The ball is in his hands and he’s been excellent at orchestrating a more efficient offense. The defense is one of the top units in the league. Miami remains undefeated at home, one of only three teams who can say that right now.

Jimmy Butler isn’t the type of player you trade for a couple lottery tickets. He’s the type of player you build your franchise around. The Heat realized that, and now they’re reaping the benefits.