Jimmy Butler's Miami Heat Are a Glorious Portrait of Team-First Basketball

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra is getting the most out of a revamped roster

Miami Heat are a surprise contender
Jimmy Butler, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson of the Miami Heat. (Mitchell Leff/Getty)
By Evan Bleier / January 9, 2020 10:09 am

Last season, the Miami Heat went 39-43 and finished in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, missing the playoffs. In Miami’s final game of the season, a 94-113 loss in Brooklyn to the Nets, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra started Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem, Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk and Goran Dragic.

Of those five players, only Wade, who retired following last season after a Hall-of-Fame career, is no longer on Miami’s roster. But on opening night this year against the Grizzlies in Miami, Spoelstra’s only started one of those players. With Haslem, Olynyk and Dragic watching from the bench, Spoelstra started Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Meyers Leonard alongside Winslow in a 120-101 win over Memphis.

Looking across the NBA, it’s hard to find many teams that only retained one starter in that capacity from their final game of last season. But the Heat are turning out to be full of surprises. The offseason turnover in Miami, which included bringing in prized free-agent acquisition Jimmy Butler (who missed the opener due to personal reasons), was severe — and incredibly successful.

The second-best team in the Eastern Conference at 27-10 as of this writing, the Heat have won every game but one in Miami this season, with their single loss coming to LeBron James and the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers.

But unlike the Lakers, who were projected to win at least 50 games and given the second-best odds of winning the NBA championship behind only the LA Clippers, the Heat were not supposed to be very good this season.

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gives instructions. (Andy Lyons/Getty)

While Vegas did project Miami would have a winning record, oddsmakers only projected the Heat would win 43.5 games, and gave them +6000 odds of winning the title. While it remains to be seen whether Miami has what it takes to make a championship run, they are almost certainly going to obliterate that win projection.

So how did this happen?

With opening-night starter Winslow out for the majority of the season due to injuries, Spoelstra has largely relied on a nine-man rotation the includes Butler, Adebayo, Nunn, Herro, Leonard, Duncan Robinson, Dragic, Derrick Jones, Jr. and Kelly Olynyk.

The rotation, which 2012 No. 4 overall pick Dion Waiters has been unable to crack, has been remarkably effective even though it includes a trio of undrafted players in Nunn, Robinson and Jones, as well as a former second-round pick in Dragic. Though they don’t have high draft pedigrees, that quartet of players is collectively averaging more than 50 points per game, and all four have double-digit player efficiency ratings (PER).

They have served as the perfect supporting cast for first-round talents Butler and Adebayo, both of whom are having All-Star-caliber seasons as well as leading the team in scoring (Butler), rebounds (Adebayo), assists (Butler), steals (Butler) and blocks (Adebayo).

Though Butler is the team’s leading scorer in terms of average, he’s only led the team in scoring 16 times this season, with Winslow, Dragic, Nunn, Robinson, Herro and Adebayo all taking multiple turns as the Heat’s top scorer.

While that isn’t the most conventional approach in today’s NBA (in which two or three star players typically do the bulk of the scoring), sharing the load on offense has paid off for Miami.

Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat dribbles the ball. (Andy Lyons/Getty)

“I mean, they know what this league is all about,” Butler said of his teammates earlier this week. “I don’t have to sit there and bang on that and tell them that. They know to be ready whenever their time is going to be called. But, I think, we have a group of guys that do want each other to be successful. We do enjoy each other’s success and we do want each other to do great. So when your name’s called — and it will be — with this team, you’ve just got to be ready.”

That readiness was on full display last night during a 122-108 win over the Pacers in Indiana that saw Herro lead the team with 19 points while six of his teammates (Butler, Dragic, Nunn, Robinson, Jones and Adebayo) all nabbed at least 14 points.

“That’s how this team is built,” Spoelstra said after the win. “That’s how our best player [Butler] is wired. It’s fun basketball to be a part of if everybody can embrace it — that it could be multiple guys, different guys on different nights, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be one guy with a high usage rate.”

It’s certainly not the norm, but the well-rounded approach has the South Beach squad climbing north in the standings — even though no one saw it coming.

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