Three teams have been mainstays of culture in the modern NBA: The San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Miami Heat. Regardless of the players, all three of these franchises have established systems where players come in to play a role, commit to the vision, and fully participate. Of the trio, only the Heat are currently competitive as they face the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, a series they are currently losing 3-2. All three teams have used the draft to identify players who fit their culture while establishing a development program that builds on player strengths and prioritizes team-oriented goals.
The Spurs dominated from the early 2000s through the mid-2010s, while the Thunder dominated the entirety of the 2010s. The Heat won a championship in 2006 behind Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, then went back to dominate when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Wade in 2010 to win two titles. The Heat returned to the Finals in the 2020 Bubble and are fighting this year to return.
Something is different this time than it was in 2006 or 2010-2014. Once again, the Heat are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, tied for third in the regular season and tied for second in the playoffs. They seem to possess a switch no other team has, one that sees them locked down as a unit, each man wreaking havoc with crystal-clear communication and perfect footwork. This has been the standard since Pat Riley joined the franchise in 1995, first as a coach and later as president of basketball operations. He brought the black and purple model with him during his time in New York, where he built a hapless Knicks franchise into one of the toughest teams in NBA history.
Riley’s successor, Erik Spoelstra, is one of the top two coaches in the NBA. He regularly gets the best of his players, second only to the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich. He has been with Miami since 2008, providing stability on the sidelines and a consistent, no-nonsense approach that embodies their roster of All-Dawg badasses. Yet while the 2006 champion team had an older Shaq and a younger Wade, and the early 2010 Heat had three Hall of Famers, Spoelstra’s current team lacks a superstar. Well, Heat fans wouldn’t agree.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have ballers. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are All-Stars, Kyle Lowry and Victor Oladipo are former All-Stars, Tyler Herro is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, PJ Tucker and Udonis Haslem are old-school champions, and Duncan Robinson, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin are undrafted gems who exemplify the Heat’s ability to find talent in all facets of the draft.
But none of those names deserve to make a list of the 10 best players in the NBA. Of them all, Butler has the best argument for being called a “superstar.” Miami Heat fans would no doubt say so, as would former Heat players like Shaq. But outside of the Miami Heat fan base, it will be hard to find a majority that agrees. But why?
Well, for one thing, Butler’s 17.7 ppg PPG over 11 seasons shows that he hasn’t been able to maintain an average of more than 20 ppg in his career. In contrast, the star opposing the Heat in the ECF, Jayson Tatum, is on his way to becoming a superstar, currently averaging a career 20.9 PPG. Also, the Celtics’ second-best player, Jaylen Brown, who is widely accepted as a star but not a superstar, has a career average closer to Butler’s at 16.5 PPG.
Butler is an elite two-way player who is one of the best defenders on the ball and one of the most vocal leaders in the NBA. He is a fearless competitor who improves every team he is on by turning them into a playoff team. He did it in Chicago after Derrick Rose left, in Minnesota, in Philadelphia, and since he joined the Heat, he’s taken them to the Finals. So why isn’t he a superstar? Unfortunately, not everyone is cut out to be one. While Butler has the intangibles of a superstar, he doesn’t have the physical gifts or offensive dominance to be in the same category as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Luka Dončić or LeBron James.
Butler is on the same footing as Paul George, Penny Hardaway, Ray Allen, John Starks, Kevin Johnson and Tony Parker. Butler would be one of the best No. 2 options on a championship team, but his teams have fallen short on him and will continue to fall short. as the primary option on offense. If only his offensive game could keep up with his killer instinct and his heart, he would have already been a champion. Butler’s 23 PER is the fourth-highest mark of his career. He boasts a career 21 PER. Of those named above as true superstars, Durant’s career PER is 25, James’ career PER is 27, Dončić’s career PER is 24 and Antetokounmpo’s career PER is 24.5. Butler’s career shooting numbers also leave more to be desired. He’s averaging 32 percent from 3 and 46 percent from the field, especially when you factor in Butler’s contract, which pays him $36 million a year.
But Butler isn’t the only one who could be called a bit overrated. Adebayo averaged 19 and 10 this season, good numbers, but not what you’d expect from a physical specimen who is one of the strongest forwards in the NBA, capable of guarding all five positions. But Adebayo has routinely disappeared in the playoffs. He has been outmuscled and outplayed by great rivals in nearly every series of his young career. As the Heat’s undisputed second best player, in the 2020 Finals, he averaged 15 and a measly 6 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Through four games against Boston, he averaged 14 and an embarrassing 7. While Adebayo is dominant in stretches during the regular season, playing at a time when most of the greats are more comfortable out of the paint and behind the 3-point line, his constant disappearance for long stretches and all playoff series is worrying.
The real Heat MVP is Coach Spoelstra. Behind their game planning, rotations and plays, the Heat have regularly outdone themselves and tend to be less athletic, older and less talented than their playoff counterparts. Spo is the main reason the Heat have gotten another shot at the Finals this postseason. The Heat have often struggled to score in these playoffs, mainly because they don’t have a superstar. And while Butler’s 26.5 points per game in this year’s playoffs shows his ability to advance in the playoffs, the next leading scorers are Adebayo at 14.5 and Herro at 13.5. Spoelstra can only do so much from the sidelines. We know what he can do with a superstar. We even know what he can do with three. But bringing this Heat core to the brink of contention twice in the last three seasons, without a bona fide superstar or second scoring option, might be his biggest accomplishment yet.