Jimmy Butler and the limits of desire

Miami Heat, NBA Playoffs

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Nobody is going to outwork Jimmy Butler and his Miami Heat. But this time around, that just may not be enough.

Every NBA player wants to win a championship, but few are more overt about how badly they want to do so than the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler. He is almost theatrical in how he showcases his work effort and competitiveness, regularly talking about how much he pushes himself in his 4 a.m. workouts while holding nothing but contempt for those who lack his singular devotion. It would come off as an unconvincing put-on if not for how good he actually is and how he repeatedly spurs otherwise unspectacular teams to a level they would not reach without him. The performance validates the rhetoric. Yet as his Heat find themselves in a 2-0 hole against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler is faced with the limits of his desire and of his ability to singlehandedly remake the NBA landscape.

The Miami Heat’s run to the Finals last season was improbable. Yet watching it happen, it felt inevitable; they truly looked like the best team in the Eastern Conference. Miami dismantled every team they faced on their way to their first Finals appearance since LeBron James left the team in 2014. The Heat managed to find faults in all of their opponents, poking at weaknesses that may have appeared minor on paper until they became gaping holes. While the Heat gave the Lakers a good fight in the first five contests, stealing two games behind all-time great performances by Butler, they did not have the firepower to win it all, especially considering the injuries suffered by Adebayo and Goran Dragic in Game 1.

They figured to be among the favorites to represent the East again this season, but their attempt to defend their conference title has not gone great. It’s been a strange year for the Heat. Perhaps it was the quick turnaround from playing the Finals in October to starting a new season only three months later. If not that, maybe it was the combination of injuries and the front office making a number of deals, both of which could have disrupted the team’s stability. With Butler missing 12 of the team’s first 18 games, the Heat started 6-12 and while they recovered enough to make the playoffs, they rarely looked like the squad from the year before. Apart from the performances of Butler and Adebayo, this season featured a teamwide regression to the mean: Duncan Robinson was a less lethal shooter, Tyler Herro had a sophomore slump, age finally caught up to Goran Dragic, and Trevor Ariza was a lackluster replacement for Jae Crowder.

Jimmy Butler is doing everything he can for the Miami Heat but it hasn’t it been enough

Despite all this, Butler managed to have what may be his best season so far. He averaged career-highs in rebounds, steals, and assists per game while also posting new bests in true shooting percentage and BPM. While he shot poorly from 3, making less than a quarter of his attempts, he made up for it by attacking the rim and regularly getting to the line. Butler took more than 60 percent of shots within 10 feet of the basket and converted over 72 percent of his looks at the rim. For a player of his stature, there are rarely any major leaps left to be taken. Instead, stars improve by filling in the gaps, finding ways to accentuate their strengths and mask their weaknesses. Butler did precisely that.

For someone as obsessed with winning a championship as Butler is, he seems to care just as much about process and environment as the end results. If he had stayed in Philadelphia alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, he would be closer to winning a championship than he is now. Instead, he went to Miami, a franchise led by the famously fanatical Pat Riley. More important than being surrounded by All-NBA talent in either Minnesota or Philadelphia was playing on a team and in an environment where his own brand of cutthroat desire is welcomed and matched. If Butler is going to win a championship, he is intent on doing so on his own terms, surrounded by teammates who want it not only as badly as he does, but in the same way.

Through the first two games of the Heat’s opening-round series against the Bucks, Butler has not played well. While he did convert an impressive lay-up to force overtime in Game 1, he is shooting 25 percent from the field as the Bucks force him into bad shot after bad shot. Butler may be able to help the Heat win a game or two in this opening-round series, but already their season appears to be over. Much as he may wish otherwise, one man’s force of will is not enough to win an NBA title. In a preseason interview with Sports Illustrated, Butler said “Just know, this year we finna win it man… I’m going to be better than ever.” He may have lived up to the latter part of his promise, but winning it all will have to wait.

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