Three teams have been pillars of culture in the modern NBA: The San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Miami Heat. No matter the players, these three franchises have established systems where players come in to fill a role, commit to the vision, and buy in completely. Of the trio, only the Heat are currently competitive as they face the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, a series they’re currently losing 3-2. All three teams have used the draft to pinpoint players who fit their culture while establishing a development program that builds on players’ strengths and prioritizes team-oriented goals.
The Spurs dominated from the early 2000s to 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 returned to dominance when LeBron James and Chris Bosh teamed up with 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 around 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, every man causing havoc with crisp communication and seamless footwork. This has been the standard since Pat Riley joined the franchise in 1995, first as coach, then as President of Basketball Operations. He brought with him the black and purple blueprint during his time in New York, where he turned 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 most out of his players, second only to Gregg Popovich of the Spurs. He’s been with Miami since 2008, providing stability on the sidelines and a consistent, no-nonsense approach that embodies his All-Dawg roster of badasses. Yet, while the 2006 championship team had an older Shaq and a younger Wade, and the early 2010’s Heat had three Hall of Fame players, Spoelstra’s current team is devoid of a superstar. Well, Heat fans would disagree.
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 current 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 all undrafted gems who exemplify the Heat’s ability to find talent in every facet of the draft.
But none of those names deserve to be listed in a Top 10 list of NBA players. Of all of them, Butler has the best argument to be called a “superstar.” Miami Heat fans would undoubtedly say so, as would former Heat players like Shaq. But outside of the Miami Heat fanbase, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a majority who agree. But why?
Well, for one, Butler’s 17.7 career PPG over 11 seasons shows that he hasn’t been able to sustain averaging over 20 ppg for his career. In contrast, the star opposing the Heat in the ECF, Jayson Tatum, is on his way to being a superstar, currently holding a career average of 20.9 PPG. In addition, the Celtics’ second-best player, Jaylen Brown, who is widely accepted as a star but not a superstar, has a closer career average to Butler with 16.5 PPG.
Butler is an elite two-way player who is one of the best on-ball defenders and most vocal leaders in the NBA. He’s a fearless competitor who improves every team he’s on by turning them into a playoff team. He did it in Chicago after Derrick Rose left, in Minnesota, in Philadelphia, and since joining 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 domination to be in the same category as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Luka Dončić, or LeBron James.
Butler is in the same echelon as Paul George, Penny Hardaway, Ray Allen, John Starks, Kevin Johnson, and Tony Parker. Butler would make for one of the best number two options on a championship team, but his teams have and will continue to come up short with him as the primary option on offense. If only his offensive game could keep up with his killer instinct and heart, he would have been a champion by now. Butler’s 23 PER is his fourth-highest mark for his career. He holds a career of 21 PER. Of those named earlier as true superstars, Durant’s career PER is 25, James’s 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 averages 32 percent from three 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 touch overrated. Adebayo averaged 19 and 10 this season, good numbers, but not what you would 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’s been outmuscled and outplayed by opposing bigs in almost every series of his young career. As the Heat’s undisputed second-best player, in the 2020 Finals, he averaged a paltry 15 and 6 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Through four games against Boston, he’s averaged an embarrassing 14 and 7. While Adebayo is dominant in stretches during the regular season, playing in an age where most bigs feel more comfortable out of the paint and behind the three-point line, his consistent disappearance for long stretches and entire playoff series is worrisome.
The Heat’s true MVP is coach Spoelstra. Behind his game planning, rotations, and playcalling, the Heat have regularly overachieved while tending to be less athletic, older, and less talented than their playoff counterparts. Spo is the main reason the Heat have once again have another shot at the Finals this postseason. The Heat have often struggled to score in these playoffs, primarily because they don’t have a superstar. And while Butler’s 26.5 ppg in this year’s playoffs shows his ability to step up in the playoffs, the next highest 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 one 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 greatest accomplishment yet.