Jimmy Butler is not, by nature, an especially aggressive player. When he joined the Miami Heat for the 2019-20 season, he didn’t even lead the team in shot attempts. That honor belonged to undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn. The 13.1 attempts he did take per game matched the total that his predecessor as the face of the Heat franchise — Dwyane Wade — took as a rookie in the 2003-04 season. The Heat have been tremendously successful with Butler by running Erik Spoelstra’s equal-opportunity offense. Entering this season, there was no reason to believe that was going to change.
The Heat did, after all, give Kyle Lowry a hefty three-year, $85 million deal. They re-signed Duncan Robinson for five years as well. Tyler Herro is well on his way to a bounce-back year after disappointing as a sophomore last season, and much to the delight of the organization after steadily pushing him to be more assertive, Bam Adebayo is averaging a career-high 20.6 points per game. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, but through six games, Butler is eating more than ever.
In those six games, Butler is averaging career highs in both points (25.3) and field goal attempts (17). He’s shooting a career-best 52.9 percent from the field and 89.1 percent from the line. As the entire basketball world around him struggles to draw fouls with the league’s updated rules on offensive players initiating contact, Butler’s 7.7 free throw attempts per game are fourth in all of basketball and first among non-big men. He’s getting to the basket more at the age of 32 than he ever has. Not only are his 7.3 shots per game in the restricted area a new career high, but it currently places him in a tie for sixth place in all of basketball with Russell Westbrook. He’d never even reached six restricted area shots per game before this season.
No, a six-game sample is not reliable, but it’s not as though Butler hasn’t proven that he can scale up when necessary. We’re talking about someone who has scored 40 points in a Finals game before. This caliber of play is nothing new for Butler. It’s the stylistic shift so early in a new season that’s so rare. Butler is playing every game like it’s the postseason, a trait frequently attributed to the Heat as a franchise, and the result has been a similarly dominant start for Miami as a team.
The Heat are outscoring opponents by 16.5 points per 100 possessions thus far this season. They’re 5-1 and haven’t allowed a single opponent to score more than 103 points in a game. By comparison, only seven other NBA teams are even holding their opponents to 103 points per game. Their lone loss came on the road without Lowry. Yes, it’s been less than two weeks, but the Heat have been the NBA’s best team thus far, and if you assume their poor 3-point shooting as a team is going to improve based on its personnel, they still have significant room for improvement.
This was the idea that informed Miami’s roster-building strategy. The Heat saw a pathway to contention through the top-tier defense that Lowry and P.J. Tucker could help them create, but even they couldn’t have foreseen Butler’s excellence to open the season. This is already some of the best regular-season basketball he’s ever played even at an age in which most players have already begun to decline. If the Heat are surprised by what Butler has done, Vegas is downright flabbergasted. As of this writing, Butler’s MVP odds are still a very low plus-7500 at Caesars Sportsbook. That ties him for the 19th-best odds at this moment with five other players, but consider how he fits into the traditional MVP narrative we covered before the season.
- Availability is critical. This is where things get tricky. No MVP this century has missed more than 11 games. Butler has never suffered an especially serious injury, but he’s missed time due to minor, nagging issues here and there. Still, given the unusual nature of the past few seasons (Butler has missed time due to both COVID and a trade request), there’s less of a reason to doubt his durability than, say, Joel Embiid. Butler has not missed a game this season.
- Winning is perhaps the single biggest factor. The average 21st century MVP has won 61 games, and only two of them haven’t played for top-two seeds. Let’s check in on the other Eastern Conference powers. Milwaukee is currently banking losses with half of its roster injured. Brooklyn doesn’t have Kyrie Irving and James Harden has shown serious signs of decline. Philadelphia doesn’t have Ben Simmons. Boston has been a significant disappointment. Trae Young is already complaining about officiating. The Heat have a golden opportunity to snag a No. 1 seed, and 16 of the past 21 MVPs have played on No. 1 seeds. Right now, Utah is in line to be the No. 1 seed in the East. Do you think voters will prefer Butler or Rudy Gobert?
- Butler has the perfect amount of help. Adebayo has never made an All-NBA team. Lowry has made only one and it was in 2016. He has plenty of good players around him, but none capable of stealing his shine.
- Butler isn’t competing against his past self. He’s never won the award and he’s putting up the best numbers of his career.
This guarantees him nothing. He has literally played less than eight percent of his schedule thus far, and as we saw last season, the MVP race changes on a near-daily basis. Butler probably isn’t going to win. He’s probably not even going to finish in the top three. But if you’re looking at a long-shot candidate with a clear pathway to the trophy, Butler presents it. You’re just not going to find many candidates who can make any sort of real argument at 75-to-1. If you have heavy money on any Eastern Conference players in particular, taking a flyer on Butler now is a nice bit of insurance against your original pick’s team struggling because that team’s loss is Miami’s gain.
Butler is a somewhat unusual candidate. There hasn’t been a first-time winner in his 30s since Steve Nash, and Butler would be the oldest first-timer at 32 since Karl Malone won it at 33 in 1997. But the Nash model fits Butler’s circumstances like a glove. Like Butler, Nash was never a particularly aggressive scorer. He won his first trophy averaging only 15.5 points per game. But he lifted a surprising Phoenix team to a No. 1 seed by spearheading its No. 1 offense as a playmaker. Butler is a key figure in what could instead be a No. 1 defense, and even if he’s never going to find himself in the race for a scoring title, he’s putting up far more points than Nash ever did. That won’t ever make him a favorite, but given the odds he’s currently available for, he’s easily the best sleeper value on the board.