Erik Spoelstra defines a max player: Butler (and not Whiteside?)

It was a simple question about missed shots.

But it was natural for some to interpret part of the answer as an subtle shot.

OK, here’s how it started:

I’ve noticed a trend.

Jimmy Butler shoots poorly, as he did Thursday against the Toronto Raptors, making just 2-of-10 from the floor.

The Miami Heat win anyway, as they did, 82-74, to rise to 25-9 on the season.

And, according to the betting data here, they’re listed as significant favorites to win tonight’s game against Orlando so things continue to look good for them, even when Butler isn’t connecting consistently from anywhere but the foul line.

In fact, the Heat are now a ludicrous 11-2 when Butler makes five or fewer field goals in a game. So it’s not an especially small sample size. Butler has done everything well in his debut season with the Heat (defense, rebounding, passing, playmaking and especially leading). Especially except shoot well from beyond 10 feet. His percentages from every spot on the floor, past that distance, are his worst since his rookie season, when he was a benchwarmer for Chicago. He’s already had 12 games this season, including Thursday, when he shot under 37 percent. That happened only 14 times all of the 2018-19 season with Philadelphia and Minnesota combined.

So I merely presented the odd 11-2 number to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra after the win, acknowledging that he likely wouldn’t want Butler to keep shooting below his career marks simply to see if the Heat can win anyway.

Here’s the exchange, in full:

As you see, ESPN Sportscenter picked it up.

Why?

Well, in part because it’s a thoughtful assessment about what is really important to winning, and why Butler has been so critical for the Heat.

Spoelstra said he wasn’t concerned about the shooting. Then he pivoted.

“That’s what young players should learn coming into the league, of what a max player actually is,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not about stats. It’s not about that final number on the boxscore. It’s not about whatever 2k numbers you can get. It’s not. It’s about how your team functions and are you winning because of a player? And there is no debate about this. He’s having an incredible impact on our winning, on our bottom line, and why we chased him so hard as a max player. That should be the definition from here on out. But it’s not. It’s not clouded. It becomes about stats…”

OK, so on its face, that’s simply high praise of Butler.

So why did everyone, in the responses to the videos, start tagging @YoungWhiteside, for now-Blazers center Hassan Whiteside?

A few reasons for the connection.

Many know the checkered history between Spoelstra and Whiteside, though both have mostly praised the other since the Heat shipped Whiteside to Portland for Meyers Leonard and Mo Harkless, who was eventually dealt to the Clippers to clear enough space for Butler. Spoelstra’s frustration with Whiteside was evident the past couple of seasons, and it was mutual. Now it’s clear that Whiteside needed to go for Bam Adebayo and the team to thrive.

This was detailed on Heat media day, in my column.

But it’s the “2K thing” mostly.

That was Whiteside’s thing.

Remember Whiteside exploding on the scene, and actually winning Heat fan hearts by joking (well, not really) that he just wanted to “get my 2K rating up,” for the video game that so many players and fans play?

It stopped being cute when Whiteside began pouting about his role and touches, and it seemed as if he was more concerned with stat compiling than winning, often stranding teammates in search of blocks.

Now that Whiteside’s gone, suddenly the ball moves more on offense, with elite passing big man Bam Adebayo taking his place. Suddenly the pick-and-roll coverage is better, with Adebayo storming the perimeter to disrupt drivers before they even get near the rim. And suddenly the Blazers are struggling to make the playoffs, after making the Western Conference Finals without Whiteside last season.

And suddenly — and this can’t be overstated — Spoelstra has appeared happy again.

(And he keeps talking about “max players” and what they should be; Whiteside, of course, was given a max by Miami.)

Still, maybe Spoelstra didn’t mean anything toward Whiteside, and this was all about Butler. Certainly the Heat and Spoelstra will say so now, with Whiteside and his team making their only appearance at American Airlines Arena this season, this upcoming Sunday. We’re not necessary expecting a tribute video, but the Heat tend to go the classy route, so who knows?

Whatever was meant, or not, by Spoelstra here, this certainly makes an interesting subplot even more intriguing. Contrary to what Whiteside may have believed, the Heat now have shooters everywhere — including one from the podium, who didn’t miss his intended or unintended target Thursday.

 

Ethan J. Skolnick, the CEO of Five Reasons Sports Network, will relaunch his Season Ticket column next week with a column about Butler’s impact in other ways.

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