Welcome to The Mourning Edition, Zach Buckley’s take on the biggest developments in Heat Nation.
The NBA still hasn’t noticed what’s brewing on Biscayne.
Save for the sporadic cursory glances, no one has bothered taking much stock of the new-look Miami Heat. For the select few who have, their opinions on the team that Pat Riley built land somewhere between skepticism and outright pessimism.
The stat sheet regards the Heat as all-caps ELITE: tied for fourth in winning percentage, third in net efficiency. Power rankers shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Yeah, but who’ve they played?’
Miami landed eighth on the most ESPN rankings, while Royce Young quipped, “The schedule set them up for a three-game winning streak.”
Grand scheme, sure, the Heat get noting for playing a dominant month of basketball. But why have hoops heads decided this is the one early-season storyline no one needs to trust?
Is it really all because Butler had some messy divorces in his past? What if it just took him a few tries to find his perfect match? If at first you don’t succeed, right?
Remember, the good vibes started long before the win column ballooned.
“I feel that the way they go about everything here is the right way,” Butler said at his introductory press conference. “That’s what I am banking on. That’s why I am here.”
He might be a four-time All-Star now, but he’s also the player who went unranked out of Tomball (Texas) High School, who opened his college career at Tyler Junior College, who wasn’t selected until 30th overall in the 2011 draft (which he now leads in win shares) and who didn’t average double-digit points until his third NBA campaign.
His story of overcoming impossibly long odds is one shared by nearly everyone inside of this organization.
Goran Dragic was a second-round pick in 2008 and didn’t become a full-time starter until his age-26 season. Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, Derrick Jones Jr., Udonis Haslem and Chris Silva were all undrafted. Even head coach Erik Spoelstra is an old video coordinator who worked his way up through the ranks, and despite winning a pair of titles, he still seems underrated.
Even the “blue chips” aren’t what they seem.
Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro were lottery picks, but neither landed in the top 10. Adebayo was recently left off a Team USA team that had trouble attracting and retaining top talents. The Ringer graded the Herro selection as a C and questioned if he’d even stay on the floor. Justise Winslow, the 10th pick in 2015, has critics within the Heat’s own fanbase.
“Everybody is an underdog here,” Butler said at training camp. “If they’re not, they go about it as if they are.”
What if that shared mentality and willingness to work has bonded this locker room tighter than any he’s been involved in? What if he’s found something here that he was missing elsewhere?
Or, and I know this is a novel idea, what if we don’t play armchair psychologist and instead hear Butler express his contentment and just take his word for it until we have a current, valid reason to do otherwise?
His happiness can change everything. It already looks like it has.
He looks completely comfortable in his pass-first, score-when-needed role, and so does everyone else in the offense. This team has the Association’s second-highest assist percentage and no real natural point guard on the roster. Butler’s impact is real, and it’s spectacular, and doubting it only for the fear it might eventually get rocky seems like a miserable way to live.
As for the schedule-obsessed skeptics, good-to-great teams have long established that standing by beating up on bottom-feeders. Last season, the champion Toronto Raptors barely had a winning record against .500-or-better teams (22-20); the 50-win Utah Jazz (20-21) and 49-win Boston Celtics(17-25) were in the red.
Good-to-great clubs handle the teams they should and more or less tread water against anyone else. That’s exactly the model Miami has followed to this point. It has a perfect 7-0 mark against losing clubs—one of only four undefeated records against them—and a 3-3 mark against .500-plus teams, counting wins over Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and James Harden’s Rockets.
ESPN’s RPI says the Heat have faced the eighth-toughest schedule so far. Why, exactly, is their path behind held against them?
Maybe people are just running out of other reasons to doubt. The absence of a second star seemed worrisome until Bam Adebayo blossomed into that role. The longer guys like Nunn, Herro and Robinson keep rolling, the harder it is to see the rug being pulled out from underneath them.
And let’s not forget, Winslow has barely broken a sweat with this group. If he can find a way to coexist with Butler—at this point, doesn’t Spoelstra deserve the benefit of the doubt?—this team’s potential climbs even higher.
Already, though, the outlook has changed. The Heat had a chance to be pretty good; they’ve made themselves great instead.
“We can’t keep surprising people,” Butler said after the latest win, the team’s third double-digit triumph in a row. “We’re for real. I don’t think anybody wants to play against us, and that’s the way we want to keep it.”
The Heat aren’t going away, regardless if the rest of the hoops world notices or not.