The Miami Heat and Jimmy Butler's golden handcuffs

As long as Jimmy Butler is under contract, the Miami Heat will be incentivized to deal with his inconsistent regular seasons because the carrot of Playoff Jimmy is always looming.
Cleveland Cavaliers v Miami Heat
Cleveland Cavaliers v Miami Heat / Rich Storry/GettyImages

The Miami Heat do not have a regular-season superstar. A postseason superstar? Maybe. They definitely have had one. The hope is that Jimmy Butler can be that guy again… and again… and again.

This is a tough way to go about an NBA season. Six months of mediocrity followed by a swelling cacophony of some of the best damn basketball you’ve ever seen. The 2020 Bubble. The 2022 push. The one-of-its-kind run as the eighth seed in 2023. This has been the Jimmy Butler experience.

But here’s the thing: Just because Butler and the Heat have done it before doesn’t mean they will do it again. One day, the reservoir of dog will run dry and Butler, now 34, won’t be able to muster the same level of Jordian dominance to lift the Heat out of six months of mediocrity. When Miami realizes its blind belief has been unfulfilled, it will be too late.

These are Jimmy Butler’s golden handcuffs.

In the financial world, golden handcuffs refer to incentives intended to encourage an employee to remain with a company for a stipulated period of time. Only in this case, it’s the employee who has the organization in golden handcuffs. As long as Butler is under contract, the Heat will be incentivized to deal with his inconsistent regular seasons because the carrot of Playoff Jimmy is always looming.

As long as Jimmy Butler is under contract, the Miami Heat will be incentivized to deal with his inconsistent regular seasons because the carrot of Playoff Jimmy is always looming.

After Tuesday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors (that Butler missed with a mysterious non-COVID illness), the Heat have a regular-season win percentage of 57% since the Butler era began in 2019. The loss bumped the Heat down to 39-33 this season, two-and-a-half games behind the Indiana Pacers for the last guaranteed playoff spot. Basketball Reference gives the Heat more than a 70% chance of being forced into the play-in tournament for the second straight season.

Miami needed that game. Even without Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Kevin Love, an available Butler would have given the Heat a chance against a healthy Warriors team at home. Instead, Butler was a late scratch, unavailable with 11 games left in the regular season. Few details were provided, leading internet sleuths to fill the void with theories that Butler’s attendance at the Miami Open on Monday had something to do with his sudden absence. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not. Either way, it’s not a good look.

Butler has missed 22 games this season – some because of injury, some because of excused absences – but 22 games in a season when the Heat have had the fourth-most games missed due to injury and have played 35 different starting lineups.

This isn’t new. Butler has played at a pace that would meet the NBA’s 65-game minimum to qualify for end-of-season awards just once in his Heat tenure.

The idea is that Butler’s regular-season maintenance program primes him for a super-human playoff run. Mostly it has paid off. Here are Butler’s regular-season stats vs. his playoff stats for each season in Miami:

2019-20 regular season: 19.9 points on 45.5% shooting, 6.7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1.8 steals
2019-20 playoffs: 22.2 points on 48.8% shooting, 6.5 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals

2020-21 regular season: 21.5 points on 49.7% shooting, 6.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.1 steals
2020-21 playoffs: 14.5 points on 29.7% shooting, 7.5 rebounds, 7 assists, 1.3 steals

2021-22 regular season: 21.4 points on 48% shooting, 5.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.6 steals
2021-22 playoffs: 27.4 points on 50.6% shooting, 7.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.1 steals

2022-23 regular season: 22.9 points on 53.9% shooting, 5.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.8 steals
2022-23 playoffs: 26.9 points on 46.8% shooting, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.8 steals

When asked by Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes how he flips the switch, Butler responded, "You mean how can I turn into the greatest basketball player in the world all of a sudden? I don't know, man.

"I'm just different," Butler said. "I think this is when you're supposed to be playing your best basketball and you have to find a way to get your team to win these games when you're talking about the playoffs coming around.”

While this has been true and perhaps Butler has earned the benefit of the doubt, it stands to reason that at some point he won’t be able to simply “turn into the greatest basketball player in the world.” 

Even when Butler was coasting through past regular seasons, he was at least playing at an All-Star level and more often uncorked All-NBA caliber performances. There are indications that maybe that time is getting nearer. 

This season, Butler is on track to play in his fewest rate of games and post the lowest PER in a Heat uniform. His shooting percentage at the rim is the lowest it’s been in three seasons. After 10 games with a Game Score (a catch-all metric for a player’s effectiveness in any given game) of at least 30 last season, Butler has posted three such Game Scores this season. The Heat are 6-7 since that interview was published.

There is still no doubt that the Heat are a force when Butler plays like an All-NBA player. They are 3-0 in those 30-plus Game Score contests and 7-1 when Butler scores at least 30 points this season. The question isn’t if the Heat resemble a contender when Butler is at his best, it’s whether he can summon that kind of effort again and again for four straight playoff series.

By the way, the Heat know this. It’s why they have chased a co-star ever since Butler joined the team. Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell, Damian Lillard. All would have taken the scoring load off Butler’s shoulders and raised Miami’s floor in the regular season. 

But that player isn’t here, and teams are increasingly having to settle for two max-contract stars under the new CBA. No more Big Threes.

If that’s the case, then the Heat already have their two max-contract players in Butler and Bam Adebayo. That means Butler has to be that guy. So does Bam, who has kept up his end of the bargain with elite two-way play this season. Players like Herro, Robinson, Caleb Martin, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Terry Rozier help, but they can’t consistently replicate the star power needed for a deep playoff run. “Next Man Up” never won a championship.

Only Jimmy can do that.

Or, at least, he used to.

And because he’s done it, the Heat are bound to the Jimmy Butler experience, toiling through frustrating regular seasons when their star player either isn’t available or isn’t playing like a star, doing all they can to just make the playoffs in the first place, in hopes that Butler morphs into “Playoff Jimmy” in April.

Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia all moved on from the Jimmy Butler experience. Miami can’t. Not after all the postseason success they’ve had together.

But the question of whether this is all worth it will cross Pat Riley’s desk this summer. Butler will be up for a contract extension, and the Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman reported before the season that Butler will be seeking “Jaylen Brown money.” In other words, a contract upwards of $60 million a year.

Can the Heat afford that? To pay Butler like a top-10 player into his late 30s? When he routinely does not play like a top-10 player for 82 games? Because maybe he’ll get the chance to play like that for 16 games?

Let’s face it, as beloved as Butler is in Miami, that’s not good business. At the same time, Butler can refer to his body of work and the success of this run and demand to get paid. And he would have a point.

This is where negotiations can get hairy. 

But that’s an offseason problem. Extension or no extension, Butler is under contract for at least two more seasons after this one.

If the Heat somehow flip the switch and make another miraculous postseason run, it will have made this regular season worth the frustrations, pump even more belief into the Playoff Jimmy legend, and give more credence to his golden handcuffs.

The lasting image of Butler in the bubble perfectly illustrates this run. Jimmy Butler might as well have the Heat bent over a stanchion.