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Where Jimmy Butler ranks among East’s top players

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With “Jimmy Buckets” finally making his highly-anticipated Heat debut we analyze where he falls on the Eastern Conference totem pole.

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Miami Heat
A hellacious work ethnic and hard-nosed mentality lifted Jimmy Butler from fringe first-round draft pick to franchise player.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

While the Miami Dolphins successfully snatch defeat from the jaws of victory week by week in hopes of landing a franchise cornerstone, the Heat are doing the opposite of tanking and look to have found a rock solid star in Jimmy Butler.

A title wave of optimism for the revamped Heat seems to be sweeping over the NBA landscape after an impressive 5-1 start, three of the five games being played without Butler. Miami defeated Milwaukee and last season’s MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on the road and fell just short of upending Minnesota. The promise shown by this ideation of the Heat has many questioning their ceiling which is tied directly to the ceiling of their best player.

As much success as this squad had prior to Butler’s debut, it’s fairly obvious they’ll only go as far as he takes them. So the question now becomes, just how far can he take them?

If everything comes together the way it should and Butler is at his best, how high should hopes be for Heat Nation? Answering that question depends on your opinion of Butler. Do you view him as the 2017-2018 third-team All-NBA selection who was voted an All-Star starter or the third option on a team that didn’t reach the Conference Finals?

Where does he rank among the East’s top-tier talent and how far is the gap between his camp and the mountain’s peak. If you ask Jimmy he may tell you he’s the best playing in the league; that’s just the type of confidence he has. Never has the swing-man flinched when going toe-to-toe against the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Paul George.

I think back to a story that came to light last season, detailing how Butler stormed into a Timberwolves practice and beat the starters, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, with a group of back-ups. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, Butler turned to the team’s general manager Scott Layden and said, “You fucking need me. You can’t win without me.”

That’s the type of, dare I say, “dog” mentality fans crave from their flag bearer and superstar. Of all the things you can question about Jimmy Butler, passion will likely never be one of them. I anticipate this Heat team to mirror the attitude of Butler.

ESPN’s annual list of Top 100 players slotted Jimmy at No. 21, just ahead of Pascal Siakam and behind Donovan Mitchell, down eight spots from last season. His usage decline in Philadelphia could account for this dip in rank as he wasn’t able to truly show his worth with so many mouths to be fed.

Bleacher Report has him ranked as the best small forward in the East, third best overall, behind only LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. This just serves as another example of how torn the hoops community is over where he stands in comparison to the game’s best.

Here’s how I see it.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. Joel Embiid

3. Jimmy Butler

4. Bradley Beal

5. Kyrie Irving

6. Kemba Walker

7. Blake Griffin

8. Ben Simmons

9. Jayson Tatum

10. Pascal Siakam

Honorable Mention: Trae Young, Tobias Harris

What makes Butler so valuable is his ability to affect the game without dominating the basketball; in a multitude of ways. If his shot isn’t falling or the flow of the game dictates so, he can lock in on another aspect of his game. But also, if the night calls for him to score 30 points that’s not a problem.

We tend to weigh the greatness of players by how they can adapt to situations and remain a shaping force on the game’s outcome. Considering how many guys can put up buckets on the current Heat roster, there will be many nights where Butler has the opportunity to do just this. There have been five players leading Miami in scoring in their first six games.

At age 30, and in the prime of his career is there yet another level Butler can ascend to? Can he score 25 points a night instead of 21 while maintaining his defensive effort and create a few more opportunities for teammates?

In 2017-2018 many could argue Butler was a solidified top 10 player, opinions vary as to whether he has declined or just attempted to make things work in Minnesota and then Philly with strong hopes of a title run. When analyzing his crunch time usage rate with the Sixers the numbers show that Butler was relied upon like a superstar in those moments. The young team also leaned on Butler heavily in the postseason, when the games matter more and competition is more fierce. The time when the best players are suppose to rise to the occasion and say “watch out, I got this.”

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

On the other side of the coin, Butler, with all the talent around him in Philadelphia wasn’t able to advance past Kawhi Leonard in the Eastern Conference semifinals, let alone win a championship. Because of this, it’s fair to question if he’s in that rarified air only few ever reach.

However, Butler isn’t a player whose true value will show up in a box score as there’s sometimes no way to quantify what he does for a team, maybe because his best attributes are grit and energy and tenacity. With so much talent around him in Miami along with a proven coach and general manager the timing is ripe for Butler to silence the critics and make a statement this season. That way he could put to rest any lingering debate on whether he belongs amongst the elites.