Jimmy Butler has some of the worst luck in recent NBA history. He was drafted onto reigning MVP Derrick Rose's team, but frequent injuries to Rose prevented him from genuinely competing for championships with the Chicago Bulls. He got traded to another (likely) MVP's team, but the Philadelphia 76ers deprived him of the chance to spend his prime with Joel Embiid by instead choosing to let him leave in free agency so they could sign Al Horford.
He's come fairly close to winning it all as a member of the Miami Heat twice. His hopes for the 2020 title were dashed when Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic got hurt in Game 1 of the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. He came one shot away from reaching the NBA Finals last season on a team whose injury report featured five key players going into Game 7 against the Boston Celtics.
History tends to remember destinations instead of journeys. Players like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and John Stockton are lumped into the "no rings" bucket. For now, Butler technically remains there. But to criticize him for lacking a championship does a complete disservice to the postseason giant slayer he's become. Butler may have never ended the season hoisting the championship trophy, but he's the player those who do reach that peak most want to avoid on their way there.
He is, quite simply, the most dangerous underdog in NBA history. Just look at his resume:
- Butler has appeared in 13 series in which his team was the lower seed. His team has won six of them. That's a win rate of 46%. Since Butler became a full-time starter in 2014, lower seeds have a series record of 33-102. That's a win rate of around 24%.
- Butler has an 19-25 record on the road in the postseason, translating to a winning percentage of roughly 43%. Road teams as a whole won 35% of their playoff games between 1984 and 2020.
- Only one No. 5 seed has reached the NBA Finals: the 2020 Heat, led by Butler. They were the third-lowest overall seed to reach the Finals, trailing the No. 6 seeded 1995 Houston Rockets and No. 8 seeded 1999 Knicks.
- Only five No. 8 seeds had ever defeated a No. 1 seed. Butler's 2023 Heat became the sixth on Wednesday when they knocked off the Milwaukee Bucks.
- And though the NBA's play-in round has been around for a few seasons, no play-in team had ever won a playoff series until Butler's Heat.
The individual performances are just as staggering. In only his second overall season and first in the rotation, he played 48 minutes in three out of Chicago's five games against the Miami Heat in the second round. Chicago may have lost that series, but Butler held James at his absolute apex to only 23.6 points per game. Not even Kawhi Leonard ever matched that feat. He faced James again in the 2020 NBA Finals without Dragic and Adebayo. In Miami's two wins, he posted a 40-point triple-double and a 35-point triple-double.
Butler may have had home-court advantage against the Boston Celtics last postseason, but even as the No. 1 seed, the Heat were plus-145 underdogs entering that series. By Game 6, Tyler Herro, Kyle Lowry, Max Strus, P.J. Tucker and Gabe Vincent were all listed on the injury report. Butler himself missed the end of Game 3 due to injury. It didn't matter. He scored 47 points to win Game 6 and 35 to nearly steal Game 7. Boston should've known how dangerous Butler was. Only five years earlier, he led the Bulls to a 2-0 series lead over Boston as a No. 8 seed in the first round. He didn't complete that upset, but he did finish off the Bucks this time around.
The Heat overcame double-digit fourth-quarter deficits to win both Game 4 and Game 5. Butler scored 98 combined points in those two games. He scored 14 points in the fourth quarter of both games. It wasn't even the first time Butler knocked off the Milwaukee Bucks as a No. 1 seed. They did so in 2020 as well, making Butler responsible for half of Milwaukee's postseason defeats under Mike Budenholzer. Combine the end of the Boston series with the five games Butler just played against the Bucks and he is averaging 38.5 points across his last seven playoff games.
Butler has had his way with Antetokounmpo's Bucks, but Butler would trade all that for a championship ring. Such jewelry is typically doled out circumstantially. The Bucks won their championship at least in part because they stayed healthy in a series in which James Harden and Kyrie Irving did not. Butler has been on very few championship-caliber teams. Most of them have succumbed to injuries. He's still talking trash to the one that let him go.
The stars might never align for Butler in the postseason. They didn't for Barkley, Ewing or Stockton. Yet it doesn't feel quite right to group him players like that, great as they once were. He's developed a playoff identity entirely his own. He's unique, a player who deprives others of championships despite never having won his own. A legendary underdog.
There's something fitting about that considering his path to NBA stardom. Butler was so lightly recruited out of high school that he needed to spend his freshman year at Tyler Junior College. He fell to the very last pick of the first round in the 2011 NBA Draft. The Bulls wouldn't meet his contract demands after his third season, so played his way into a max deal during his fourth. They traded him to avoid paying him a super-max deal two years later and he's been haunting them ever since. Butler has been an underdog for his entire basketball career. It therefore seems appropriate that he has become the single most dangerous playoff underdog in NBA history. It may not mean as much as winning a championship, but it's a worthy legacy for a player who's done short of it in the postseason.