Miami made the Jimmy Butler gamble that Chicago never could

ByNick Friedell ESPN logo
Tuesday, February 11, 2020

IT'S BUZZING INSIDE AmericanAirlines Arena.

It is Jan. 23 in the middle of another sun-drenched day along Biscayne Bay, and the Miami Heat have just wrapped up practice and a film session. Players are shuffling to the trainer's room. Staffers float in and out of the double doors leading into the locker room. Teammates and coaches conduct interviews with members of the media.

Among them is Jimmy Butler, navigating a conversation about how comfortable he is in his new surroundings -- and the feeling of being the face of a young, up-and-coming team built upon a strong culture like he hasn't had since the beginning of his nine-plus-year NBA career.

But Butler says he isn't thinking about his past. He doesn't wonder about the alternate reality in which he stayed with the Chicago Bulls, the team that drafted him with the 30th pick in the 2011 draft and the franchise hosting Butler and his fellow 2020 All-Starsthis weekend.

"Zero," Butler says emphatically when asked how much he thinks about what could have been at his first NBA home.

As Butler returns to Chicago this weekend, Bulls fans are left to wonder what might have been if the franchise had taken the risk the Heat have: handing the keys of the franchise to a player with an uncanny work ethic but a history of chemistry issues.

As the interview winds down, Butler is pressed on the fact that the Heat gave him the big-money extension and stability that the Bulls never felt sure about. Butler leans back against the wall as a wry smile opens across his face.

"One guy's trash," he says, "is another man's treasure."

DUNCAN ROBINSON REMEMBERS the first time he met Butler.

It was in early September, just a few weeks before training camp. Robinson and a group of younger players decided to get a jump on the season at the Heat practice facility.

"We'd been going at 6 a.m.," Robinson said. "I think [Butler] had heard about it, so he wanted to be there before us. So we got there -- I got up to the court around like 5:15 -- he was already up there in a full sweat."

Butler subtly nodded at Robinson as the 25-year-old rookie from Michigan walked into the gym.

"You're getting the crust out of your eyes, and [Butler is] already getting some work in," Robinson said. "That just set the tone for the whole relationship."

One of the most interesting parts of Butler's fresh start and early success is how quickly he has assimilated into not only the Heat's culture but also the relationships he has built with many of the younger players.

"He really started to show me how to be a pro," Heat rookie Tyler Herro said. "Just the way he goes about it: his approach, how dedicated in the time he puts in. You really do see that it's not fake."

Butler is still repairing the damage to his image since he left Chicago. He clashed with former No. 1 overall picksKarl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota, believing that the talented young duo wasn't putting in enough of the necessary work and didn't have the required attitude to contend for championships.

Butler explosively forced his way out during the 2018-19 season, a departure that only fueled the narrative that he is a bad teammate.

Then Butler was an almost immediate mismatch for Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown, and he struggled to find his place within the young core of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Sixers had interest in bringing Butler back on a max extension, according to a league source, but after negotiations hit an impasse, they opted to lock up Tobias Harrison the first night of free agency.

But after almost 10 seasons in the NBA, Butler has finally found a team that sees the world the way he does, and he is emboldened by the belief that his attitude is being rewarded and not scrutinized. He doesn't have to worry about a power struggle, and he's surrounded by the type of hard-working, no-nonsense players that he always wanted more of in previous cities.

Heat forward Bam Adebayo, a first-time All-Star having a breakout season, had heard all the noise surrounding Butler: that he was a difficult teammate, that he was a demanding player, that he was a drain on locker room chemistry.

"That he was a cancer!" Adebayo jokingly shouted.

"He's way different than some of the media portrayed him to be. He's not a cancer," Adebayo said. "As you can see, we're winning. He's one of the leaders on this team, and that's what we need from him. He's going to keep doing it. I'm gonna stay on him to keep doing it."

One of the men tasked with staying on Butler moving forward is three-time NBA champion Andre Iguodala, whom the Heat acquired last week in a deadline deal.

The 2015 Finals MVP has the type of winning credentials that Butler respects. He also has experience dealing with players with fiery reputations -- and believes Butler has similar qualities to Draymond Green, Iguodala's former teammate with the Golden State Warriors.

"When [Butler] was in other places, he got knocked for [speaking his mind]," Iguodala said. "He was disruptive toward his other teammates, but you put him around some guys that actually want to get to the grind, what did he do for them? He upped their level of play, right?

"I think he upped the level of play for the guys on the Bulls. I think [the major issue] was only at one stop, really, [in Minnesota], and we see what's happening with that ship."

WHEN BUTLER WAS drafted, his Bulls teammates and coaches respected his dogged work ethic, but his raw game had limitations.

He shot the ball with no arc, like it was a dart. The coaching staff didn't trust him offensively, using him only occasionally as a defensive plug-in. And he was stuck playing behind Luol Deng, the player former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau trusted most.

Butler didn't have a regular offseason of team workouts because of the 2011 lockout, and Thibodeau didn't give him much run. He averaged 8.5 minutes per game on a roster that was built to contend for a championship.

Despite the lack of opportunity, Butler only pushed harder.

"Jimmy went from the 15th player on the team, the last player coming off the bench, to the star player of the team in four years," former Bulls center Joakim Noah said in 2017.

"When that happens, I'm sure that there was an adjustment period for him. There was an adjustment period for the organization. And there was definitely a change of culture."

Butler and the Bulls couldn't come to terms on an extension prior to his breakout campaign in 2014-15. Butler bet on himself, landing a max deal worth more than $90 million the next summer.

But in the aftermath of the new contract, the strong relationships Butler had formed over the years with the Bulls started to deteriorate. He believed some players weren't putting in the necessary work that he was doing to get better. Bulls officials, who had grown fond of Butler over time, believed that his ego was becoming inflated.

A once-close bond with Noah became fractured after several heated exchanges during the 2015-16 season. Butler publicly called out new coach Fred Hoiberg, and he isolated himself by dressing away from his teammates before and after some games.

Despite it all, the Bulls came into the free-agency period that summer with plans to make Butler their unquestioned leader. (The oft-injured Derrick Rose was traded to the New York Knicks, and Noah joined him via free agency less than two weeks later.)

Bulls general manager Gar Forman said the organization wanted to get "younger and more athletic" but reversed course to sign a player the organization hoped could teach Butler how to grow as a leader while generating interest in a team that wasn't quite ready for a full-scale rebuild: Dwyane Wade.

When the Bulls introduced Wade, Butler stood proudly in the back of the practice facility while Wade made it clear that the Bulls were "Jimmy's team."

Wade's impact was felt early, with an 8-4 start, but the success was fleeting.

After blowing a late 12-point lead to the Atlanta Hawks in January 2017, Wade ripped his younger teammates, then directed reporters to Butler, who doubled down from his seat in front of his locker.

"M-----f-----s just got to care if we win or lose," Butler said.

Veteran guard Rajon Rondo, also brought in that summer as part of Chicago's infamous "Three Alphas" experiment, roasted both Wade and Butler on Instagram, and several young players voiced displeasure with Wade's leadership methods during a team meeting.

From that point on, Wade mostly kept to himself, but he stayed close to Butler. Then the Bulls moved on from both in the offseason.

Sources said the franchise couldn't be sold on Butler as the face of a championship-caliber team worthy of the supermax, five-year, $223 million contract he could have pursued after the 2017-18 season. Later that summer, the Bulls and Wade reached a buyout.

"I realize that this is a business, and I realized it the day that I got traded [from Chicago]," Butler says now. "I still have a great relationship with those people over there. Always will. ...

"Hell, I'm even more thankful that I was able to play with Dwyane Wade in Chicago. It's crazy how things turn out."

WHEN WADE FOUND his way back to Miami after the failed one-year stint in Chicago -- and an even shorter stretch with the Cleveland Cavaliers -- he had a message for Erik Spoelstra.

"He said [Butler is] our kind of guy," Spoelstra said. "He's a Heat guy. Whether that could happen or would happen, he just said, 'This guy is like us.'"

The organization had done plenty of due diligence on Butler and even came close to trading for him in October 2018, but Wade's words resonated nine months later.

"When Dwyane played with him and came back and started to tell us about him, everybody's eyes just lit up," Spoelstra said.

That's why Spoelstra, team president Pat Riley and the rest of the Heat contingent made it a priority to meet with Butler at the start of free agency last summer to close the deal with the man they believed could lead them back to the top following Wade's retirement.

Spoelstra's belief only strengthened over the summer, after a face-to-face dinner in London a few weeks after Butler and the Heat came to terms. Spoelstra and his wife, Nikki, were on vacation in Italy and decided to reroute their trip to spend some time getting to know Butler.

"We've had a lot of different kinds of players come through our doors over the years and a lot of different personalities. Not all of them have been easy," Spoelstra said. "But the thing that we definitely know is you need talent to win in this league. And it's hard to find talent to move the needle like we want, to be able to compete for a title. And Jimmy is unquestionably one of those guys.

"So if you have an opportunity to get him, you don't hesitate. ... We're not making decisions based on fear."

Butler admits now that Wade, who recently said he knew Butler was the right kind of "crazy" for the Heat, told him over the years that he would fit within the structured confines of Miami's culture better than that of any other franchise.

"[Wade] told me, 'You could play anywhere. You're that caliber of a player,'" Butler says. "But he said, 'To be the best player that you could be, Miami Heat's the place because they work like you work. They're honest like you're honest. And as much as you might butt heads with anybody in the organization or on the court, it's never going to be personal because y'all both have the same goal in mind, and that's to win a championship.'"

THE WORD "CULTURE" gets tossed around in the NBA, but Miami's is real. It has been tested. It's something the Heat can trust to withstand a personality such as Butler's.

"We're not easy," Spoelstra says. "We're not. Even the staff. We're not easy."

"You hear about [the culture]," Butler adds. "But when you're actually two feet in, you sense it, you love it. Because it's not for everybody."

The search for players who think and prepare like he does has defined Butler's career, and that's the reason he believes he has found his forever basketball home. The pride in the craft is something that resonates for Heat players and coaches as they watch Butler take the next steps in his progression.

What Butler appreciates most about what Miami has built is the fact that the group can have a hard practice, words can be exchanged, tempers can flare, and when they come off the floor, everything goes back to normal. Feelings don't linger or fester like they might have at his previous stops.

"Maybe this league is just too sensitive sometimes," Heat guard Goran Dragic says. "If the guy wants to win, then he'll tell you what you need to do or what he thinks. Some people have a hard time accepting it."

Both Spoelstra and Heat lifer Udonis Haslemsee the same qualities in Butler that they saw in franchise legends Wade and Alonzo Mourning over the years: the mental and physical toughness to get better each day, the DNA to work harder no matter the circumstances.

"You had to go through something in life that's put a chip on your shoulder," Haslem said of Butler. "And that's built grit inside you that you're willing to go through extreme circumstancesto get where you're trying to go."

It's also the reason the Heat are so confident that any issues Butler had in the past aren't going to reappear in Miami. The culture is built in such a way that a single player is never bigger than the team. And for now, the Butler-Heat partnership is working: Miami is 35-18 and chasing home court as the surprise of the Eastern Conference.

Butler is averaging 20.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game -- one of only six players to reach those numbers this season. Spoelstra said it was a "joke" that Butler, who finished sixth in All-Star player voting, wasn't named a starter.

Butler knows the doubters will always exist. Many within the Bulls organization still hold the belief they did all those years ago: He is a great player with an insatiable work ethic who still can't be the No. 1 player on a championship team.

The Heat were willing to bet that Butler can be.

"Don't nobody be on their own agenda here," Butler says. "It's not about stats. It's not about fame. It's not about money. It's not about none of that. It's legit about winning a championship, and we're capable of it. It's punched into our minds every single day."

That's why the smile comes so easily when Butler talks about his new NBA city. His basketball worth has always been in the eye of the beholder.

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