Jimmy Butler’s first words as an NBA baby were, essentially, “Beat Miami.”
“I’m going to put in that work to be able to guard LeBron (James), Dwyane Wade and all those guys so the Bulls can get to that championship,” Butler said on a conference call the night the Bulls drafted him at No. 30.
This was late June 2011. The Bulls were fresh off a Miami beatdown in the Eastern Conference finals and Butler knew what Chicago wanted to hear.
“I’m going to be a pest,” he said that night, “take up everybody’s space and make them work for every little thing. I think that’s where everything is going to go for me.”
Butler had the good fortune to be drafted by the Bulls when being drafted by the Bulls meant something far different than it does now. It was a perfect marriage, the Bulls and Butler, and like many perfect, expensive marriages, it ended with an ugly divorce and a move to South Florida.
Twelve years later, Butler’s saying, “Beat Miami?” Good luck.
He was perfect for those Bulls just like how he’s now, in his 30s, the consummate star for Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley and the Heat organization. When Butler signed with the Heat after post-Bulls sojourns in Minnesota and Philadelphia, I thought, how perfect is this? Butler loves to both work and tell people how hard he works. That is, in essence, “Heat Culture.”
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Every team should be searching for draft steals like Butler. Someone could make a lot of money creating technology that finds out if the dog is in a prospect’s X-rays.
As a fledgling rookie, Butler spoke his future into existence and then some. Year by year, he worked his way into being a leading man, not a role player, and the great chagrin of the perpetually angry Bulls fan base, he’s now the man in South Florida, where he has the Heat on the verge of a sweep over the Boston Celtics and one win away from a second NBA Finals appearance in four years.
The Heat’s 128-102 win in Game 3 on Sunday was the first time in this postseason that Butler played and didn’t top the Heat in scoring — Gabe Vincent had 29, Duncan Robinson 22 and Caleb Martin 18 — but he still had 16 points and led the team with eight rebounds and six assists.
In Chicago, we watched his transformation from a humble defender from Tomball, Texas, to Jimmy G. (the G stands for “Gets”) Buckets, the nickname coined by Bulls broadcaster Stacey King. Butler came from nothing and clawed his way into being an international superstar. He’s the promise that sports sells to kids and families across the world.
So it’s upsetting for Bulls fans to watch Butler ball out on basketball’s biggest stage, given the current, hopeless state of Chicago’s franchise.
The Bulls could be Jimmy Butler’s team. Instead, they’re Zach LaVine’s.
While LaVine is a nice guy and a gifted scorer, no one is going to currently (or maybe ever) describe him as a winner. Butler can be a handful, on and off the court, and wasn’t beloved on his way out in Chicago. But “winner” is the only way to describe him. In dumping Tom Thibodeau for Fred Hoiberg and trading Butler for LaVine, Jerry Reinsdorf’s team showed what was important to the franchise, and it wasn’t playing in May.
In that 102-91 victory over the Bulls in the Play-In Tournament that started this incredible playoff run, Butler outscored LaVine 31-15 and most notably, 13-1 in the fourth quarter. The Bulls led by one after three quarters, but when it mattered most, only one team had Butler.
The current iteration of the Heat is not a super-team like the James-Wade squad that Butler was so eager to depose. Right now, it’s basically him, Bam Adebayo, the aging duo of Kevin Love and Kyle Lowry and a bunch of unheralded role players. Butler is the fulcrum that allows guys like Vincent, Max Strus and Martin to rise.
Once upon a time, I thought the Bulls could move forward by building around Butler. In fact, after the 2016-17 “Three Alphas” season ended, I asked the Bulls front office if they were going to blow up the team or build around Butler with a bunch of shooters.
Not long after, we got our answer as the Bulls traded Butler to Minnesota. I understood it, given Butler’s tempestuous nature and the front office’s head-slapping failure to sign him to a team-friendly contract extension. And the package they got back wasn’t bad. LaVine has developed as a legit, No. 1 scorer. Lauri Markkanen prospered eventually, winning the Most Improved Player award this year in Utah.
They’re fine players, but neither is Jimmy Butler. The night of the trade, I wrote: “There’s an existential question surrounding Butler. Does he make the players around him better? I think he does by showing up and playing both sides of the ball.”
Butler went on to lead the Timberwolves back to the playoffs for the first time since the Kevin Garnett era. Then he was traded to Philadelphia, where he nearly led the Sixers to a conference final for the first time since Allen Iverson’s time. With Butler leading the way, the Heat are this close to another Finals appearance.
You put up with Butler’s eccentricities if you want to win. The Heat like winning. The post-Thibodeau Bulls like pretending.
In the end, the Bulls did right by Butler, who needed to leave a declining franchise to realize his full potential as a winner.
Stars make the NBA world go round. But the NBA playoffs require more than just skill and a famous name. And that’s why guys like LaVine and teams like the Bulls are home watching Jimmy Butler work.
(Photo: Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images)