A year ago, Jimmy Butler was changing teams for the third time in three years. He didn’t make the All-Star Game for the first time in four years, and he had developed a reputation as an irritant or a malcontent or a difficult teammate — or all three.
These days, Joel Embiid tweets as if Butler is the one who got away. The Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves could be watching Butler’s Eastern Conference finals run with the Miami Heat and wondering what might have been.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra and Butler’s Heat teammates have repeatedly praised his leadership, especially in the bubble. Butler has often said he doesn’t pay attention to what is said or written about him, but those close to him know that’s not true.
Butler hears what is said, and it has motivated him throughout his rise to basketball stardom.
Here’s how Jimmy Butler has been discussed by those who have lived the journey alongside him.
From the night the Bulls drafted him No. 30 overall in 2011, Butler brought a chip on his shoulder with him. The entire course of his basketball life centered around the premise that hard work will take him wherever he wants to go. While he initially struggled to find his place in coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation, Butler had no problem clicking in what was already a tight Bulls locker room.
Early in his Chicago career, the conversation surrounding Butler focused on a hard-nosed role player who was a piece to a larger puzzle, not the focal point of a contender.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman, on draft night 2011: “[Butler] is a guy that’s a real fit for us. … The type of makeup and character he has, I think he’ll fit in our locker room and with the culture we’re creating.”
Bulls guard Derrick Rose, in December 2011: “He has a lot of confidence, quiet confidence, where when he’s out there, he’s always doing something good. He can defend. Plays smart, man, especially being a rookie.”
Thibodeau, in February 2012: “We’ve liked him from the start. We love his attitude and approach and the way he works every day, his demeanor. And we know he’s going to get better and better. … As he gets to learn the league and the tendencies of the players and the teams, he’s only going to get better and better. But he’s got a very serious approach to the game.”
Thibodeau, in March 2014: “The best thing about Jimmy is his demeanor. He will do it over and over and over again, and he doesn’t complain about playing the big minutes.”
Buzz Williams, Butler’s college coach at Marquette, in November 2014: “He’s not arrogant. He believes in the value of work. He’s way smarter than he ever has gotten credit for. He studies way more than anybody could ever think. He takes great pride in his craft and he always has. … He was never an all-conference player. He was never an honorable mention all-conference player. He wasn’t first-team. He wasn’t on a list.”
While the Bulls’ staff appreciated Butler’s tenacity, there was still doubt throughout the organization that he would develop the type of offensive game needed to be a permanent solution at shooting guard on an already loaded roster with an MVP in Rose.
Then, after years of taking a back seat, Butler exceeded even the most optimistic expectations about his ceiling — a better player than his most ardent supporters expected.
Butler turned down a four-year, more than $40 million offer before the 2014-15 season, just a few million shy of what he and his representatives were asking for, because he believed he could eventually make more. He was right. Butler signed a max contract worth over $90 million the following summer. After inking a superstar deal, questions surfaced surrounding Butler’s leadership.
Williams, in November 2014: “Jimmy has lived his life betting on himself. And so when you say, ‘We’re going to give you four years, $42 million,’ Jimmy doesn’t process it as four years, $42 million. He doesn’t look at it that way because he’s always bet on himself. And so if there’s a question of, here’s the option, take the guarantee or bet on yourself, well, he doesn’t know what the guarantee is. He’s always going to bet on himself. But that’s not specific to the Bulls, that’s not specific to the NBA; that’s specific to his heart.”
Former Bulls center Joakim Noah, in October 2017: “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. 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.”
Tension that had been building between Butler and some of his teammates over the years finally boiled over when Butler and Dwyane Wade ripped some of the Bulls’ younger players after blowing a late lead to the Atlanta Hawks in January 2017. The decision to vent their frustration publicly angered both the Bulls’ front office and the locker room.
Bulls guard Rajon Rondo, in January 2017: “My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”
When Butler was dealt to Minnesota in the summer of 2017, he was viewed as the missing piece to a potential contender. With former No. 1 overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as support and Thibodeau coaching, Butler was introduced with high expectations at a news conference inside the Mall of America. “Big three, big whatever,” Butler said at the time. “Let’s get some big wins.”
Towns, in June 2017: “This is what dynasties are made of. When you put players together with a bunch of talent and they mesh well, it makes dynasties. We’re talking about a top-15 player in the league.”
Thibodeau, in June 2017: “He’s one of the best two-way players. Watching him become a three-time All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist, All-NBA, it’s a tribute to the way he works and who he is as a person. He’s a great person, he’s a great leader and we’re thrilled to have him.”
Butler found early success with his new team, and the Timberwolves qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. But soon after the season ended, Butler made it clear to Thibodeau that he wanted out of Minnesota, in part because he wasn’t convinced that Towns and Wiggins, both of whom struggled with consistency the previous season, were going to put in the work needed to become championship-caliber players, according to sources.
The frustration that had been lingering since early in his tenure in Minnesota exploded during a heated training camp practice when Butler challenged teammates and executives. It set the stage for a deal shipping him to the Philadelphia 76ers a month into the 2018-19 season and provided a new narrative around Butler’s work ethic — one that cast him as perhaps too aggressive.
Timberwolves center Taj Gibson, just before Butler was dealt in 2018: “It was like a right hook. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know. I thought — it looked like from everything things were going good.”
Thibodeau, in November 2018: “I have known Jimmy a long time. Obviously, we felt when we had the opportunity to get him that we had to take advantage of that. It is rare when you have the opportunity to get a top-10 player. We knew there was risk involved with it.”
Towns, in March 2019: “We don’t know what was said behind [closed doors]. I don’t know what the front office told Jimmy. I don’t know what Jimmy told the front office. I just think that both parties came to a conclusion at the end of the day. If he wanted to be traded, as he wanted to, as he got, I wish it could have happened quicker. We would have had more time to get our team ready. We would have had more time to get our culture ready, our season ready.”
For the second time in 18 months, Butler was sent to a new team. As was the case in Minnesota, Butler found himself in the middle of two well-established young stars. His reputation from the Minnesota fallout lingered as he stepped into a combustible team with championship aspirations.
76ers GM Elton Brand, in November 2018: “In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, we have two of the NBA’s top-20 players. Now we’ve added a third top-20 player in Jimmy Butler, who is one of the NBA’s very best on both ends of the floor.”
76ers owner Josh Harris, in November 2018: “This is a city that loves fierce competitors and those who will push against all obstacles to find a way to win. That’s the ethic that we’ve built our team on [and what Butler does] every night on the court.”
76ers coach Brett Brown, in January 2019: “When you come into a situation with Ben and Joel and JJ [Redick], it doesn’t always equal immediate comfort. As I’ve said to all of our guys over the years, you can’t always win on your terms.”
After reports of early issues with Brown, Butler found his rhythm and developed a strong bond with Embiid. But the Sixers endured a second-round loss to Kawhi Leonard and the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, and that set up Butler’s exit from Philadelphia later that summer.
“Hell yeah [the last year] was difficult,” Butler acknowledged during a March appearance on “The JJ Redick podcast.” “It was so different. And on any given day, me as a person, as a player, I didn’t know who the f— was in charge. I think that was my biggest thing.”
76ers center Embiid, to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in October 2019: “It was a big loss, because me and him, we got to the point where we’re really close, we’re still close, we talk a lot and that’s my guy. That’s my brother forever. I wish he was on the team because I feel like the relationship that I built with him could have gone a long way. Jimmy, when it was the fourth quarter, we knew the ball was going to be [in] either me or Jimmy’s hands. And I knew I could count on him too.”
Spoelstra, the Heat coach, had heard the stories about Butler’s previous stops but valued Butler’s talent and work ethic. After Butler committed to sign with Miami, the Heat worked out a sign-and-trade deal that brought the mercurial All-Star to South Beach, where he found acceptance in a like-minded organization.
Spoelstra, in February: “We believe in Jimmy and what he’s about. We’ve had a lot of guys like that, that probably if they’re not in this system, probably people think differently of them. Udonis Haslem. I just think Jimmy is the 6-7 version of Alonzo Mourning. Or the 6-7 version of Dwyane Wade. These guys boil over with competitive fire because they care.”
Heat forward Haslem, in February: “He’s just one of our type of guys. His DNA falls in line with who we are and what we represent as an organization and the kind of guys that we want to bring in.”
Heat forward Duncan Robinson, in February: “I just don’t think it’s very common that you see a star player like that be willing to defer, particularly to younger guys. We had a game where he took three shots, but we won and he did everything else. He just does whatever it takes to win.”
Heat guard Goran Dragic, in February: “We’ve built a great chemistry, we talk a lot, and I’m happy to have him on the same team. All these years he was guarding me and it was not fun. He’s a great two-way player … tremendous team player who shoots straight up, tell you if you’re not doing your job, and that’s something I really like.”
Heat forward Andre Iguodala, in February: “When he was in other places, he got knocked for saying he was disruptive towards 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?”
Heat center Meyers Leonard, in September: “He is the ultimate competitor. Everybody wondered, ‘Oh, well, is he too competitive? Or is he an a–hole?’ No, he’s not. He’s a winner.”