Led by Jimmy Butler, the Miami Heat made it to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2013. In Game 3, he became just the third player in NBA Finals history to record a 40-point triple double. But before making it this far, he had a long and winding path to travel down.
Growing up in Tomball, Texas, a suburb outside of Houston, Butler’s father left when he was an infant. He was kicked out of the house at age 13 when his mother said, “I don’t like the look of you.” Basketball was Butler’s opportunity to escape, but he didn’t receive much attention from scouts. He chose to attend Tyler Junior College for a year where he averaged 18.1 points and 7.7 rebounds, enough to earn him a scholarship at Marquette University.
Butler played for three years at Marquette and was drafted with the 30th pick by the Chicago Bulls in 2011. Although he received limited playing time in his first two seasons in the pros, he was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team at the end of his third. From there, he kept improving in the scoring column and his assists and steals rose.
Butler’s impact on the Bulls was undeniable. During his six years in the Windy City, the team made the playoffs five times. However, the Bulls decided to rebuild following their first round loss to the Celtics in 2017. On June 22, 2017, Butler and a first-round pick were traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the rights to the 7th overall pick (Lauri Markkanen).
The main problem in Chicago was the chemistry between the “Three Alphas”: Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, and Butler. The prospect of rebuilding around an explosive LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, and new head coach Fred Hoiberg sounded much more appealing to the Bulls’ front office.
Ever since Butler left, the Bulls haven’t come close to making the playoffs.
The idea of Butler teaming up with young stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns seemed encouraging for Minnesota, a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since Kevin Garnett’s MVP season in 2003-04. The Timberwolves ended up making the playoffs in 2018, where they lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round. Although they made a swift exit, Butler’s experience and talent made a noticeable difference.
Unfortunately, things began to go downhill in Minnesota from there. The young players’ lack of effort - specifically Wiggins and Towns - irked Butler, the ultimate competitor. In November of 2018, Butler exploded at practice, berating everybody from teammates, coaches, and the front office. He played with bench-warmers in a scrimmage and went on to beat the starters. After his point was made, Butler screamed, “You can’t win without me!” and stormed out.
Once again, Butler’s infatigable passion and drive for winning earned him a ticket to another city, this time to Philadelphia. Although the 76ers made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Butler failed to see eye-to-eye with head coach Brett Brown. He didn’t have a strenuous relationship with any teammate to public knowledge, but he criticized Brown’s decision to take the ball out of Ben Simmons’ hand late in the 2018-19 season.
“To this day, I don’t think that was fair to switch over like that,” Butler said on former teammate JJ Redick’s podcast.
After that season, Butler became a free agent. He was eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million maximum contract with Philadelphia, but decided to sign with Miami for 4 years and $142 million.
That decision is the best that Butler has made in his entire career. He and the Heat fit together perfectly, like the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle. The culture that Pat Riley had established appealed to Butler, and he fully bought in.
“No matter if you’re on a minimum contract or a max contract, everybody is running in the conditioning test at the beginning of the year,” said Butler. “It’s the smallest things that just show who that organization is.”
Butler’s zeal to win a championship was finally met by a team with the same drive as his. The player that was previously “a locker room cancer” became the heart and soul of the Heat. Now, his effort and leadership were rewarded with a marquee matchup against LeBron James and Anthony Davis in what might be remembered as the most unique Finals in NBA history. It just took a little longer than expected for him to get there.
Now, all that Butler has his eyes on is that elusive championship.