LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It was June 30, 2019. The Miami Heat had an evening all planned out for their recruitment of free agent Jimmy Butler, down to every detail. They greeted him with music from Irish singer Dermot Kennedy, one of his favorites. A buffet dinner was set up, tables overlooking the water of Biscayne Bay. They had players-turned-executives Shane Battier and Alonzo Mourning there to talk about what it’s like to be part of the Heat.
And then it was time to go inside, break into a smaller group, get down to business and give him the sales pitch. Butler never let Heat President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra even get started. There was no need. He’d already picked Miami. He just hadn’t told them yet.
“I was like, ‘I’m home,’” Butler said.
The machinations of a sign-and-trade followed before things could be official, but just like that, the Heat had a new star and newfound hope. Season 1 of the Butler era in Miami will end on a stage that he’s never been before - the NBA Finals. The Heat are Eastern Conference champions and play the West champ Los Angeles Lakers in a title series that starts Wednesday night.
“To be able to get somebody like Jimmy Butler was one of the most amazing recruiting visits we’ve ever had,” Spoelstra said. “Last June, it was so conversational, and you just felt like after 20 minutes that we were so aligned in how we viewed competition and work and culture, everything. We never even got into a pitch with him. We really just had dinner.”
Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in the regular season, made the All-NBA team and is averaging 20.7 points through the first 15 games of this postseason - 0.2 behind Goran Dragic for the team lead, which couldn’t be of less consequence to Butler. He doesn’t just tell teammates that he doesn’t care about getting credit for things. He demands they claim the credit, want the credit, step up and take big shots.
“He came in and bought into the system,” said Heat center Bam Adebayo, who led the way in the East-clinching Game 6 win over Boston on Sunday night with 32 points and 14 rebounds. “He didn’t care if he scored. You know, you’ve got to think about that. A lot of max players, they don’t have the ball, they get upset. I appreciate Jimmy because at the end of the day, we feed off each other.”
Butler is, for lack of a better word, difficult. He’s headstrong. He’s driven. He likes things his way. The Heat have not, and will not, try to change that. He fits perfectly into what Spoelstra’s calls the franchise’s DNA, its fabric, its mantra of not apologizing for who and what the Heat are and what the program that Riley built stands for. With some teams, Butler hasn’t been an ideal fit. With Miami, the biggest problem Spoelstra has had with Butler is when he was luring teammates to the gym too early for workouts; turns out, even for the hard-work-loving Heat, a 3:30 a.m. session before a training camp practice is frowned upon.
“But you want to run a practice and compete, Jimmy is going to make sure that that’s going to go to a different level,” Spoelstra said. “Because he can’t do anything without competing fiercely - and doing whatever it takes to win.”
Longtime Miami star Dwyane Wade is close with Butler, and Wade’s retirement at the end of last season left an obvious best-player-on-the-team void to be filled. He’d been filling Butler’s head for years with talk about how the Heat way - the “culture” that they love speaking of - was the perfect fit for him. Wade is a Marquette guy, like Butler. They were teammates briefly in Chicago. Butler doesn’t trust many people. Wade has his trust.
Butler never doubted that Wade would be right. The fit was perfect in Miami.
“What this whole thing comes down to is being wanted, being appreciated for what you bring to the table,” Butler said. “And as I’ve said time and time again, as Spo constantly says, we’re not for everybody. I’m not for everybody, but here I am.”
Butler carried a “bad teammate” label in Minnesota. His stay in Philadelphia - sent there early last season - didn’t last long, and the Heat convincing the 76ers to do their part in the sign-and-trade that brought Butler to Miami after that waterside dinner was not difficult. (Finding other teams to help facilitate the deal was, but the Heat got it done.) In Miami, they laugh about the notion that Butler is a locker-room problem.
Dragic and Butler will talk about soccer all day; Butler has even learned a little Slovenian, his point guard’s native language, just to show him that he cares. Rookie guard Tyler Herro had a 37-point game earlier in the East finals; Butler showed up for work the next day wearing Herro’s high school jersey. The Heat had a little party early Monday morning to celebrate making the finals; Butler showed up for that in a University of Portland jersey bearing Spoelstra’s name on the back and the No. 30 that he wore there as a guard 30 years ago.
This is what he wanted. The NBA Finals are his reward.
“I always just wanted to win, do whatever it took to win,” Butler said. “Nobody is taking it personally because we all have the same agenda. It’s not for stats. It’s not for fame. It’s not for none of that. It’s to win a championship. My leadership style, it works here.”
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