Speaking your truth is a complicated proposition. For Jimmy Butler, it’s been a double-edged sword, lifting the guard from humble beginnings in rural Texas, while contributing to exits from three NBA franchises.
In Chicago, his personality clashed with teammates and coaches, ultimately leading to a trade. In Minnesota, his dissatisfaction with younger players prompted a profanity-laced practice ahead of a curiously timed interview on national television. Then, in Philadelphia, a city seemingly best suited for his style, he clashed with coaches. Throughout his career, Butler voiced dismay for those who didn’t match his intensity and called out coaches who he felt wilted under his pressure. Along the way, the guard was repeatedly reminded that though his message may be valid, his delivery left much to be desired.
Butler has described himself as a lowkey country boy who grew up speaking his mind, whether or not the situation called for it. He was kicked out of the house at 13, couch surfed as a teenager, and, despite not having many college offers out of high school, became a junior college standout and earned a scholarship to Marquette. The hard way is the only way he knows.
Butler is flourishing in Miami because that’s the Heat Way, too. Miami has a finely curated culture passed down by organization sire Pat Riley, immortalized by Dwyane Wade, and personified by Alonzo Mourning and Udonis Haslem. It’s a place where Butler’s candid approach is celebrated unconditionally.
“He doesn’t have to apologize for who he is around us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said last week. “If he screams and yells and snaps at us, we don’t take it personal. That’s our language. I kind of like it like that.”
Miami may be in a bind against the Lakers, having lost Game 1 of the NBA Finals and potentially two starters to injury. But there’s perhaps no player who’s more comfortable with his back against the wall than Butler, and there’s no team he’d rather be with in that situation than the Heat.
“We thrive on that,’’ Butler said Thursday about being counted out. “Everybody probably thought they was going to do that to us anyways. They probably think they’re going to do it to us three more times in a row. I beg to differ. Nobody picked us to be here. We love it. But we know that we can win. We do.’’
Tomball, Texas, sits about 30 miles north of downtown Houston, yet has the feel of a sleepy country town. A population of just over 10,000, it seems more like the backdrop of a country Western than a suburb of a major metropolis. Each day, a young Butler would go to one of Tomball’s local parks, set up close to the basket, and say a message before he took a shot.
“If I make this,” Butler would mutter. “I’m going to the NBA.”
“If I make this, I’m going to college.”
“If I make this, I’m getting into the Hall of Fame.”
His hardwood ambitions drove him to average 19.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game his senior year at Tomball High School, but they didn’t lead to any meaningful college interest. Mississippi State reportedly had interest, but not enough to pay for Butler’s education. So Butler went 187 miles north to Tyler Junior College. Then he worked some more, becoming an All-American and earning a scholarship to Marquette as coach Buzz Williams’s first recruit. In Milwaukee, he rode the bench as a sophomore, playing just 19.6 minutes a night as future pro Wes Matthews earned his way into the league. Seething, Butler put in more work, averaging nearly 16 points as a senior and sparking the interests of NBA scouts. His childhood proclamations on that Tomball court came true on draft night in 2011, when he was selected 30th overall by the Bulls.
By the fall of 2014, Butler established himself as a starter for the Bulls. But instead of re-upping with Chicago for a reported $44 million over four years, he turned down the extension on the eve of his fourth season, opting to bet on himself. Eight months later, he bumped his scoring average by six points and signed a five-year contract worth more than double what he was originally offered. Along with it came purchases of a Bentley SUV and a $4 million pad in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. As Butler’s profile grew, so did his propensity to call out things he didn’t see fit for his locker room.
“I became a decent player in this league. I didn’t have too much to say at all whenever I was first coming out of college,” Butler said last week. “You know, I didn’t think that my 0.2 points per game would be the difference in winning and losing, but maybe 20 points per game might be. I always just wanted to win, do whatever it took to win.”
Following a 2015 loss to the New York Knicks, he said the team needed to be “coached a lot harder.” The next season, after a loss to the Atlanta Hawks, one in which the Bulls squandered a 10-point lead in the final quarter, Butler and teammate Dwyane Wade lit into the young Chicago squad postgame.
“If you don’t come in this m-----f----- pissed off after you lose any game, something is wrong,” Butler said. “This is your job. This is what you’re supposed to love to do, and I don’t think that everybody looks at it that way. I want to play with guys that care, that play hard, that want to do well for this organization. That want to win games. Do whatever it takes, just win. I don’t think that’s happening right now. I really don’t.”
“I don’t know if I see enough guys who really, really want it,” Wade chimed in. “Losses like this have to hurt them. I’m 35 years old. I have three championships. It shouldn’t hurt me more than it hurts these young guys. This s--- should f---ing hurt. You continue to be in these kinds of situations and lose games like this, you really don’t care enough. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how you fix it. We got to do better knowing film, knowing your personnel. As a team, we got to do better, man.”
Teammate Rajon Rondo jabbed back on Instagram, criticizing Butler and Wade’s approach. But it’s how Butler motivates teammates, something Wade, a Heat lifer before leaving in 2016 over a contract dispute, understood.
“If I don’t think you’re doing what you’re doing to the best of your ability, I will for sure let you know,” Butler told ESPN in 2017. “And I will have no hard feelings about it. I’ll embarrass you. I think that comes with the job. You get paid a lot of money. If I’m not doing my end on the basketball court, the media rips me apart. I’m your media.”
The same attitude pushed Butler to Minnesota, where a trade reunited him with former coach Tom Thibodeau, and created a young core of him, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Despite Butler missing 23 games, the Timberwolves made the postseason as an eighth seed, but similar problems began to linger. Butler grew tired of Towns’s and Wiggins’s work ethics.
“I put so much into this game and I only play to win. I don’t play for any individual stats or accolades. And at times I get lost in how everybody is not built the way that I’m built,” Butler told the Chicago Sun-Times following a postseason loss to the top-seeded Rockets. “ ... Sometimes I just look around, and I don’t understand how or why you all don’t love to get better the way that I do.”
Worse, the Timberwolves rebuffed Butler’s request for a contract renegotiation. Butler had reportedly hoped to receive $145 million over four years; Minnesota responded with a reported four-year, $110 million offer. The divided locker room took another hit when Wiggins’s brother Nick quote tweeted a report of Butler’s trade request saying, “Hallelujah.” But the situation was permanently fractured when Butler, who demanded a trade, reported to a practice in early October, played on the third-string team and dominated the Timberwolves starters, reportedly telling general manager Scott Layden “You f---ing need me. You can’t win without me.”
His ire toward Minnesota’s young core led to his trade last season to the Sixers. A month into his tenure in Philly, reports surfaced of a rift between Butler and coach Brett Brown. According to a report from ESPN, Butler “verbally challenged” the coach during a film session in Portland. By the postseason, Butler, frustrated, was ready to leave.
By this point, every stop on Butler’s career path followed a similar pattern. Yes, he’s talented, yes, he’s upgraded any roster he was on, but at what cost? The damage was done. Fortunately for Jimmy, there was one franchise in the league that shared his philosophy.
Considering how Butler’s career has transpired, a compelling argument can be made that Miami should’ve been his home from the very start. The organization’s credo is based on loyalty, hard work, and winning. Under Pat Riley’s leadership, the franchise has missed the postseason only five times, winning three titles since his arrival in 1995. Along the way, the team developed a low tolerance for loss of focus. Earlier this season, Dion Waiters was suspended three separate times for various violations of team policies. James Johnson was banned from the onset of the same training camp for failing to get into proper shape. The need for accountability was a perfect setup for Butler. Moreover, the team’s young core—Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson—have embraced the veteran guard.
“We really hang out. I feel like that’s the best thing. No matter who it is. We can all go to one another’s room and go get something to eat,” Adebayo said. “That’s the thing I love about this team, man, because at the end of the day, we all feel like brothers and this is a moment for a lot of us that a lot of us ain’t never been in.”
Butler’s connection to Miami’s young core was evident last week when he showed up to practice in Herro’s Whitnall High School jersey. Upon arrival, he strutted with pride in the white uniform with “14” across his chest. In Herro, Butler sees what he didn’t see in players at his past stops: a young player with as much drive as him. The bond was born last summer, when the 20-year-old joined Butler’s daunting offseason workouts. In the bubble, cameras continue to catch the bond blossoming. During a timeout in a first-round matchup with the Pacers, Butler turned to Herro and yelled “I’m putting on for the 414!” an ode to Herro’s hometown area code in Milwaukee. Then, knowing Herro was miked up, said “Myles Herro [Tyler’s little brother], add me on [Instagram], add me on the Ticky Tok.” When the Heat clinched a Finals berth, Butler posed in Herro’s Heat jersey with the trophy.
“Ever since I got here, he’s been like a big brother to me and he’s shined light on me,” Herro said. “He’s taught me a lot of things. He’s just continuing to get on me, whether it’s something I want to hear or not, he’s going to tell me what I need to hear. I appreciate him for that.”
The off-court chemistry showed in the postseason as Butler’s young’uns have come into their own. During Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, Herro scored a career-high 37 points, giving Miami a 3-1 lead. Four days later, Adebayo closed out the series with a 32-point, 14-rebound performance. Butler’s scoring average dropped four points from the second round to the conference finals, but he’s been doing the little things to help the Heat win. Now, entering Game 2 of the Finals, Butler will likely be without Adebayo and guard Goron Dragic because of injuries. Butler himself also suffered an ankle injury, though he said Thursday that he intends to play. Nonetheless, Butler’s grit is still apparent.
“We need those guys, don’t get me wrong … But to put it in the most simple way possible, who cares?” Butler said to ESPN on Thursday. “We’re still expecting to win.”
No matter the obstacle, Butler will continue his quest for a title in Miami, with a group tailor-made for him. After shuffling between three different franchises in two years, he finally feels heard.
“Nobody is taking it personally because we all have the same agenda. It’s not for stats,” Butler said. “It’s not for fame. It’s not for none of that. It’s to win a championship. My leadership style, it works here.”