How Miami Heat Star Jimmy Butler Is the Anti-LeBron James
The 31-year-old journeyman went unrecruited out of high school and has had to defy expectations at every turn. Now, he’s reached his first NBA Finals.
Jimmy Butler will be starting at guard tonight for the Miami Heat, facing the dreaded Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Butler is one of the NBA’s least likely players, and almost certainly its least likely superstar.
Butler was kicked out of his house when he was 13 (his mother said, “I don’t like the look of you, you gotta go,” right before sending him to fend for himself), experienced a brief stint of homelessness, found a second home, and devoted himself to basketball and making the NBA. He was not tendered a scholarship offer, despite a great high school career—his absence on the AAU circuit probably didn’t help—so he went to junior college, where he excelled enough to find himself at Marquette University during his sophomore year.
He began at the end of the bench, playing behind Wes Matthews and scraping playing time, like rust from the bottom of a giant iron bucket. Matthews left for the NBA, and Butler shined in his absence, enough to coax the Chicago Bulls, coming off a 62-win season and an MVP campaign from Derrick Rose, into selecting him with the 30th pick in the draft, netting the last guaranteed contract available, landing in the NBA by the skin of his teeth.
You might be wondering: Why did Jimmy Butler, currently the best player on an NBA Finals team, go 30th in the draft? “How many juco guys do you see in the NBA?” asks Ricky O’Donnell, an NBA/NCAA writer at SB Nation. “Typically, your pedigree really matters. If a guy who did not have a great college career, let’s say you’re a one-and-done, didn’t have a great freshman season but you were a top-five, top-ten recruit, people will still give you the benefit of the doubt. Jimmy didn’t have that. He had no recruiting pedigree. He couldn’t even get a scholarship out of high school.”
And, on top of all that, he was old—a senior entering the NBA Draft after a full college career. He didn’t have incredible athleticism. He wasn’t some moneyball acquisition who unlocked a mysterious need that changed the game. Since the 1960s, professional basketball has coveted scoring wings who get fouled a ton and make themselves the central anchor for the offense. No one—no one—thought Butler was this player.
Everything that happens after this happens because Butler wills it to happen.
A 30th pick in the draft is generally slated as a role player, and over the next few years, that’s what Butler resembles, a defensive wing for a team whose plans prioritize others’ contributions. But, as Rose’s knees and career fall apart, Butler improves every year, adding prolific free-throw shooting and playmaking to his repertoire, and steps into the vacuum. By his fourth season, he is a shiny, newly-minted All-Star, logging a masochistic-by-modern-standards 38.7 minutes a game for a Bulls squad that needed every second of it. It is not a fluke. He becomes a perennial All-Star, handles the ball more and more, plays for Team USA in the Olympics, tells the media that he considers himself a point guard, and then proceeds to shift his game around and play like one. All the while, the world learns how he does it: he works like a goddamn maniac and is also kind of a goddamn maniac. He demolishes the limits other people place on him through pure force of will.
He grows sick and tired of the Bulls’ garbage rent-seeking culture and the Bulls, who hate paying people, acquiesce to his grumblings and trade him to the Minnesota Timberwolves, where Tom Thibodeau, his former coach in Chicago, is both the team’s coach and president of basketball operations.
The Wolves have two young, ultra-projectable players in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. I watched Andrew Wiggins ball out in two straight Nike Hoop Summits, probably the high school-aged scouting calendar’s highest-pedigree event, when he was 16 and 17. He was basically perfect in those games, a young man with an obvious NBA frame and a crisp set of on-court skills.
The general assumption after those performances was that Wiggins was destined to be an NBA superstar. After a blah year at Kansas, he goes first in the draft (where his rights are traded on draft night for Kevin Love), and then proceeds to mostly suck year after year. The following year, the Wolves score another No .1 pick and draft Towns, a Kentucky kid whose slender, mobile frame and soft shooting touch seemed to suggest a game-breaking modern big man; unfortunately, he’s also been a lackadaisical defender who’s occasionally manhandled by stronger, more determined centers.
The belief was that Butler would whip these dudes into shape. But after the Wolves give Wiggins the team’s supermax slot even though he’s been inconsistent at best (the team’s owner actually gave him the contract after a meeting where he asked Wiggins if he was going to get better after getting the deal; you’ve gotta respect Wiggins for securing the bag in that moment, even if he did not get better). Butler gets sick of this crap as he’s earning a fraction of Wiggins’ contract, requests a trade, shows up to practice and belittles the hell out of everyone.
The unspoken subtext to all this is that Butler understands what he has had to do to get where he is in the game, and that these young fellas just don’t. Does he act like kind of a prick in light of this revelation? Yes. But after the Wolves decide the drama isn’t worth it, their special ones are just getting too upset at grouchy ol’ Jimmy, they trade Butler to the Sixers and the Wolves immediately fall out of playoff contention once again.
Time and again, the world has mostly regarded Jimmy Butler without awe. He has, again and again, not really impressed on anyone in a way that would make them assume he would end up being one of the best players in the NBA, and again and again, he has welcomed the excruciating task of proving them wrong. What is it about the power of reputation, about unseen “promise,” that keeps people from seeing the truth with their own two eyes?
Even now, on the verge of Butler’s first Finals appearance, at the end of the nuttiest NBA season ever, it is generally assumed that he and the Heat are a mere road bump against a stacked LA Lakers squad. Anthony Davis and LeBron James are the flip-side of the Wiggins-Towns “potential” coin, the examples you point to as proof positive of standard-issue scouting knowledge; a pair of high school wizards and top-draft picks who had the drive and the genius to make themselves into actual, legit NBA forces, unlike the sad-sacks Jimmy was yelling at in Minny. In the Miami Heat, Jimmy has finally found an organization whose maniacal attitude toward work matches his own. If they wield that madness and demolish the Lakers over the next two weeks, well, it won’t be the unlikeliest thing he’s managed to pull off. Not by a long shot.