After turbulent, and relatively brief, stints in both Minnesota and Philadelphia, veteran forward Jimmy Butler appears to have finally found a happy home with the Heat in Miami. Sure, the season is still very young, and Butler is still in what could be considered his "honeymoon phase" with his new franchise. Obviously, a more accurate assessment of his tenure with the team will come a couple of years down the road, but the early returns have been promising.
Through three weeks of action, the four-time All-Star has the Heat near the top of the Eastern Conference (they're 8-3 through 11 games) and playing some solid team basketball. He's leading the team in points (18.8) and assists (6.5) per game, while also adding 5.5 rebounds and an NBA-leading 2.8 steals. But it has been an all-around effort. Six players on the Heat, including Butler, are averaging in double-figures on the season, and overall they have been playing a very unselfish brand of basketball. Butler has led the Heat in scoring in some games, and in assists in others. As long as the final result is a win, Butler insists that he's happy.
"I know how good I am in basketball, how good these guys are in basketball," Butler said earlier this week. "So I'll continue to give them confidence. I'll continue to help them be the best players they can be, while I'll continue to produce at a high level. All in all, as long as we're winning, I'm happy. If we're losing, I'm pissed off."
Butler's ability to pick-and-choose his spots out on the floor, combined with his unique ability to impact the game in a multitude of ways -- with his scoring, passing, or defense -- has led his new coach to compare Miami's newest star to a five-tool baseball player; a comparison that Butler would probably approve of given his Tomball, Texas roots.
"He can be whatever you need him to be," Spoelstra said of Butler. "I compare him to the five-tool baseball player. He's a complete basketball player, now, at this point in his career. And he'll do whatever it takes, on either end of the floor, to help your team win… And depending on the opponent, he may morph into a different kind of player to help the big picture."
Butler showed a similar morphing ability during his stint with the Sixers last season. He served as an ancillary option for large chunks of game time, but when crunch time came he would morph into a top-option closer, capable of hitting 3-point daggers and getting to the line to ice a game. By playoff time, he was even often serving as a primary ballhandler for Philadelphia and initiating the offense.
Considering the success he experienced in Philadelphia -- the Sixers were a couple unfriendly bounces away from a potential Eastern Conference finals appearance last May -- many expected Butler to re-up with Philly over the offseason, as all seemed smooth on the surface during his time with the team. However, there was apparently some behind-the-scenes drama that led to Butler deciding to walk away.
"Stuff just don't work out," Butler recently said of his stay in Philadelphia, opting not to go into specifics. "Nobody knows what really went on in Philly and we're going to leave it that way. But it was a great opportunity for me ... All of that will come out whenever it's time. Right now is not the time. I'm locked in with this. I'm happy, man. I'm smiling and my guys want me to be here, my organization wants me to be here, I want to be here and we're going to ride this thing until the wheels fall off."
Being where he actually wants to be probably has a lot to do with Butler's smiles. Remember, Butler didn't choose Minnesota or Philadelphia; he was traded to both places. He also didn't choose to play in Chicago for that matter either, since he was drafted by the Bulls out of Marquette. He had some solid years with the Bulls, but he ultimately flamed out in Chicago. Minnesota too. And though things seemed [relatively] smooth with the Sixers, he never gave any indication that he wanted to be in Philadelphia long-term. With the Heat, Butler got to choose where he wanted to play, and in turn live, for the first time in his professional career. Thus, it stands to reason that his spirits are high. When you control your own destiny, it's easier to live with the results. Or, maybe the guy just really hates cold weather.
Either way, to say that Butler is smitten with the Heat would be an understatement. He's already gone as far as saying that he would like to play the rest of his career for the franchise – something you never heard him say during his tenure in Minnesota, or Philadelphia.
"This is where I'm going to be for hopefully the rest of my career," Butler said last month. "I think I fit here. The way that they work, the attitude that they go about everything, it's me in a nutshell."
While Butler, 30, has said and done all the right things since signing with the Heat, there's one obvious question out there: will it last? In Chicago, things were fine until they weren't. Same in Minnesota. There weren't even overt signs of issues in Philadelphia, and the team was winning, but that didn't work out either. So, it is fair to wonder how Butler will react when the honeymoon phase with the Heat comes to an end and the team gets mired in a long losing streak, or flames out in the first round of the postseason.
The power dynamic on the roster is an interesting aspect to keep in mind too. With the Heat as currently constructed, Butler is very clearly the team's leader and alpha dog. However, you have to assume that ultimately team president Pat Riley will be looking to add other top-tier talents in order to complement Butler given the fact that it is very difficult to win in the league today with just a single star. After all, this is the organization that pioneered the "big three" movement at the onset of the decade. It's all good while Butler is the main guy, but how will he react if another player of equal or higher stature is brought in? There was a reported rift with Dwyane Wade and some beef with Rajon Rondo in Chicago. His inability to coexist with Karl-Anthony Towns led directly to his exit from Minnesota. And apparently there were some underlying issues in Philadelphia too. Given this history, it's fair to wonder if Butler is a player that has an issue with sharing the spotlight. Or, perhaps such issues are in the rearview. Only time will tell.
Butler is less than ten games into a four-year contract, so obviously nothing is set in stone at this point. But, the early optics are good, and it's possible that he's finally found the perfect franchise fit.