If you sit in on enough Miami Heat press conferences, all the talk about "culture" and "the Heat way" can get a bit tiresome. But it's real. They play hard. They practice hard. They don't believe in, or accept, excuses. James Johnson just got because he came back out of shape.
Put another way, things that have tended to enflame Jimmy Butler in the past -- guys accepting less than their best, thinking they can get by on talent alone, not holding themselves accountable -- don't happen in Miami. Or if they do, the team handles it before Butler has to storm into practice and embarrass the starters with a bunch of third-stringers to make a statement about what it takes to win. The Heat know plenty about winning. A lot more than Jimmy Butler does, frankly.
Besides that, Butler probably wouldn't have the nerve to do in Miami what he did that day in Minnesota in the first place, when he reportedly yelled at Timberwolves GM Scott Layden: "You f---ing need me, Scott. You can't win without me." No offense to Scott Layden, but can you imagine Butler, or anyone for that matter, talking like that to Pat Riley?
In this way, there's a very New England Patriots quality to the Heat. Some of the most respected, no-nonsense figures in the history of the game sitting at the top of an organization, and everything they represent, without saying a word, rolling downhill. Butler loves that Miami is the embodiment of the standard to which he strives. He says he's "not an a--hole" like everybody thinks he is, but he freely admits to "going too far" on occasion in his admonishment of teammates and the basketball situations in which he's been.
He promises it comes from a good place. He just wants to win. And therein lies the $142 million question: Can Butler make Miami a big-time winner again? Because that is the goal. Or, rather, the expectation. Riley was clear: He's sick of losing.
"It's put up or shut up time," Riley told reporters last Friday. "It's time to play. This is a good team."
Optimism, of course, abounds in Miami, as it does within just about every organization this time of year, before the harsh realities of your team's shortcomings have been exposed and you're spiraling down the standings by Thanksgiving. For all the Heat's by-the-book training-camp talk of "good fits" and "having a defensive mindset" and looking for players who "impact winning," you will hear less about the less-romantic bottom line of NBA basketball.
Can the Heat score? Can they defend? Can they put together at least one go-to lineup that can do both at a high level? It's not the "Miami Heat way" to focus on individual players, but they needed Butler in the worst way. It's great that he fits the culture and loves the city and all, but that stuff doesn't get you buckets. Jimmy does that.
"He's a very good basketball player," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who just signed a new four-year deal, told reporters on Monday. "He's top 15 on this planet. He has proven himself to be one of the elite two-way players in this league. And he's not going to shy away from big moments. When we talk about finding the right fit, you can't be afraid of big expectations [in this organization]. You have to be inspired by [those expectations], and Jimmy Butler is that kind of player."
Riley was equally praiseful in his assessment of Butler's talent.
"I think he's a top-10 player," Riley said of Butler. "If you wanted to give him the ball 35 minutes a game, he could get 27-7-7. He's that kind of player. But I'm not sure that would be the best thing for winning."
So what is the best thing for winning? Making a trade for another star? Chris Paul, perhaps? Riley was noncommittal about the idea of adding a second star next to Butler, only saying that he's "happy right now" but that "if something ever presents itself" then they are always looking to get better.
Again, it's the right thing to say. The only thing to say, really. You will never be at a loss for general, hearty words coming from, or being attached to, the Miami Heat. Opposing coaches will laud their "toughness" and "professionalism" and tell you that anytime you see the Heat on the schedule you know you're in for a fight. The Heat like it that way. Butler says he wants opposing teams to "hate" the Heat.
"That's part of our culture," Riley echoed. "I know you're bored with it, but [that reputation] stays with you forever. Hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, [most] unselfish, toughest, nastiest, most disliked team in the league."
You get fired up just hearing these words come out of someone like Pat Riley's mouth. They're the kind of words that hang on the wall in high school weight rooms. But the bottom line is you can only hate a team that won 39 games last year so much. The Heat are barely a .500 team since LeBron left in 2014-15. They've won one playoff series. We're not exactly talking about the Bad Boys. Post-LeBron, Butler is the first real step in the direction of big-time winning for a franchise desperate to get back on top.
"We're excited. It feels like a new team, a new opportunity," Spoelstra said. "We will keep on driving, inspiring, pushing, dragging, pulling, whatever we have to do to get back to where we want to be as an organization."