Jimmy Butler can be a savior to a struggling team, but he can also be a sledgehammer that breaks it apart. It just may depend on the situation and people around him whether it’s fulfillment or failure.
Charles Darwin. No, he is not some new basketball phenom rising through the high school ranks, ready to take the NBA by storm. Nor is he a star collegian, lifting Duke or Kansas or some such school who bleeds bluer than the sky, to their next NCAA title with the number one draft pick in his sights. No, this particular Charles in charge did roam the hardwoods, but as a naturalist and noted observer of things on the wooden decks of the HMS Beagle back in 1830s.
He is credited with originating the phrase “survival of the fittest”, or at least inspiring it. If he was ever to return to watch Jimmy Butler play basketball, which is the first thing he would undoubtedly do upon his resurrection; he would find much evidence for his theories. This would be especially true if he happened to be at a Pacers game on Jan. 9 with an eye on T.J. Warren. Charles would see the unquestioned leader and star of the Miami Heat bark out instructions, dive and wrestle for loose balls, step up to challenge the alpha male of the opposing pack and believe he has never been surer of anything he has ever proposed.
But then, he would observe further and note some inconsistencies. He would see Butler encourage and support his younger pack members. Darwin would see him defer to the lower caste members for the health of the group and not just the individual. He would look further and see things that aren’t as identifiable as the biggest, strongest and fastest because Jimmy Butler is none of those things.
How could it be that Jimmy is the case study for Darwin’s belief (or at least a simplified version of it) and the antithesis to his argument all at once? It’s because effort and desire are hard to measure or see with the naked eye. Narratives are not made in a day but built over time with much evidence for reflection and debate. We need to be able to put both sides together to see the full picture. There is no yin without that yang after all and Jimmy Butler may be the antihero to long-held beliefs about stars and talent as well as newfound ones that can’t put a numeric value on one man’s heart, tenacity and will to win.
While this may encapsulate the good things that Jimmy Butler can bring to a team and organization; he is not without his own baggage. And it is large enough to fill up the room. Butler has no problem voicing his opinion about his teams or teammates in public and to the media. This isn’t necessarily a good way to endear yourself or make any friends, not that Butler cares if this is the case or not. While intense and committed to maximizing his own potential for a chance at greatness, not everyone shares his same motivations. In a closed environment where egos mix with ethos, being called out or questioned becomes grating and tiresome.
Not many players who compare their teammates to animal waste or call them soft would be welcomed with open arms. Not many players accused of blowing up an organization or two would be sought after in free agency, much less by multiple teams. In Miami, Butler may have found the perfect landing spot where the culture matches his commitment. Will this be enough to avoid the acrimonious splits that Butler has seen in Chicago and Minnesota? Or will Butler, after nine years of search and struggle, working his way into the elite of the league; finally find his NBA home to try to build his legacy.
To know Butler as a player, you need to know Butler as a man and the path that has brought him here. Here to a five-time All-Star. Here to a four-time All-Defensive Team selection. Here to a two- time All-NBA player. A lot of guys in the league view basketball as a way to a lifestyle. Jimmy Butler viewed basketball as a way to a life. On his own since 13 in a small Texas town outside Houston, Butler had more to worry about than rubbing some people the wrong way.
In an early interview before he was eventually drafted with the No. 30 pick by Chicago, Butler, who has been reticent to speak about his past, opened up to Chad Ford, but also had a request, ”I love what happened to me. It made me who I am. I’m grateful for the challenges I’ve faced. Please, don’t make them feel sorry for me.” If you can’t feel sorry for a kid who was basically abandoned by his parents, who can you feel bad for?
But he doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want your pity. He doesn’t want your excuses. He doesn’t want your empty words or false bravado. He wants your actions. He wants your effort. He wants your desire. He wants you to do everything you can to maximize your potential. Is it fair? Yes and no. Everyone has their own motivations and reasons for playing but Butler doesn’t want to hear about your desire to win without proving it in all aspects of the game.
But are you going to tell a kid who was homeless at 13, wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, went to JUCO for a season, spent three years in college, was drafted at the end of the first round, averaged 2.6 points in 8.5 minutes his rookie year, 8.6 points in 26 minutes his second year, won Most Improved Player in his fourth year and worked his way into All-NBA honors and Olympic gold medals that he doesn’t have the right to talk about work ethic and dedication and having a will to succeed even if he sounds a little high and mighty when doing so?
Since I’m sitting on my a** on the couch while writing this, upset that I have to get up, not off the couch entirely, but up from my resting position to reach my glass of water; it’s not going to be me. That’s why you can’t really fault him. Does he blow up teams? He may have in Minnesota, but in his one season there they made their first playoff appearance in 14 years, they had their first winning season in 13 years and were 38-24 with him while going 9-11 without and fell from third in the West when he hurt his knee, to eighth going into the playoffs. You don’t have to be a stat geek to see how they are faring without him.
The same can be said with the 76ers. Last year, they started off the season 9-7 before Butler got there and finished the year 42-24. He made big shots, he provided leadership and he came within one, or four, excruciating bounces of making the Conference Finals. One of this season’s biggest mysteries is what’s going on with Philadelphia as Miami equaled their win total from last season well before the All-Star break. There are times when you don’t need the analytics to tell you how good a player is. Sometimes you can believe what you are seeing because the proof is right there in front of your eyes.
A look at Miami’s roster, pre-trade deadline, shows Goran Dragic as the only other player ever to make an All-Star team and two starters who went undrafted, are first or second-year players and came to the NBA after stints in the G-League and overseas. Young guys, trade-ins, journeymen; it doesn’t really matter because Butler just needed the chance for a team to be his; to be the unquestioned leader and voice. In Chicago, he always had Rose and Noah, and when they left, Wade and Rondo came in. In Minnesota, he came to a team with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as the pieces he was supposed to be a compliment to. Philly has its own young core in Simmons and Embiid as part of a process that was already in place.
Miami was all his. Riley has already set the culture that fits Butler to a tee with no established star to prevent Jimmy from putting his hard-driving fingerprints all over it. Does he come with baggage and a volatile reputation that can win you games but lose you a locker room? Yes, he does, but Miami does not seem worried. After all, head coach Erik Spoelstra was quoted as saying, “His crazy is our kind of crazy.” and Udonis Haslem likened Butler to one evolutionary success saying when you cage him with cats he will growl, but if you let him run with the other dogs, he’ll feel right at home.
On the origin of species, I’ll go with a shark, who. Sharks have a proven formula for success. They know what it takes to make it, after all they have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. They know the vigilance and focus and unwavering dedication it takes to bring home the…fish…bacon…we’ll go with bacon because fish, even though more apropos, just will never be as good as bacon in taste or anecdotally. Sharks also carry with them a fearsome reputation, but are often misunderstood and actually beneficial for the health of the overall ecosystem as an apex predator. Can you get bit? Yes, especially if you agitate it, but Miami is used to this kind of Darwinian success and as Jimmy Butler further solidifies his ethic of effort on the Heat, they know there is a new top dog swimming in those shark-infested waters.