By Drew Stevens (@hismindonpaper)
Every so often in text message exchanges I’ll make use of a GIF depicting Jimmy Butler’s playful reaction to then-Chicago Bulls teammate (and one-part athlete-to-three parts shooter) Doug McDermott’s serendipitous baseline drive and dunk four years ago.
The novelty of that animated photo, for me, has yet to wear as thin. The same could be said of the welcoming of Butler into discussions of the National Basketball Association’s best players.
Yet here he is, the-publicly-perceived-in-over-his-head-scourge-to-any-locker-room-disgraced-by-his-presence-would-be-superstar, headliner of a Miami Heat team now four victories shy of its first Finals appearance since LeBron James was endorsing titles his performances couldn’t cash after shedding the Indiana Pacers then the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and its reigning Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“I think we’re supposed to be here,” said Butler ahead of tonight’s Eastern Conference Final opener against the Boston Celtics. “That’s how we think of it.”
Butler’s bravado is resolute. It’s also manifested in wildly different forms ranging from his passing on an eight-digit contract extension for a near nine-digit max deal with the Bulls in 2015, to his occasional squabble with opponents of similar and larger statures, and his vehement challenge of his then-Minnesota Timberwolves teammates in an infamous practice in which it was reported he ran the table with a group of benchwarmers against an Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns-led first-team during scrimmages in 2018.
The eight-year-veteran has appeared to have found the symbiotic connection in Miami that he lacked with his previous three franchises. Perhaps that explains why he has infused, rather than envenomed, his teammates in South Florida with a similarly unshakable confidence.
“Jimmy Butler has absolutely not changed,” legendary Heat guard, and Butler’s one-time Bulls teammate Dwyane Wade, told the Miami Herald recently.
“You know that saying: Winning cures all. That’s what it is. You put Jimmy in an environment where his — I always say his crazy and I don’t want that to come off like Jimmy is crazy. But I always say Jimmy has his own way, his own style and it doesn’t fit with everyone. Along this journey, everyone has tried to make Jimmy the scapegoat. Jimmy is the problem. Jimmy is this, Jimmy is that. Then you put him with the right person who actually has the same kind of crazy with the Miami Heat organization overall, and it just makes sense.”
What’s less intelligible, to me anyway, is the vitriol stirred at the mere mention of his capability to assume the leading role on a legitimate title-contending team. What fizzled out in Chicago, never materialized in Minnesota and ended unexpectedly with four unlucky bounces in Philadelphia is unfolding like a fairy-tale right in front of our very eyes; and at Walt Disney World no less.
An equally as gritty Celtics team now awaits after gutting out its seven-game slugfest with the Toronto Raptors. The Heat have a 40.9% chance of advancing past the team that won two of their three match-ups this season, according to ESPNs matchup predictor.
“We don’t really use ‘underdog,'” said Butler, who averaged 28.5 points on 53.1 percent shooting from the field with 6 rebounds and 2.5 steals in the pair of losses. “We may say that we have a chip on our shoulder, but I don’t think that we’re the underdog. I think that we’re a really good team. We play together. Everybody knows their role. We just compete.”
In a series that features three other All-Stars including teammate Bam Adebayo and burgeoning superstar Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, Butler is the creme de la creme — at least on the basis of Player Efficiency Rating, a measurement of a player’s per-minute statistical production. The two-time All-NBA Third Team and four-time All-Defensive Second Team selection boasts the 11th best PER at 23.11. The league average is 15.00. Tatum, the highly-thought-of 22-year-old who fuels the Celtics’ attack, yields the 37th highest rating at 20.45.
What can become muddled by nuanced statistics can be sorted out in real-time over the next couple of weeks as Butler continues to force his way into conversations regarding his place among the NBAs elite.
“Ultimately,” Wade said. “Jimmy’s whole thing this whole time is he just wants other guys that work like him, that play the game as hard as he does, that can execute the game when it matters and things of that nature. That’s how he built himself. He built himself on the work that he puts in on film and on wins and losses in the game. Some organizations may not be ready for that kind of player. It may be too much for coaches, it may be too much for other players because everyone has different goals. This has been Jimmy’s goal along.”
Win or lose, that image of Butler’s sly grin will remain in rotation for upcoming text message responses.
Though, four more victories will all but guarantee the arrival of a new go-to GIF.
Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago