NBA Finals: Emotions Still Run High In Chicago For Jimmy Butler

By Drew Stevens (@lookwhatdrewdid)

No, he isn’t the theme of every sentence written about the Miami Heat’s Cinderella season, but Jimmy Butler is as essential to the Heat’s storybook venture into the NBA Finals as the glass slipper was to the tale of a certain overlooked-to-obsessively sought heroine. 

Though this latest Heat run deep into the postseason, Butler has willfully faded into the periphery of the offense early in games, yet like the crafty vet he’s become Butler has still taken on the role of protagonist in the climatic moments of tight games, having made 10 of 17 shots from the field, 40 percent of his three-point attempts and 17 of 19 free throws in the last five minutes of games in which Miami and its opponent were within five points of each other — in the process outshining most of his more distinguished counterparts in the process.

Yet, in the face of the best example yet of Butler’s superior ability to win at all costs, there still exists a sizable segment of basketball fans convinced that his superstar bark lacks qualifying bite. 

Nowhere is one more likely to be scoffed at for merely mentioning Butler or his capability to spearhead a title-winning team than in the town where he spent the first six years of his career, and whose heart is forever promised to former Bulls teammate Derrick Rose. The spectacular rise and turbulent fall of Chicago’s beloved son inversely coincided with Butler’s evolution from spot-minute defender to spotlighted star. 

But is it any coincidence that Butler remains a source of contention among those whose adoration for Rose still ignites volatile exchanges on the subject some four years since the two both played for the Bulls? 

“Whenever you juxtapose Jimmy with Rose the torches come out,” said NBC Sports Chicago podcast producer Tony Gill.

Gill’s recent tweet pointing out the unlikelihood of Butler advancing to the Finals before then-higher profile teammates Rose, Joakim Noah and former head coach Tom Thibodeau was largely interpreted by much of #BullsTwitter as a slight toward Englewood’s finest and upon hearing that, retaliatory responses ran rampant.

“We can respect both players for what they have done,” Gill said. “I don’t know why fans want to boost Rose and bring down Jimmy when respect can be given all around while embracing the facts.”

For Bulls fans, there’s a cruel reality that always has to be accepted regarding Rose and Butler: despite early evidence that they could help lead a new Bulls renaissance, the apex of their individual career trajectories never intersected under the roof of the Madhouse on Madison or culminated in its adornment of a seventh championship banner. 

Given his eventful and rocky stops in Minnesota and Philadelphia, its become clear that Butler expects his teammates to mirror the tireless work ethic that’s resulted in him being named to his third consecutive All-NBA Third-Team in 2020 along with an 11th place finish in Most Valuable Player voting this season. Before he found quintessential compatibility in Miami, Butler’s expectations often proved to be both lofty and irrational, and when unmet led to alleged locker room dissension. 

“Jimmy wasn’t the best leader early on,” Gill said. “You can make an argument that he wasn’t ready to be a leader of a franchise when he was (in Chicago).”

To Gill’s point, as the late-first round draft pick surpassed even the most generous projections for his career while a Bull, it was reported that not even the work ethic of the youngest MVP in league history was beyond Butler’s reproach.

According to a report from Chicago Sun-Times columnist Joe Cowley in which he cited a former Bull, the then-newly recognized Most Improved Player questioned the message being sent to teammates if, in his opinion, the homegrown franchise cornerstone wasn’t putting forth maximum effort in practice before the 2015-2016 season. 

Butler gave a different, if not confounding, impression publicly. 

“I love having Derrick as a teammate,” Butler told then-Chicago Tribune Bulls beat writer K.C. Johnson at the time. “Just let us play together. I think we can be one of the best, if not best, backcourts in NBA.”

Following a disappointing 42-40 campaign and Rose’s departure to the New York Knicks eight months later, Butler joined ESPNs The Jump and conveyed a lack of surprise to the trade. He even expressed his belief that either he or Rose had to be dealt. When pressed to explain why the duo had to be broken up Butler said, “I have no idea.”

Jimmy Butler Reportedly Doesn’t Respect Derrick Rose’s Work Ethic (B/R)

The two reunited briefly as Minnesota Timberwolves teammates during the 2017-2018, though this time around Butler served as the undeniable leader.

“He’s a superstar right now and I’m a guy that’s trying to find my way back into the league,” said Rose who, at the time, had played in just 89 regular season games since his departure from Chicago due to the tormenting of injury. 

Rose has since gone on to lead the Detroit Pistons in points (18.1) and assists (5.6) while shooting a career-best 49% from the field in 50 games this past season. 

Emmy nominated broadcaster and host Camron Smith said anyone who discredits Butler simply out of admiration for Rose may have some deep-seated issues in need of reconciliation. 

“What people don’t understand is the respect and love that Jimmy and Derrick have for each other,” Smith said. “That’s always been there.”

As the Heat prepare to embark on the final leg of their latest remarkable journey tonight — squaring up not only against the Los Angeles Lakers but also the man who last led Miami to a championship and thrice eliminated Butler and Rose from the post-season — the only thing clearer than the mutual respect between the former teammates is that this conversation, much like Chicago’s love for Rose and its polarizing position on Butler, is here to stay. 

Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago

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