When Leonard made his power move last offseason, signing with the Los Angeles Clippers and convincing Paul George to force a monster trade to join him, the two-time Finals MVP was hailed as the competitor who balanced the league. He had no interest in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis to form a superteam with the Los Angeles Lakers. He wanted to battle them, for L.A. and the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But his merge-with-a-peer approach was actually more of the same in this NBA era of nomadic superstars. Meanwhile, Butler was just an oddball, roving franchise player in search of something indecipherable.
Well, you can decipher what he was searching for now.
Butler left a young, star-studded cast in Philadelphia for a gritty Miami squad that didn’t make the playoffs in 2019. It seemed to be change for the sake of change. In reality, it was the genius decision of a man who knew exactly what he wanted.
For the first time, Butler can be fully appreciated for his maverick mentality. The NBA has never needed textbook parity to stay relevant, yet when the league can achieve parity without overregulation, it is a welcome change. It remains to be seen whether this Finals appearance indicates the Heat are at the beginning of a nice run or just got hot at the right time. But they look like a team that has put something special and sustainable together, with Butler as an all-star in his prime leading a squad that includes a young all-star big man in Bam Adebayo, an emerging force in rookie Tyler Herro and a roster full of hard-nosed, skilled and undervalued role players.
In building this team, Pat Riley created a much-needed example of good drafting, excellent player development, smart trades and solid free agent acquisitions. It’s the perfect team for Erik Spoelstra, a fine and demanding coach who doesn’t really have an off switch. But to advance beyond what Miami had been the past six years — a low-to-mid-tier playoff team, at best — it needed Butler. And Butler, who burns to win but also craves being the alpha, needed Miami.
He wanted to do something that fit his personality better than following the NBA trend. The right to switch teams, sometimes recklessly, has become this strange perk of stardom, a way to wield power. It’s not for everybody, but too many do it anyway. Butler truly craved the Heat culture, not just a fresh start. It’s an interesting new example for both elite players and teams trying to figure out how to reach the next level.
Ten years ago, the Heat were at the forefront of the superteam era after stripping down their roster to pair James and Chris Bosh with Dwyane Wade. That trio led Miami to two championships and four straight appearances in the Finals before James decided to return to Cleveland in 2014. Now, the Heat are back in the championship series for the first time since losing James, and fittingly, their opponent is James’s Lakers.
This isn’t merely a clash of past and present, however. Beneath that story line, you can have an interesting debate about team-building ideologies. The Heat now represent a classic, organic creation that endured a process of slow, incremental steps. The Lakers ended six straight losing seasons before this breakthrough, but for most of their losing, they were aimless in their rebuilding. They didn’t have a process; they were a mess. Then they did what the Lakers have often been able to do: land the biggest of stars. A year after nabbing James, they traded for Davis and collected several complementary veterans in free agency. And just like that, they were the Lakers again.
What a weird, novel and fun matchup to conclude this challenging season. It’s historic, too, the first Finals featuring two teams that didn’t make the playoffs the previous season. While it’s no surprise to see James making his ninth Finals appearance in 10 years, Butler is a refreshing newcomer.
Confession: I thought Butler had become too obsessed with celebrity during parts of his journey. I worried he wanted to be The Man more than he wanted to win. As he drifted from Chicago to Minnesota to Philadelphia — with too much drama along the way — I didn’t see him being the best player on a team that made it this far.
I was wrong. Butler had to find his people. From the top of the organization down, the Heat are definitely his people. This wasn’t his best year statistically; he averaged 19.9 points per game during the regular season and couldn’t get his jumper together (24.4 percent from three-point range). But he averaged a career-high six assists, played stifling defense and saved his best for the most important times. His impact is far greater than traditional stats, and in this bubble postseason, his influence has been undeniable.
“What this whole thing comes down to is being wanted, being appreciated for what you bring to the table and, as I’ve said time and time again, as [Spoelstra] constantly says, we’re not for everybody,” Butler told reporters Sunday. “I’m not for everybody, but here I am. They wanted me to be here. They told me, like, ‘Yo, you’re the guy that we want. We’re coming after you.’ I was like, ‘Say no more.’ To be wanted, that’s what anybody wants in the world, not just basketball. So I’m happy to be home.”
Look at Jimmy Butler, settled. And look at the NBA, with a No. 5 seed crashing its heavyweight bout, showcasing a little parity. Maybe there is hope, amid this era of unrestrained star alliances, for throwback competitors and classic roster construction.