Jimmy Butler has faced adversity many times and, to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming an NBA champion, he has to do it again.
Jimmy Butler praises himself on being a kid from Tomball, a moniker adapted from that of four-time NBA champion LeBron James. And the perception of the Miami Heat star varies from person to person, especially depending on the field in which they preside.
Fans, experts and analysts around the NBA mostly love him, while other teams and players within the league who see him on a nightly basis hate him, at least in the way that one hates someone who gets under their skin. This reputation, which Butler has built for himself, wasn’t constructed overnight. It’s also hardly been fruitless.
As the star of the Heat, he’s made it to the NBA Finals, beating the likes of the top-seeded Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in 2020 to do it. After repeating the feat against the Bucks in a controversial 2023 postseason, Butler is trying to navigate his way to the top of the NBA with another Finals appearance, but with adversity all the way in his face.
The latest adversity was just a week ago when Miami led 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, but let the Celtics tie it and brought the series to a Game 7 in a win-or-go-home scenario for the hot-handed Heat. The Heat won that Game 7. Now, they face the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals for a shot at the NBA Championship, which is perhaps their toughest challenge yet. Many have praised the resilience of the Celtics in the aftermath of the ECF or the superiority of other teams in the East at the beginning of the 2023 Playoffs. All season long it has been about MVP Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and the rise of the Denver Nuggets. However, one thing remains clear about the Heat and their star, and it’s the real story of the NBA: Jimmy Butler wants to be an NBA champion.
To understand Jimmy Butler, you have to understand where he came from
Before he became what he is today, Jimmy Butler had a tough upbringing in a small town in Texas outside of Houston known as Tomball. Butler has told his story before. His father left the family when Butler was just an infant. So, Butler turned to his single mother — a mother who later looked him in the eyes and said, “I don’t like the look of you. You gotta go,” when the now NBA star was just 13 years old. He was kicked out of the house.
At age 13, searching for a home, hope and a basketball, Butler was embraced by the family of a friend, Jordan Leslie, who snuck food upstairs to his friend and played sports with him until the boys’ secret was out that Butler had been living with them. Today, the All-Star credits Michelle Lambert as his mother and says he’s not haunted by the relationship with his biological mother and father.
After ending up with a new family during his senior year of high school, a family he met during a basketball outing at a local gym, Butler embarked on his college basketball career, but faced early adversity once again. With little interest from Division I programs, he started at Tyler Junior College before getting an offer from Marquette, one that he accepted.
This is all telling of Butler’s nature, though. He’s not fazed by the narrative of his upbringing says a lot. His story might seem familiar, someone rising from tumultuous circumstances to have a chance of success. Butler is especially exemplary of this tale. In spite of his struggles, Butler went on to star at a top college program Marquette, be drafted late in the first round, and now is an all-around NBA star fighting for a championship.
In 2011, the Chicago Bulls were looking for a star to pair with No. 1 draft pick and MVP, Derrick Rose. It was inevitable that Butler made his way from the Marquette practice facility to the Chicago Bulls. The 6-7 small forward out of Marquette was an easy candidate to add to the dynamics of a rebuilding Bulls team consisting of Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, and others who all played hard and were team players. Butler possessed a high IQ, superior defense, and competence on offense. He could be a role player, and that’s exactly the role he played when he first joined Chicago as he sat on the bench at the United Center and waited for his number to be called.
And his number was called. The Bulls remembered draft night and didn’t forget their pick, even at No. 30. Head Coach Tom Thibodeau, who coached the Bulls with championship aspirations, didn’t do Butler the way most teams do late-to-second round picks. That was noticeable and deserved appraisal. The way Butler acclimated himself into the Bulls lineup and made contributions nightly, even during his rookie and sophomore seasons. His transition to the pro’s was inevitable and he looked like one of a kind. His contributions were reminiscent of the old school stars who contributed to their franchise and wanted to win. His pairing with Derrick Rose drew an obvious comparison to Scottie Pippen. The glory days in Chicago with Michael Jordan and Pippen seemed long ago. That was until Chicago native Rose stepped in to give the city some hope, and hope and success is what Rose brought during the Bulls 2010’s years. Then along came Butler, and Jordan and Pippen and the glory days were revived.
Who could forget the success of the 2010’s Bulls? The year Rose won MVP? Then, of course, there was his ACL injury, which derailed a once-thriving career. Butler was right in the middle of all of it as Rose’s confidant and one of the Bulls go-to options. Who could deny the role which Butler was to play for many teams for many years to come in the NBA? What the Bulls did for Butler laid the foundation for, perhaps, one of the greatest basketball stories in NBA history.
The star small forward was on the move after the Bulls’ rise and gradual fall from grace. He packed up and went to Minnesota in a trade package which included current Bulls star Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen. The Timberwolves were a franchise under the radar and hadn’t seen the light of day since the days of The Big Ticket, Kevin Garnett.
“What was to become of the relationship between Minnesota and Jimmy Butler?” was the lingering question. Bringing in a guy like Butler, the quintessential 3&D wing and NBA’s Most Improved Player, would at least help the Timberwolves in their rebuild. Help is what Butler provided the old T-Wolves, and as the season went on, the significance of Butler to certain teams and the whole NBA at large became more apparent.
Butler’s time in Minnesota was a year which asked a lot of questions and answered some, in the words of great novelist Zora Neale Hurston, and watching him was like poetry. This is where the 30-point games and solo stardom started, which he showed hints of in Chicago. The bigger his success became, a new attitude emerged in Minnesota. It was all Jimmy Butler in Minnesota, and reports of him acting erratic during Timberwolves practices started to surface.
In one memorable incident, Butler entered the Timberwolves practice facility and instead of practicing, he challenged a group of starters and bench players to a game where he showed all his assets and won. He told the Timberwolves execs on the way out, “You can’t win without me.” The person who knew him closest, Tom Thibodeau, couldn’t slow down the world Butler had made for himself. A big part of the reason for the Timberwolves success was because of the relationship between Thibodeau and Butler. Many thought of this act in practice as disrespect to the Timberwolves organization, but Butler wasn’t wrong. He had given a premonition. He is a big part of the reason why many teams win and he could help a team win. The Timberwolves made their first postseason in 14 years because of Butler. However, the Timberwolves had it. The time was ticking, even if it had helped prove Butler worthy of star status. In spite of Butler’s on-court success, the star had again requested a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Philadelphia 76ers was a given choice. The 76ers were embarking on playoff runs and had the pieces to succeed in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and others. Adding Butler next to the stars already on the 76ers, another legendary organization he would help more than hurt, further opened the doors for the organization’s success. More than anything else, the addition of Butler made the 76ers a superteam and carried the “it won’t hurt” mentality. Butler, on a personal note, added the 3&D, team-first, and perhaps, star-in-the-making essentials. Butler had qualities teams liked, and he provided them with no hurdles or obstacles to jump over usually for someone switching teams often and trying to find his role.
The Jimmy Butler experiment was working. This is when the consistency started and 30+ point games were the norm. The 76ers seemed like his exodus or some sort of mecca. The whole NBA, every arena and practice facility, was Butler’s playground. It was clear he’d made it and found humble success as an NBA star. But it was also clear, after a season in Philadelphia, the same amount of time he spent in Minnesota, that Butler was looking for something more. Butler found this something more in Miami.
The Miami Heat was the star’s new home and destiny. The Miami Heat seemed like just another organization on the Butler radar at first. The similarities between his time in Philadelphia and Minnesota had a mirror-like reflection, and what was to be different in Miami wasn’t certain to the naked eye. But Miami made it clear, especially to doubters, that Butler was going to be their guy. That guy. Their go-to guy, the No. 1 option on offense and defense, and their franchise star. When the Butler trade to Miami happened, the Heat were looking for that star. The Miami Heat organization, of course, had much success in recent memory to live off of. The Miami Heat were once led by head coach Erik Spoelstra and the first real Big 3 in the NBA, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Since the Big 3 days, the Heat had entered a rebuild and they had pieces like veterans Goran Dragic, Udonis Haslem, Andre Iguodala, former teammate Jae Crowder, and James Johnson to name a few, but they were missing a piece. Miami needed Butler, a star in his own right and someone who would do what he always does every night. The terms of the agreement between the Heat and Butler for the small forward to be a key piece to their rebuild were fulfilled and far exceeded.
Butler has done more than help the Miami Heat. He is, at the moment, his team’s No. 1 option and one of the NBA’s best players. He’s achieved this by making the NBA Playoffs every year since his trade and making noise in those games. We haven’t stopped hearing Jimmy Butler’s name since. For a guy who’s played the underdog, played the “help” or acting in “butler” roles, the Miami Heat provided Butler with a clear path to bigger hopes and dreams, the kind only for champions and MVPs.This is real life with real stories with real significance. The real significance of Butler’s story is bigger than his upbringing, his role in Chicago, and trades to Minnesota and Philadelphia. The real significance is right in the heat of an important franchise and the NBA Finals as a championship-caliber and MVP-chasing player. And the heat is on and hotter than ever. The world knows that Butler can win and often goes through adversity to win, and that’s why many like to see him win.
What stands in the way seems to be Butler and the Heat themselves. As the saying goes, “If you can’t take the heat, don’t stand in the kitchen.” This mantra may be more for others in the NBA than for Butler, who in spite of how hot it gets, wants to be an NBA Champion.
This is what the series against the Boston Celtics told us. The history between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics isn’t one to muddle over. Last year, the Celtics beat the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals to advance to the NBA Finals. In the NBA Bubble, Miami beat them and everybody else in the East to advance to the NBA Finals. This year, as foes in the Eastern Conference Finals, was even more intense. When Derrick White made that put-back in Game 6 to bring a series that was once 3-0 to 3-3, everyone gasped in the American Airlines Arena. It came down to the wire in a Game 7 in Boston, and this meant all of the Heat’s hard work was down the drain in seconds. The success of the Celtics isn’t to be undermined, and it mirrors the Heat’s. The Celtics were praised for their adversity, and all of the odds were turned all of a sudden in favor of them.
Where did this leave Butler and the Heat? Butler and his team answered this question once the lights shined bright on the hardwood floor for Game 7. The Heat brought a 1-2 punch of their own in Caleb Martin who had a 20+ point double-double game. The Celtics and all of the NBA must’ve forgotten that Butler and his Heat have been here before. A victory against the No. 1 seed Bucks in the first round as an No. 8 seed proves it. A 3-0 series lead against a team like the Celtics proves it. All of this comes after having to fight for a spot in the play-in tournament. The fact that they’re included in the conversation in the East is good enough for some. Being a Heat fan is good enough. But one fact is clear and presides above all of this: Jimmy Butler wants to be an NBA Champion.
He will have a chance prove it against the Denver Nuggets. Butler has a lot more to prove still, more than the Celtics did, more than Jokic and Murray do now, perhaps. Butler wants more than a shot at it. He has proven he wants a shot at it against the likes of LeBron and the Lakers in the 2020 NBA Finals, but a win is different. A win in the ECF is one thing, but the NBA Finals is another. The Heat are up against the Nuggets for the championship, the No. 1 seed in the West and a team led by an MVP. The Nuggets already took Game 1, a game they led by double digits all game long. Nothing says adversity like an early deficit. At one point, it looked like the Heat were climbing back in the game, which gave some hope before they ultimately fell at the final buzzer. Butler will have to prove he and his team can win, and he’ll have to do it in a Game 2 around the corner.
While everyone watching has high hopes for the Nuggets, one thing is clear: Jimmy Butler wants to win and winning is in Jimmy Butler’s DNA.
It’s unwise to doubt him.