Three years and two more team changes later after his initial trade from the Bulls to the Timberwolves, Jimmy Butler is in the NBA Finals for the first time. Butler’s Heat beat the Celtics in Game 6 on Sunday night, with the former Bulls star going for 22 points and eight assists in the win. The Heat outscored the Celtics by 18 points in Butler’s 39 minutes.
Butler is a perfect fit in Miami (#HeatCulture), and their playoff run with Jimmy leading the way has been a lot of fun to watch. Not only has Butler been outstanding on both ends of the floor, but Pat Riley did an impressive rob turning this roster from a mediocre mess to a title contender.
Bam Adebayo is a menace in the middle and just had 32/14/5 in the clincher. Rookie Tyler Herro made history with 37 points off the bench in Game 4 and is playing well beyond his years. Goran Dragic has turned back the clock. Youngster Duncan Robinson has become one of the best shooters in the NBA. Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala were both acquired in a midseason trade for a disappointing young player in Justise Winslow and two overpaid vets in Dion Waiters and James Johnson.
This is a gritty, versatile, well-coached (shoutout to Spo) team that moves the ball, shoots it well and defends the hell out of you when they’re locked in. It’s the type of roster many Bulls fans (including myself) would have loved to see around Butler when GarPax pledged to get #YoungerAndMoreAthletic. This playoff run has had many Bulls fans wondering what could have been, even if it’s probably true that Chicago didn’t have the infrastructure in place to build a team like this. Of course, that’s just another strike against GarPax, who botched the post-Tom Thibodeau years in a big way.
The Bulls almost traded Butler in 2016, then signed Dwyane Wade (who basically spent the whole season planting the seeds for Jimmy to go to Miami) and Rajon Rondo in a last-gasp attempt at relevance before rebuilding. The roster was ill-constructed and not all that enjoyable to watch, with Butler dragging their ass to the playoffs. The 2-0 start against the Celtics was fun and all, but the awfulness of the roster showed in a big way once #PlayoffRondo went down. Remember all those terrible point guards?
Here’s then what was said about Butler after that first-round exit:
Right after the 2017 Wade/Rondo/Butler season ended, Pax was asked what he wanted to do with Jimmy Butler. Surround him with shooters and run offense thru him or tear it all down.— Stephen Noh (@StephNoh) September 28, 2020
Pax: "We know his value."
Fifty days later, Butler was gone. pic.twitter.com/d3VOZCCqVc
The Bulls pulled the trigger on a Butler deal despite him wanting to stick around (at least at that point he had never asked out). While I still have some hope for the Bulls’ young core, at the time, they dealt a star in his prime who didn’t want out for a one-way player coming off a torn ACL (Zach LaVine), an older player coming off a terrible rookie season (Kris Dunn) and essentially a pick swap (No. 16 for No. 7, which was Lauri Markkanen).
Whatever you think about the players coming back to the Bulls, the fact that they included No. 16 in the trade is baffling to me. Would Thibs really have nuked the deal if the Bulls insisted on keeping that pick? I find that hard to believe. They then infamously sold the No. 38 pick hours later.
GarPax never should have had the opportunity to make the Butler trade after what happened in 2016-17 (plus a litany of other issues), but they did and finally paid for it with their jobs this year. I’m feeling more optimistic about the direction now with this new regime, and hopefully we can soon truly move past the decision to trade Butler.
But for now, I’m both happy for Jimmy and bummed as a Bulls fan that they never really tried to build a legit team around him. Sure, he’s flawed as a player, can be a pain in the ass to deal with at times and may have been looking for a hefty supermax from the Bulls, but he’s still a legit impact star on the wing and has clearly improved every team he has been on. He has arguably been a top-10 player for a few years now and is 15-to-20 at worst.
Meanwhile, the Bulls, Timberwolves and 76ers have turned into messes without him. While he deserves some criticism for how he handled himself in the past, it sure looks like he was mostly right about his former teams. I had to laugh at his smirk when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols mentioned the Bulls trading him right after the Heat punched their ticket to the NBA Finals.
Butler will go up against a familiar foe in the Finals: LeBron James. Butler knows it’s going to be tough:
Heat’s Jimmy Butler on Finals: “It’s been like this for a very long time: If you want to win, you’ll have to go through a LeBron James-led team... That’s what it normally comes down to... You’re going to get the same test over & over until you pass it. That test is LeBron James.” pic.twitter.com/zlYYE1vRgr— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) September 28, 2020
I wouldn’t bet on the Heat winning this series against the Lakers, but they’ve surprised throughout the playoffs and shouldn’t be counted out. I know I’ll be rooting hard for Jimmy Butler to win his first championship.