LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — With the plethora of sports beginning play or ramping up over the past couple of weeks, the average sports fan has plenty to keep himself entertained.
The Minnesota sports fan is no exception.
The Twins are locked in a division race. The Vikings, albeit in an Aaron Rodgers clinic, kicked off their season this past Sunday. The Lynx will start their bubble postseason on Thursday. And with the news breaking on Wednesday, the Golden Gophers will hit the gridiron in early October.
However, while we all border on sports overload, a former Minnesota athlete has seen profile and stature jump exponentially during this stretch. In my eyes, Jimmy Butler has emerged as one of the most entertaining stars and characters in the sports landscape over the recent weeks.
As the NBA bubble transitioned from seeded games into the postseason, Butler’s Miami Heat (9-1 in the playoffs) have performed better than anyone else.
Dispatching the Indiana Pacers in four games, the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference needed just five games to take out the squad with the best record in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks. Now, Miami holds a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals after an intense 117-114 overtime win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday.
The Heat don’t have a top-heavy roster. Miami relies on a balanced output from its many contributors, but Butler has stepped up when it mattered the most.
He keyed the Heat to a Game 1 victory over the Bucks with a masterful 40-point performance. Later that series in Game 3, Butler poured in 17 of his game-high 30 points in a fourth quarter where Miami outscored Milwaukee 40-13.
On Tuesday, the forward knocked down a clutch corner 3-pointer at the end of regulation before converting a game-winning three-point-play in overtime. As a Massachusetts native, it was terrifying to watch him hit those two daggers against my favorite team.
Given his unceremonious exit from the Timberwolves, I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one in the state rooting against Butler in that spot.
But to be clear, while some Minnesotans and I share the same sentiment about who we are cheering against in this series, we aren’t aligned in the category of “why.”
After leading the Wolves to their first postseason appearance in 14 years in 2018, Butler, who was in search of a long-term max deal, requested a trade with one year left on his contract after the organization invested their financial future in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Before eventually finding a new home with the Philadelphia 76ers, Butler created drama to fit daytime television, highlighted by an ESPN interview of him ripping the team and the organization. Appearing in 10 games during the 2018-19 season, the three-time All-NBA star made it clear that he would only play for the team when he felt like it.
He certainly created distractions large enough to submarine the Wolves that year, so I understand why fans of the organization would hold hard feelings towards Butler and his behavior.
It’s also fair to point out his rocky endings with the 76ers and the team that drafted him, the Chicago Bulls. But if Miami’s current postseason run has proven anything, it’s that Butler was right all along.
Obviously, it’s easy to feel that way when the Heat look like a championship contender. However, when Miami landed the All-Star during the 2019 offseason via sign-and-trade, it was clear then that the fit was a match made in heaven.
As much as his desire for a max contract played a part to go to South Beach, Butler chose his new squad because of the “Heat Culture.” That culture has made Miami the NBA’s best organization over the past 20-plus years not named the San Antonio Spurs.
It all starts with Pat Riley, the Heat president whose arrival to Miami after departing New York in 1995 was just as sketchy as Butler’s Minnesota exit. But if there’s another thing the two have in common, it’s that they always approached their craft with a hard-nosed attitude. That was Riley’s reputation during his nine-year playing career. That was certainly the personality of the rough and rugged Knicks and Heat teams he coached in the 1990s.
And as much as he was known for his slick hair and Versace suits while leading the “Showtime” Lakers in the 1980s, Riley was notorious for his grueling three-hour practices. Riley is a grinder, and if his 4 a.m. workouts are any indication, there aren’t many players that grind harder than No. 22.
At the age of 75, Riley still sets the tone, but there’s more to the culture than that. The most visible face of the culture might be head coach Erik Spoelstra. Also joining the team as a video coordinator in 1995, Spoelstra is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league and is second to the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich as the longest tenured active head coach.
The culture is Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, each late lottery draft picks out of the University of Kentucky who have shined during the postseason and look to be the pillars to Miami’s future. It is Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn, a pair of undrafted players who have made major splashes this season. Finding quality out of the weeds isn’t anything new for Miami Heat.
Undrafted in 2003, Udonis Haslem has been a key figure on three championship teams and will likely have his jersey hanging in the rafters. The Heat are responsible for turning Hassan Whiteside, a center who spent time playing professionally in Lebanon, into someone worthy of a large contract. Signing a deal worth $98 million in 2016, Whiteside led the league in blocks this past season.
Of course, current and future Hall of Famers like Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all had substantial roles in the team’s rings, but it starts with Heat Culture. Sure, LeBron James chose to play with Miami to team with Wade and Bosh, but as much as the best player of his generation was likely on his way to championships anyway, it can’t be dismissed where he learned how to win.
Lastly, credit should go to the organization putting itself in a position to land those stars by creating assets and cap space.
The culture is real and is something none of Butler’s previous spots for most of the last decade come close to touching, particularly Minnesota.
Since Spoelstra was hired as Miami’s head coach in 2008, the Wolves have had eight different head coaches and the team has been in the lottery 12 times with seven top-five picks if you include November’s 2020 draft.
With all of Minnesota’s chances to build and create a contender, Towns is the longest-tenured player on the roster after the team chose to trade Wiggins (and his contract) to Golden State.
Towns and Josh Okogie are the only two players remaining on the roster who were teammates with Butler.
Landing the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, Minnesota will have another crack at drafting or trading for a star to join Towns and former All-Star D’Angelo Russell, but is there faith that this will be any different? History tells us no.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Buckets is competing in the conference finals. He has bigger fish to fry, but don’t think he hasn’t forgotten any of his past. After sealing Game 3 of the Milwaukee series, the camera panned to Butler on the bench. As if he knew the camera was focused on him and talking to no one in particular, he let loose a rant which included “I told you” and “say I’m (expletive) right.”
With his former team in the Twin Cities up for sale and lacking a real culture, who would disagree? I know I don’t.