Ever since I followed the NBA, I started the term “basketball purgatory” – that sacred place where teams enter the season, without any idea if they should try their luck to compete for a title or throw the towels early, lose voluntarily, and pray to the basketball gods that the next Zion falls in their lap.
The Orlando Magic have been in this place since Dwight Howard left. The Charlotte Hornets are there too. And if you squint a little, you’ll see the NLEX Road Warriors, with Yeng Guiao patiently waiting for the return of Kiefer Ravena and Kevin Alas.
For a while now, the Miami Heat have stayed there – going through the motions of the 82-game season while waiting for that one star to bring them back post-LeBron-Bosh-Wade era. That’s why they signed Goran Dragic to a 5-year, $90M contract in 2015. Then they followed with a 4-year, $98M to Hassan Whiteside. And just when you thought Miami learned their lesson in saving cap space, they gave out $162M for James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, and Dion Waiters to form the poor man’s poor man’s Big 3 era in South Beach. That’s a lot of money invested in mediocre players, to say the least.
Remember, this is the same team that got the coup of the century when they signed the “Heatles” and start the whole “let’s-join-forces” superstar era that we’re seeing this decade. Yet those signings, no matter how absurd they sound, still made sense to everyone during that time only because Pat Riley was the one making the call. No one dares to disrespect Pat. To doubt him is to doubt someone like The Godfather’s Vito Corleone, who almost always gets the job done.
In the aftermath of the WOJBOMBS, one tidbit stood out to me – the Miami Heat were able to acquire Jimmy Butler through a four-team trade that sent Josh Richardson to Philadelphia, Moe Harkless to the Clippers, and Whiteside to the Blazers. In a swoop, Pat Riley gets his man.
Jimmy Butler entered the free agency as probably the fourth-best player available, behind Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson. There were murmurs of him joining the Rockets, but Houston didn’t have the assets to work with. The Lakers were also interested, but they’re interested with almost everyone, to be honest. Even the 76ers, who were a crazy-Kawhi-bounce away from moving to the Conference Finals, opened their wallet to resign him with a 5-year, $190M contract.
He still said no to all of those teams. It seemed like Butler just wasn’t that interested. He wanted to move on, to be his own man somewhere else.
On paper, the Butler to Miami is the perfect basketball marriage. Erik Spoelstra runs a grueling training camp to condition his players for the season, and you can bet Jimmy B is the first one during those drills and the last to leave. He loves challenging his teammates to step up and follow him. He becomes the voice of the locker room whenever the ship is sinking and has always wanted to be the alpha.
Yet by all accounts, Jimmy Butler also seems like the imperfect team player. He embarrassed Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in a scrimmage against the third-stringers and threw Tom Thibodeau under the bus. He wasn’t a favorite of his rookie teammates in Chicago after bringing that “winning mentality” when he hasn’t won anything. Don’t forget that he also routinely clashed with Brett Brown upon his arrival in Philadelphia.
Maybe that’s why the Sixers were okay when he said “No,” and went straight to Al Horford’s house with the max offer. Maybe that’s why Houston never really pulled the trigger on a trade. Maybe that’s why LeBron and LA never really considered Butler and focused their attention solely on Kawhi Leonard.
Jimmy Butler is an enigmatic player. He’s one of the best two-way players out there, just a notch below Paul George and Kawhi’s level. He’s one of those that love to play when the lights get brighter and can go toe-to-toe with the best of them. But Butler also brings more questions to a team that wants to get out of that “basketball purgatory.”
Can he succeed with him being the star player? Will he be able to keep it together when Miami falls behind Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and even Toronto in the standings? Who will he blame next when everything doesn’t go according to plan?
As I said, I don’t dare try to disrespect the great Pat Riley. Time and time again, he gets it done. Miami gets their man and the Heat could be on their way up.But the real question: Is Jimmy Butler the right man he was looking for?
We’ll soon find out.
Photos from Getty Images