It’s a gut-wrenching feeling you get when you had everything at your disposal and you managed to screw it up. It’s a sensation that stings right after misfortune hits, right when you realize you had wasted a golden opportunity.
Many NBA teams of years’ past have gotten the dishonor of facing regret, oftentimes an aftershock from falling on their own sword. The Timberwolves felt it seeing Stephen Curry’s meteoric rise three years after passing on him TWICE in the 2009 NBA Draft. The Warriors felt it in 2016 when they blew a 3-1 lead in the finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Clippers felt it just last week when they blew their own 3-1 lead in the conference semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.
In that same breath, the Minnesota Timberwolves (again) and the Philadelphia 76ers are concurrently reeling from a shared regret – one of losing two-way star Jimmy Butler.
More than ever and any other team remaining in the NBA bubble, momentum is now on the side of Butler and the Miami Heat being six victories away from an NBA title. With the way Butler has perfectly complemented the Heat’s young core en route to an impressive season for Miami, the Wolves and Sixers must be kicking themselves now for not making it work out with their own youth movements.
However, that regret wasn’t instantly felt by either franchise when Butler left their respective cities, or at least, that’s what they thought. After infamous clashes with those teams’ young stars, the narrative for him turned into a locker room villain who was all talk and no play, a complete 360 from how he is perceived now as a hard-nosed veteran in these Playoffs.
Butler and the Timberpups
Contrary to the ugly severance between Butler and the Timberwolves, the entrance was more of a bombshell of a pilot episode that kicked off a steady first season. When the Wolves plucked Butler from the Chicago Bulls, a vulnerable team on the cusp of a rebuild, the immediate reaction posited was all in favor of the Timberwolves. Reuniting with Coach Tom Thibodeau, Butler led the young Wolves of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to a radical change in Minnesota: they won 16 more games, jumped to first in steals, first in taking care of the ball, and to fourth in offensive rating. Even to the final game of the regular season, Butler willed the Wolves to the Playoffs – their first since 2004 – by way of a masterful win-or-go home performance against the Denver Nuggets.
The Timberwolves would go on to get gentlemanly swept by the Rockets, but nonetheless, the hopes were at an all-time high for Minnesota for the first time in a long while. Butler was going to be the man that would instill the toughness and grit to Towns and Wiggins, and everything was going to be kumbaya for the Wolves.
As we all know by now, that remains a utopian fantasy for Wolves fans. The summer of 2018 turned hope into catastrophe for Minnesota, as trade rumors surrounding Butler caught the All-Star off guard, and one thing led to another building up to that infamous practice. During that fiasco, Butler reportedly berated his teammates and yelled the iconic “You f-cking need me” line to Timberwolves GM Scott Layden.
In a sit-down interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Butler had this to say about his young co-stars. “I’m not the most talented player on the team. Who is the most talented player on our team? KAT. Who is the most God-gifted player on our team? Wiggs. Who plays the hardest? Me! I play hard. I put my body [on the line] every day in practice, every day in games. That’s my passion. Everybody leads in different ways. That’s how I show I’m here for you.”
Butler went on to play only 10 games for the Wolves the following season, a period in which the vitriol against him was at its peak that even the home crowd booed him relentlessly. He was eventually traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and a second round pick.
Just when you thought his Timberwolves stint was premature and short-lived, it was even more so for his tenure as a 76er, but that didn’t stop the drama from seeing its way through.
Much like the beginning of his Wolves days, the Butler experience in Philly began excellently. Jimmy seemed to fit seamlessly with another young duo, this time in the form of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. In 55 games, Butler posted averages of 18.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.8 steals with a stacked Sixers squad that finished third in the conference.
With LeBron James out of the East’s frame, the Sixers had as big of a chance as the next team to make it to the NBA Finals. After breezing through the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, the Sixers clashed with the Toronto Raptors. It could have been anyone’s series, however, seven games and four bounces later, the Sixers were bounced out of the Playoffs.
Still, it was a great sign for the Sixers moving forward having pushed the eventual champions to Game 7. There’s definitely multiple alternate universes where the Sixers make the finals, and one of those might as well be them hoisting the 2019 title.
However, Butler’s competitive nature lingered over him like a dark cloud, at least, in the eyes of Sixers management. Despite what was in large part a successful season for the young Sixers, reports of Butler being at philosophical odds with head coach Brett Brown were a cause of concern for Philadelphia. Wanting to alleviate a possible storm experienced by Minnesota, Philly chose not to sign Butler to the max contract and instead handed out massive numbers to a returning Tobias Harris and newcomer Al Horford. Butler was then dealt to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade deal for Josh Richardson.
Can’t Stop the Culture
Unlike his previous two NBA stops, there was little to no buzz surrounding Butler’s latest career move. The stigma stirred against Butler had been so huge at this point that everyone treated the sign-and-trade as a wash, even perhaps a last-swing deal for Miami before their supposed descent to unfamiliar territory: tanking. But a certain caveat with the Heat that many people didn’t realize is that they’re not in the same pedigree as the Timberwolves and 76ers.
Despite suffering consecutive seasons of mediocrity compared to their glory days in the Big Three era, the Miami Heat have built up a winning DNA embossed in the franchise’s main pillars Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstera. It’s going to sound cheesy, but at this rate, it’s a fact that the Heat have built a certain standard, the Heat culture, that kept them from bottoming up the team all the way after the high of having LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh all at the same time.
In that stretch, they did things only a handful of teams can pull off. They discovered diamond-in-the-rough center Hassan Whiteside. They extended the careers of role players such as Wayne Ellington, James Ennis, and Tyler Johnson. They kept the team competitive during Wade’s twilight years. With this type of grit and continuity instilled in the team’s mantra, little did people realize that Butler to the Heat was indeed a perfect marriage.
The Heat’s culture, however abstract it may sound, did not discriminate against Butler. In his struggle to find teammates as competitive as him, he found a gold mine of them in South Beach. Veterans Goran Dragic, Kelly Olynyk, Meyers Leonard, and Udonis Haslem have been exemplary co-leaders for Jimmy. Riley’s genius has brought in tough-as-balls competitors in Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala midseason.
Most of all, the Heat’s own youth movement of Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, and Derrick Jones Jr. have all squashed Butler’s ‘young player killer’ tag. It’s something that can only happen in a franchise with a winning mantra; the Timberwolves never had that, and the Sixers have always evaded that ever since they began their years of tanking.
Posting norms of 19.9 points, 6.7 rebound, 6 assists, and 1.8 steals and a fifth All-Star nod, Jimmy Butler led the Heat and used the bubble to showcase what everyone’s been ignoring. Albeit finishing at fifth in the East, the Heat were far from underdogs. They easily swept through the Indiana Pacers in the first round. They embarrassed the first-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the second round and are riding on that momentum now in Miami’s first conference finals since the Big Three era.
The Timberwolves and Sixers are definitely feeling regret as they watch the 2020 Playoffs from home. What was supposedly their bright future, the Heat have now turned into reality. The Wolves are floating around, however, time and the West’s depth are not on their side as seasons of losing could continually pile over their franchise center Towns. The Sixers, after getting destroyed by the Boston Celtics in the first round, are now burdened with the decision of whether or not they keep the Embiid-Simmons duo intact, fire coach Brett Brown, or perhaps, even both.
And then there’s have Jimmy Butler: just six games away from a title, and this time, a truly bright future ahead with the pedigreed Miami Heat. Championship or not this year, Jimmy Buckets already got the last laugh.