Jimmy Butler Was Made for the Miami Heat

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People laughed at the story about Jimmy Butler getting a visit from hotel security because he was dribbling a basketball too loudly in his room. They laughed at the idea of Butler peddling $20 cups of his branded coffee to his Miami Heat teammates. They laughed at how unruly his mustache got as he steadfastly refused to see a barber.

So much about Butler’s stay inside the N.B.A. bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida was a source of humor.

For the first time in Butler’s career, people were readily laughing along with him, because he was more effective and consistent than ever with the serious stuff.

With the longest season in league history finally complete, it is no joke to assert that no player in the bubble enhanced his reputation as much as Butler did. Miami lost the N.B.A. finals to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in six games, but Butler — playing for much of the series without the injured Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic alongside him — won the bubble as much as any individual could.

When the season began, more than 12 months ago, Butler was widely regarded as a perennial All-Star whose headstrong, confrontational ways made him a complicated fit in most N.B.A. locker rooms. A year later, after he led the Heat to the N.B.A. finals as a No. 5 seed and outdueled James twice in the championship series, Butler has the look (and commands the respect) of one of the league’s top 10 players.

ImageMiami’s Jimmy Butler bested the Lakers’ LeBron James in two N.B.A. finals games.
Credit…Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Will it last? Will the success and adulation change him? Or did we actually have it wrong about him all along? These are the sorts of questions Butler, 31, inspires now after a post-30, Steve Nash-ian breakthrough to elite status in his ninth season.

“Believe me when I tell you that I do not care what people say about me,” Butler said. “I truly don’t care.”

That was his message to me after Miami’s first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers, when Butler’s forceful play turned what was supposed to be a heated showdown against the Pacers’ T.J. Warren into a nonevent. My best read is that most people outside (and even inside) N.B.A. circles refuse to believe Butler when he says that, but he had me convinced after an afternoon visit in late August.

The esteem Butler holds among his peers — which was high long before the bubble — is such that he needn’t worry much about how basketball pundits rate him. I saw it firsthand over the course of an hourlong sit-down with Butler in my favorite bubble hallway adjacent to three of the seven practice courts that sprouted on the N.B.A. campus.

The hallway with the garish orange carpet at the Coronado Springs convention center was the only place in the bubble where reporters could expect to have unsupervised chance interactions with players, coaches and other team personnel. It was also a main thoroughfare to the meal rooms for the league’s top teams, who were all staying at Disney’s Gran Destino tower.

While I talked with Butler, Milwaukee’s Wes Matthews stopped by to reminisce with him about their days at Marquette. Pat Connaughton, Matthews’ Bucks teammate, tried in vain to arrange a discount from Butler’s Big Face Coffee venture, even though Milwaukee and Miami would soon begin a second-round playoff series. Boston Celtics Coach Brad Stevens made sure that Butler heard him say hello.

After a number of Lakers players enthusiastically greeted Butler, Rajon Rondo lingered to rehash how dangerous they were together in Chicago in the 2017 playoffs. Rondo, Butler and the No. 8 Bulls took a surprising 2-0 series lead over the top-seeded Celtics that year by winning the first two games in Boston — and let’s just say they both strongly believe that the Celtics would have never rallied if Rondo hadn’t fractured his right thumb in Game 2.

Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Lakers Coach Frank Vogel also soon appeared to share how much he enjoyed Butler’s Michelob Ultra commercial, which features Butler singing the Hall & Oates song “You Make My Dreams Come True.” Then, like Connaughton, Vogel tried to cut his own coffee deal.

Milwaukee’s Robin Lopez, another former Bulls teammate of Butler’s, was the last in a procession of well-wishers. As he walked away toward the Gran Destino, Lopez turned back, pointed to Butler and announced: “This man is a treasure.”

More N.B.A. players than not feel that way about Butler.

You see it in the way Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid pines for Butler through cryptic social media posts, after the 76ers prioritized signing Al Horford in 2019 free agency and helped Butler get to Miami in a sign-and-trade deal when the Heat had no salary-cap space. You saw it again Monday when Pau Gasol posted a warm tribute to Butler on social media. Gasol most closely associates himself with the Lakers after winning two championships alongside Kobe Bryant, but he also played with Butler in Chicago.

“I wanted to take a moment and acknowledge how proud I am of @JimmyButler,” Gasol wrote on Twitter. “You’re one of the best players in the world, and a great leader!”

Gasol added: “Love you little bro!”

Combine all that with the unmitigated manner in which Miami has embraced Butler, abrasive as he can sometimes be, and I’m not sure he needs the public’s validation.

“I’m so comfortable with being myself — more than I’ve ever been,” Butler said before the finals. “Not saying I’ve ever not wanted to be myself, but now I know ‘myself’ is the right way.”

“He’s such a likable guy,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He won’t want anybody to know that, I guess. He’s totally cool with the young guys growing — he’s not territorial about it at all. He’s just about winning. He understands that he needs guys with him. All the big winners get that.”

Kentucky Coach John Calipari shared similar sentiments when we spoke last month. Of Butler’s reputation for dishing out too-tough love to teammates and the impact he has had on two former Kentucky stars, Adebayo and Tyler Herro, Calipari said: “I think Jimmy Butler has convinced both of my guys to believe more.”

Credit…Douglas P. Defelice/Getty Images

Nothing, of course, speaks louder than the two-way brilliance Butler delivered against the Lakers and James after leading the Heat to the title round. Butler has also been criticized because he doesn’t always play with the offensive aggression of a top-10 player, often preferring a more measured team game, but he found a new gear when Miami needed it most and became the first player in league history to record two triple-doubles in his first trip to the finals. Butler averaged a heady 29.0 points, 10.2 assists, 8.6 rebounds and 2.6 steals through the first five games before he wearily produced 12 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds in the Game 6 finale.

That Butler faded at the finish was understandable. He guarded James for nearly 43 minutes for the series; next in line were Adebayo and Andre Iguodala at eight-plus minutes each.

Twice on the league’s brightest stage, with James and Anthony Davis nearby, Butler was the best player on the floor. He also captained the team that, along with the Lakers, bonded the best in the bubble’s demanding conditions. It would appear that Kawhi Leonard was on to something (I previously reported that he tried to persuade Butler to join him with the Los Angeles Clippers before the Clippers’ pursuit of Paul George) and so were the Houston Rockets (they offered Minnesota four first-round picks to try to trade for Butler in October 2018).

Further clues about Butler’s stature were available — some of us just didn’t look in the right places. In September 2018, not long before he forced his way out of Minnesota via trade and stoked all the leaguewide chatter about how problematic he was, Butler received the key to the city in Tyler, Texas. The former Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall of Famer Earl Campbell was born in Tyler and played high school football there; Butler developed into a top college basketball prospect after one season at Tyler Junior College under Coach Mike Marquis.

“Even Earl Campbell doesn’t have a key to the city,” Marquis said.

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Credit…Reed Saxon/Associated Press

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Q: Did LeBron James winning this season’s championship cement his place on the Mount Rushmore of Lakers greats? Or would he need to win at least one more? — Gio Gloria (Makati City, Philippines)

Stein: One ring, I’m afraid, isn’t enough to be considered a top-four Laker. I think even James would agree.

The Lakers’ first championship since 2010 is undeniably significant, given that James is only in his second season in Los Angeles — and because the five years that preceded his arrival in Hollywood were the worst in franchise history. It is also a massive boost to LeBron’s personal legacy to win N.B.A. finals Most Valuable Player Award honors with a third franchise — something no other player has done.

This ring and that distinction, combined with James’s unmatched longevity as an elite force in this league, would nudge him to his own new level. James may never usurp Michael Jordan in the greatest-of-all-time debate. Yet I think we can safely declare, after what we’ve seen from LeBron in his 17th season and at age 35, that we have reached the point where it is difficult to consider anyone besides Jordan or James in the argument.

Choosing the four greatest Lakers, though, is a completely different conversation. The competition is so fierce that the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor can’t crack it, either. Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant — in whatever order you want to put them — form the fabulous foursome that won’t be easily supplanted. Not even by James.

Q: Has anyone published an up-to-date listing of total career points in the N.B.A. — regular-season games plus playoffs? — David Pugh (Toledo, Ohio)

Stein: We can easily do it, but it’s not a stat that comes up often, presumably because old-school sticklers like me tend to insist on keeping regular-season and playoff numbers separate.

With 40 points in Game 5, LeBron James indeed moved into second place in this combined category at 41,704, passing Karl Malone’s 41,689. With 28 more points as part of James’s Game 6 triple-double, he moved to 41,732.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the lead with 44,149 combined points. In the N.B.A.’s regular-season-only scoring race, James is third with 34,241 points, behind Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) and Malone (36,928).

Q: The first game was on Oct. 22. The math doesn’t add up. — @boppasguy from Twitter

Stein: Before Game 5 of these N.B.A. finals, I tweeted that it was the 378th day of the 2019-20 season. The math was questioned here, but it is correct.

Opening night was indeed Oct. 22, 2019, but the season doesn’t start with the first game. The season starts when teams gather at their training camp sites to hold media day.

Five teams, including the Lakers, did so on Sept. 27, 2019. The season thus stretched to 380 days before the Lakers finally closed out Miami in Game 6 of the finals.

Credit…Brad Rempel/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

“Home” teams went 4-2 in the N.B.A. finals to bring the final playoff ledger in the bubble to 41-42 for a home-team winning percentage of .494. A neutral-site court at Walt Disney World with no fans allowed inside, as expected, clearly wiped out home-court advantage for playoff teams. Yet the Lakers overcame the neutered nature of their No. 1 seed in the West to win the championship anyway.

This was just the 10th season out of 37, since the N.B.A.’s 16-team playoff format was introduced in 1983-84, that home teams won less than 60 percent of their playoff games. But that figure was well above .500 in each of the previous nine seasons it happened: .548 was the previous low for home teams, in 1988-89 and again in 1994-95.

Jimmy Butler’s three teams before Miami — Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia — have combined to win zero playoff games since Butler left, and only the Sixers have made the playoffs. Philadelphia was swept by Boston in this season’s opening round after making it to the second round last season, where they almost defeated the eventual champion, Toronto.

Joe Tsai, the Nets’ owner and the executive vice chairman of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, donated 25 million yuan (roughly $3.7 million) in Covid-19 relief funds to China in February. The Nets announced the donation at the time on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. China’s state television broadcaster, China Central Television, cited unspecified financial assistance from the N.B.A. in the country’s fight against the coronavirus for its decision on Friday to lift a yearlong ban on televising N.B.A. games.

Alvin Gentry, who last week joined the Sacramento Kings as associate head coach, has been an N.B.A. head coach with five teams. That includes his last stop in New Orleans and previous stints with Miami, Detroit, the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com.

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