I was wrong. I wasn’t alone, but I was dead wrong. With rumors swirling about the Miami Heat pursuing a trade for Jimmy Butler in the 2019 offseason, I went on a Miami radio show and said, adamantly it would be a bad move. Adding Butler, I reasoned, wouldn’t be enough to turn Miami into a contender, and with a bunch of bad contracts still on the books, it would further cramp flexibility as they tried to position themselves for a superstar addition in the future.
What I didn’t realize was that Butler was that superstar.
And the future, for Miami, is right now.
On the strength of a 125-113 victory over the Boston Celtics on Sunday, the Heat sealed their first Eastern Conference title since 2014 and are headed to the NBA Finals to face off against their old friend LeBron James and the Lakers. It didn’t take long once Miami started playing in the bubble to realize they were a legit contender, but nobody was putting them in that conversation after the Butler trade went down.
Except for Pat Riley. I remember sitting at Butler’s introductory press conference literally one year ago to the day the Heat clinched their spot in the Finals and listening to Riley gush about Butler, who he called a top-10 player. “We want to win, and we want to win big,” Riley said.
The way he said, you could tell he believed it. This wasn’t an executive doing the obligatory good-vibes dance. He thought the Heat had what it took to compete at a championship level, and I just didn’t see it. I didn’t know Bam Adebayo was going to be this great. I didn’t know Goran Dragic was going to turn back into an All-Star for the postseason, or that Duncan Robinson was going to become one of the deadliest 3-point shooters in the world, or that Tyler Herro was going to become the steal of the draft. I didn’t know Miami was going pull a midseason trade for Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, both of whom have been tremendous in the playoffs.
But mostly, I just didn’t give Butler enough credit. This isn’t a case of LeBron James single-handedly transforming any team he plays for; it’s more Butler and Miami being a match made in basketball heaven. But the fact remains that this is a team that won 39 games last season and was barely a .500 team (124-122) from 2016-2019. Butler shows up, and they’re in the Finals. That is not a coincidence.
Once again, Butler has gotten the last laugh. Long portrayed a team killer, he has been vindicated at every stop. He was supposedly the problem in Minnesota, but the one year he was there was the only time the Wolves have made the playoffs in the past 16 years. Then he went to the Sixers, and there were more rumblings about the way he got along in that locker room and his relationship with the now-fired Brett Brown, but the one season he was there the Sixers came within inches of the conference finals, and they went in the tank the second he left.
Now here he is with the Heat, having adapted his game to become a core facilitator in the middle of Miami’s egalitarian attack. He averaged career highs in free-throw attempts and assists per game while all but eliminating jump shots, particularly from beyond the arc, from his arsenal. Once again, I questioned that. I didn’t think a team whose best player was having the worst shooting season of his NBA career was a threat in the playoffs
Erik Spoelstra saw it differently. He called me a buzz kill when I asked about Butler’s poor shooting after a particularly exciting Miami win, adding that Butler’s game translated perfectly to the playoffs, where he could score tough buckets and get to the free throw line and set up Miami’s bevy of shooters while controlling the pace, and what do you know. Erik Spoelstra is smarter than me. Who would’ve guessed?
I questioned the Heat again when they didn’t pull the trigger on a trade for Danilo Gallinari. I thought that would’ve been a move to make them a legit threat, and when it didn’t happen, I was happy to write them off again. But they knew what they had in Butler. In their whole team. Again, I wasn’t alone. If you can find one “expert” that was picking Miami to make the Finals back at the beginning of the season, you’re a better Googler than I am. Teams love to say “nobody believed in us” after they accomplish the thing nobody supposedly believed they could, but usually it’s bogus. Usually, it’s a team or player everyone at least partially believed in.
I’m confident in saying pretty much nobody outside the Heat organization believed this was a championship team. And I honestly don’t think very many people thought Jimmy Butler was a leading championship-level player. We were all wrong. Especially me. It’s going to be tempting to pick the Lakers in the Finals because they have the two best players in the series, but Butler has proved he belongs in the same category as the best players in the game.
Perhaps that’s still not entirely true, at least not in a vacuum, but within the context of this Heat team, he’s the perfect superstar. And win or lose in the Finals, the Heat have already reaped the awards for believing that before anyone else did.