CHICAGO — Jimmy Butler casually strolled into media availability at All-Star Weekend on Saturday, armed with everything except a throng of people hanging on his every word or cameras obscuring him from plain sight.
Usually the best addition to the most improved team in a conference would have such benefits, with Butler turning the Miami Heat from middling to a genuine threat to the ascension of Giannis this spring.
But Butler routinely deflects praise, deftly dishing it to fellow All-Star Bam Adebayo or the slew of young players with whom the Heat franchise has supplemented Butler. It’s easy to overlook him even on his own teams the last few years and thus difficult to properly contextualize him in this glorious era of the NBA.
On paper, he’s what we say we want in a star: A two-way player unafraid of the big matchup, the big moment or the criticism that comes with it. Someone dedicated to growing his game yearly and minimizing the blind spots even the great ones have.
He’s honest about the state of his franchise, his responsibility in it and what needs to be done to improve it.
The only thing missing from the checklist is box office, a quality harder to define and far more fickle than the rest.
That and, well, winning.
LeBron is a one-man trip to the Finals; Butler hasn’t been out of the second round.
Kevin Durant swung the entire balance of the league on his skinny legs with free-agent decisions twice in the last half-decade, while there were discussions with three franchises over Butler being a max player.
But Butler walked into Wintrust Arena on Saturday confidently with a trail of evidence that suggests he’s far more valuable than the franchises that inherited him, lucked into him or thought he wasn’t good enough to be the final piece to a championship puzzle.
The Philadelphia 76ers now look nothing like the outfit that took the eventual champion Toronto Raptors to within a bounce … and a bounce … and a bounce … and a final bounce of the conference finals last spring. They decided either Butler wasn’t worth a full max contract on the floor, or they couldn’t stomach his brand of truth-telling.
Butler’s assessment of the Minnesota Timberwolves has proven to be accurate, both in the moment and in hindsight as they seemingly keep dancing in place with no real path to respectability in the time since his departure.
And Butler’s biggest piece of evidence resides in the city hosting All-Star Weekend, as the Chicago Bulls traded Butler because they didn’t believe he could be paid like a max player and yet still place quality pieces around him.
The Bulls expected this weekend to be their reintroduction to the land of the living when they traded Butler following the 2016-17 season to start their rebuild.
But the All-Star light has not been kind to Butler’s original franchise, which is barely worth mentioning since his trade and is in desperate need of a shake-up from the top down — proving Butler wasn’t the poison but more the glue that kept things from crumbling.
It was Butler who could’ve looked all around the room, surveying the carnage of the franchises he left behind and gloated about how he was right every single time, whether you liked it or not.
He chose to highlight the synergy between himself and the Heat. And read between the lines if you so choose.
“Everything I heard about Pat [Riley] is legit, for real. He’s straight to the point, direct, involved in everything and I love it,” Butler said. “It shows that he cares and he wants to win, and he wants to win now. You know, none of this is guaranteed. He realizes it, everybody in Miami, the organization realizes it. And we’re trying to make it happen.”
The Heat can make it happen because as much as the ultimate prize has eluded Butler, winning has undeniably followed him in his many travels. He makes you better, and if you’re daring enough to believe in him, Butler can take you places.
“It just goes to show the Heat are great at bringing in guys that can get stuff done,” Butler said. “Guys that are overlooked, that work incredibly hard and try and perfect their craft. I think they put each and every one of our guys, including myself, in a position to be successful, and to being acknowledged and recognized for having incredible talent.”
He doesn’t have the pre-NBA pedigree that’s required for franchise player status, and doesn’t fit as comfortably in the spectrum of stars below the LeBron/Curry/Durant level, like Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard or James Harden.
The past has belonged to LeBron and Steph and Durant and even Kawhi, with titles, MVPs and skins on the wall that have defined this era.
The NBA’s future is bright, full of effervescent, affable stars who are so close to superstardom it’s not even a thought to consider them falling short. The elevated skill sets make these players easier to identify and embrace. There’s little to dislike about Zion, Luka, Trae and Ja.
Butler fits in neither place definitively but his value is undeniable. He didn’t even finish in the top five of voting at his position as an All-Star starter by his peers, usually the greatest indicator of appreciation.
But that acerbic brand of honesty being added to a nightly stat line that doesn’t jump off the page makes his competitors wonder how great he is, or if Butler’s just a good player with a lot of bark.
He was traded because of what he is not: diplomatic, plastic and quiet.
But he sat on the podium Saturday with a quiet satisfaction for all the things he is: dogged, loud and determined.
He sat on that podium for the same reason the Miami Heat could be in the NBA Finals.
Because he’s a star.
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