The Lakers pushed their chips all-in on Anthony Davis and spent those early days of free agency getting dragged along by Leonard, their top priority too.
Across the country, another big-name free agent sat down for dinner with Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and executive Pat Riley. They blasted music from one of his favorite singers, Dermot Kennedy, and without him hearing the Heat’s pitch, they convinced him.
“We were talking shop and he interrupted Pat and I after dinner, probably five minutes into just a conversation, and he said, ‘By the way, I'm in,’ ” Spoelstra recalled recently.
And with that, the Heat landed Jimmy Butler in a major sign-and-trade deal with Philadelphia, the star free agent who actually got his team to the NBA Finals.
“I was like, ‘I'm home.’ It's easy,” Butler said after clinching his first trip to the NBA Finals. “Obviously [Dwyane Wade] told me about it. I wanted parts of that, the work, the culture, the word that everybody uses. I know y'all are tired of hearing it, but it's real. More than anything, they wanted me to be here.
“They told me, like, ‘Yo, you're the guy that we want. We're coming after you.’ It was like, ‘Say no more.’ To be wanted, that's what anybody wants in the world.”
Timing prevented the Lakers and Clippers from pursuing Butler. The Clippers were pursuing Leonard and Kevin Durant ahead of Butler. Same goes for the Lakers, who had taken aim at a third superstar to join LeBron James and Davis.
In addition to timing — Butler was one of the first top free agents to commit — his style of leadership might not have fit with the Lakers or the Clippers.
Butler, the kind of player who puts winning above everything, has rubbed some the wrong way because he is willing to tell people what they need to do to be successful. But would that have meshed with Leonard, a player committed to doing things his way? Would it have worked with James and Davis?
The answer is probably no, and without being asked about it, Butler answered the question. It had to be a place like Miami, a place that could make him feel like a top priority while offering an environment he could thrive in.
“We're not for everybody,” Butler said of the Heat. “I'm not for everybody.”
Butler’s toughness didn’t sit well with a Minnesota Timberwolves team that was too immature to know how to win, leading to a trade in November 2018 shortly after the season started. It didn’t land in Philadelphia, where there was instability on different fronts. But in Miami, the Heat had a void for a star and the determination to get him.
They weren’t deterred about the questions surrounding a maximum deal for Butler — that so many minutes played and such an uneven jumper would make the deal an albatross. They didn’t sweat the reputation for chaos.
Instead, they saw winning.
“So much of this league is just about alignment," Spoelstra said. "Who cares what you believe in? Who cares what your culture is? Can you acquire a group of people that are aligned in whatever that vision is? And you need your leaders to embody those qualities, whatever they may be. And Jimmy Butler embodies those qualities just like all the Heat players of our great past have done before: Alonzo Mourning, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem. He just embodies these qualities of professionalism, of work, of accountability, of being reliable, and he leads.
“He doesn't have to make any apologies for who he is. We love him for who he is and what he's all about. He impacts winning.”
If Butler somehow leads the Heat to an NBA title, there might be regret inside the Lakers and Clippers for the one they let get away. But fit matters, and it’s hard to see how Butler would’ve done better in Los Angeles than he's done in Miami.
“Well, his fit with their culture is perfect, because he’s about toughness and he’s about winning,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “And that’s what the Miami Heat are about.”