Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley and the Miami Heat never even had to make their pitch to Jimmy Butler when they met for dinner ahead of the All-Star wing’s free agency last year.
“We were talking shop, and he interrupted Pat and I after dinner, probably just five minutes into a conversation,” Spoelstra recalled Sunday. “He said, ‘By the way, I’m in.’
“We’re like, What? We haven’t even given you our pitch yet.”
As Butler tells it, he was sold even quicker. All he needed to hear was the smooth sounds of is favorite Irish singer-songwriter.
“Spo and Coach Pat knew what they were doing. They was blasting my guy Dermot Kennedy when we walked in,” Butler said Sunday. “I was like, I’m home.”
Sunday marked exactly one year since Butler had his introductory press conference at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. In one year, he led the Heat to its best start since the Big 3 broke up in 2014, helped turn post player Bam Adebayo into a first-time All-Star, weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 NBA Bubble, and led the Heat back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014 after beating the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
He came to South Florida with a reputation as a surly, difficult teammate because of an unceremonious exit from the Minnesota Timberwolves. His motivations were questioned because he left the Philadelphia 76ers last year for Miami, even after helping the 76ers reach the second round of the 2019 NBA playoffs while the Heat missed the postseason entirely. Through it all, he always insisted he was a winning player and he has spent the 2020 NBA playoffs proving it.
He got the NBA Conference Finals before Philadelphia did. The Timberwolves haven’t made the postseason since he left and neither have the Chicago Bulls, who traded him to Minnesota in 2017. He still hasn’t won what he wants to win, but now he has a crowing achievement very few players can claim — he’s the leader of a team in the NBA Finals, set to square off against the Los Angeles Lakers starting Wednesday
“What this whole thing comes down to is being wanted, being appreciated for what you bring to the table and — as I’ve said time and time again — as Spo constantly says, we’re not for everybody. I’m not for everybody, but here I am,” Butler said. “They wanted me to be here. They told me like, Yo, you’re the guy that we want. We’re coming after you. I was like, Say no more. To be wanted, that’s what anybody wants in the world, not just basketball, so I’m happy to be home.
“I always just wanted to win, do whatever it took to win. Nobody is taking it personally because we all have the same agenda. It’s not for stats, it’s not for fame, it’s not for none of that. It’s to win a championship. My leadership style — it works here.”
A promise to Goran Dragic
There was promise — both figuratively and quite literally — when the Heat traded for Goran Dragic at the trade deadline in 2015.
The guard was stuck in a weird situation with the Phoenix Suns, who had too many point guards and weren’t getting the most of Dragic. Miami had just lost James in the offseason, but still had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the fold. Dragic, Riley and Spoelstra figured, could be the third player to stick with those two former All-Stars.
“This was a promise that Pat and I made to Goran Dragic,” Spoelstra said, “that we would have a contending team. No one would know how those turn of events, a bunch of events that we couldn’t control, and he stayed with it.”
Just days after the trade happened, Bosh’s season was cut short because of a blood clot issue, which would eventually end his career. The Wade-Bosh-Dragic trio played only 43 games together before Bosh’s career ended after the 2015-16 NBA season and Wade left for the Bulls in the 2016 offseason. The Heat went 25-18 when those three all played together and then Dragic wound up missing the NBA playoffs in three of his first five seasons in Miami.
The promise of the trio was never fulfilled, but the literal promise Spoelstra and Riley made to the 34-year-old Slovenian finally was Sunday when the Heat beat the Celtics, 125-113, in Game 6 of the East finals in Lake Buena Vista.
“It’s unreal. I’m full of emotions. I’m happy,” Dragic said Sunday. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, for 11, 12 years and finally I’m here. All the credit goes to those guys who are believing it and to my teammates. I’m just happy. I’ve been through a lot in those five years, ups and downs, and I’m just happy to be here and be part of this big moment.”
The future is now
Those two acquisitions — trading for Dragic and landing Butler — are the foundation of Miami’s unlikely run to the 2020 NBA Finals. They’re the Heat’s two leading scorers in the playoffs and the tone setters as the two oldest, most experienced players in the starting lineup.
This isn’t anything close to the team Dragic expected to finally reach the Finals with, though, and even Butler came to Miami thinking mostly about long-term success and sustainability.
Instead, Adebayo jumped from part-time starter to first-time All-Star and led the Heat with 32 points Sunday, rookie wing Tyler Herro exploded for 37 points in Game 4 on Wednesday just 15 months after Miami drafted him with the No. 13 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, and formerly undrafted players like Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Derrick Jones Jr. piled up accolades throughout the season.
The Heat’s rebuild happened faster than even the most optimistic projections could have realistically envisioned.
“We’re here now,” Adebayo said Sunday. “This has been one of my dreams to be in the Finals. I grew up watching D-Wade, and Chris Bosh and LeBron being in the Finals. And it’s crazy that I get to walk on a Finals floor and actually get to play.”