Steph Curry, Jimmy Butler use different leadership styles with same goal

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Monte Poole
·5 min read
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Steph, Butler use different leadership styles with same goal originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Stephen Curry is careful about authoritative words to teammates. He analyzes, ponders timing and potential repercussions. He is prudent about when and where he will speak, or whether he will say anything at all.

This balances the brazen approach of fellow Warriors veteran Draymond Green, who lives to offer guidance in real-time and, if deemed necessary, at high volume. Make no mistake, though, Curry is the low-key leader of the Warriors.

“His leadership is usually done in a quiet, subtle way,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says. “He recognizes it’s more necessary now than ever before given the roster makeup.”

Jimmy Butler picks his spots, too. He decides whether to push or pull his Miami Heat teammates. He decides whether to shove or drag. He’s willing to shout. Butler believes in extreme tough love, and he is devout about it.

His teammates know this, and they embrace it because they quickly realized Butler is as supportive as he is demanding.

In the category of leadership, Curry and Butler -- the marquee players in the Warriors-Heat game Wednesday night at Chase Center -- are practically opposites. Though each has an uncompromising work ethic and engages humor, their interpersonal methods are as different as a cat and a wolf.

Noting what Stephen and the Warriors were able to accomplish over five consecutive seasons and what the Jimmy and the Heat managed in the NBA bubble, making an improbable run to the NBA Finals, who can deny that both are effective?

“I have a certain personality where I like to have fun,” Curry says. “I like to joke. I like to connect on that level. But there’s also a discipline and a focus of how I approach the game in practice and in the offseason. Finding that balance, so that leading by example is always a huge component of the work ethic that you need to succeed at every level, trying to demonstrate that.”

This is what the Warriors signed up for back on Oct. 31, 2012, when CEO Joe Lacob and general manager Bob Myers handed Curry a four-year contract worth $44 million and also gave him the keys to the franchise along with it.

Curry became a three-time champion, global superstar, a gift to the community and the object of such adoration in the Bay Area that his popularity generated much of the momentum that resulted in the first new full-size arena in San Francisco in 78 years.

He became Steph, no surname needed.

The Warriors have no regrets, and they surely appreciate the lack of drama associated with or attributed to Curry. So pleased were the Warriors with their investment, which Stephen substantially outperformed, that his supermax deal in July 2017 required zero negotiation on the part of the Warriors.

“MJ (Michael Jordan) said that he never asked anybody to do something that he wasn’t willing to do,” Curry says. “And that’s something that hit home with me in terms of having the presence and the ability to meet guys on any level. Because I know the work that needs to go into it.”

Put simply, the Warriors don’t even want to think about where they would be without Curry.

Butler, by contrast, specialized in wearing out welcomes. Chicago, choosing to not to build around their intractable three-time All-Star, sent him to Minnesota. The Timberwolves found Jimmy too strident -- he found them too gentle -- and after 69 games sent him to Philadelphia. The 76ers, after 55 games, agreed to a sign-and-trade deal with Miami because Butler did not feel their ambition matched his.

So, Jimmy came to the Heat with the closest thing to an NBA rap sheet. But while so many others were concluding he was difficult and divisive, Heat boss Pat Riley saw a kindred spirit. A player as hungry as he was: An accomplished veteran who would vibe with a franchise known for stringency and high standards.

“Jimmy’s leadership, tenacity, professionalism, defensive disposition and his ability to create his own shot will improve our roster immediately,” Riley told reporters after the July 2019 deal. “Any time you can add a four-time All-Star to your roster, you make that move.”

This was a perfect marriage of man and franchise, both parties sharing the same set of principles and eagerness to dive into the required labor.

Identified as their new leader, Butler showed up and bonded as tightly with youngsters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson as he did with veterans Goran Dragic and Udonis Haslem. The mutual respect between Jimmy and coach Eric Spoelstra, who is widely considered among the top five coaches in the NBA, is irrefutable.

Last September, as the Heat prepared for The Finals, Spoelstra practically swooned when recalling the “recruitment’ of Butler 15 months earlier.

“It was so conversational,” Spoelstra said. “And you just felt like after 20 minutes that we were so aligned in how we viewed competition and work and culture. Everything. We never even got into a pitch with him. We really just had dinner.”

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There is no question that the wind that pushed the Heat to the 2020 Finals was provided by Butler’s coaxing and cajoling and, occasionally, growling into a teammate’s ear.

“What this whole thing comes down to is being wanted, being appreciated for what you bring to the table,” Butler said. “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 found his happiness in Miami. He had to navigate numerous detours to find a place compatible with his conviction. Curry has had that for most of his career. 

Jimmy became, in one year, as important to his franchise as Steph has been to his since, oh, 2012.

With each team struggling to find its expected level, each man has to lead skillfully. Curry and Butler understand the climb is steep. Though each will attack it differently, is there any doubt that each relishes the challenge?

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