The weird thing is, Jimmy Butler’s instincts have usually been correct. In Chicago, he gave management an ultimatum: it was either him or Fred Hoiberg. The apple-cheeked former Iowa State coach was handpicked by Gar Forman and John Paxson, so of course Jimmy got shipped out, but Hoiberg never accomplished much with the Bulls and was fired a year-and-half after the trade.
In Minnesota, Tom Thibodeau made all the same mistakes he made during his last coaching job, except he was in charge of personnel too, which made everything worse. (Thibs has a taste for cars that he has personally busted the transmissions on.) Andrew Wiggins was (and continues to be) a disappointing space-case. Karl-Anthony Towns is prismatically talented, but Jimmy shared the impression that he wasn’t playing up to his potential with just about anybody who was watching Timberwolves games. He told Thibs and Scott Layden, flamboyantly and with zero tact, that he wanted out and won himself a spot in Philadelphia, where he had a half-decent chance to win a title. In his wake Thibs lost his job and the Wolves missed the playoffs.
His stay with the Sixers was uneven, not owing to his truculence but to simple stupid basketball fit. Jimmy would attack from the perimeter and Joel Embiid wouldn’t get the touches he wanted. Ben Simmons was rendered, by his own deficiencies, pretty much useless without the ball. The three of them earnestly tried to make it work, the lab becoming even more crowded once Tobias Harris arrived from Los Angeles, but the results never matched the arithmetic. Seven games and a physics-straining buzzer-beater against the eventual champs flatters them: the Sixers were plenty good, but emotionally rickety and ultimately unconvincing.
Jimmy didn’t like the vibes, so he left. In his absence, the project isn’t going to come apart. He’s been replaced with Al Horford and Josh Richardson. We’ll have a better idea in the spring of where the Sixers belong in the league’s thoroughly rejiggered hierarchy, but they’re going to win a bunch of games. This is the first time Jimmy has abandoned a ship that wasn’t sinking.
When he showed up in Philadelphia, he said that he wanted to win a title. Most players say that whenever they join a half-decent team, but it held a certain weight coming from Jimmy because it’s the rationale he used to escape Minnesota. He posited himself as a guy who was About Winning in a way nobody else in the Twin Cities was. The argument made sense on its face, but we already knew at the time that he had wanted a trade to Miami, who weren’t contenders then and aren’t now. Though the Heat’s management infrastructure is strong and Erik Spoelstra is one of the brightest coaches in the league, they’re bogged down by bad contracts left over from a pair of wildly irresponsible summers. Jimmy’s best teammate next year is going to be… Goran Dragic? An improving Justise Winslow? The cast is mediocre at best, and the franchise is unlikely to be able to make a transformative move until the summer of 2021, when Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson, and Dion Waiters all become free agents.
This is the long way of stating the obvious: the Heat have a considerably worse basketball situation going on than the Sixers. So why leave for Miami? Butler famously took a huge liking to Dwyane Wade when they played together in Chicago—it’s possible that Wade is the only teammate Jimmy has ever truly admired—and maybe this is Jimmy is imitating his idol, or put less grandly, that Wade simply told him it’s pleasant living, being the main guy in Miami. There are worse fates than making max money and housing medianoches in the sunshine.
Regardless of the mental machinations involved, South Beach Jimmy does seem a purer expression of Butler’s values. He wants to win, but he also wants status and credit and the ball. He’s got Russell Westbrook Disorder, where in public he pretends—insists—that he only cares about competing for championships while he really obviously believes something else. In Miami, Jimmy will get to do what he wants. Autonomy is very important to him, probably more important than Ws.
You wish he would just say it, though. Maybe that is the endpoint of athletes feeling more comfortable speaking their minds these days: finally admitting that they’re okay with putting up numbers and making bank for franchises that are stuck in a rut, that they are not absolutely obsessed with valor and rings. Doing the opposite, they make themselves look foolish or demonstrate a certain contempt for fans and media—like we are stupid and will take whatever they say at face value.
It’s unlikely this troubles Butler, who both performatively and actually seems not to care what others make of him. He’ll do fine in Miami. On some nights he’ll be infuriated by the thin roster that surrounds him and on others he’ll be happy to chuck fourth quarter jumpers and retire to a house on the water after the game. He has his reasons for doing what he’s done, and they’re plainly obvious to anyone who’s paying attention. He doesn’t have to put words to them, though it would be nice, a moment of unburdening honesty for all of us, if he did.