Last month, Jimmy Butler was the NBA’s only top free agent to willingly choose a life of star solitude over championship contention. Selecting the Miami Heat instead of the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, or Los Angeles Lakers was at once odd, admirable, and a little vain. It was also on brand.
Butler is transparently against the grain, a showy nonconformist who does what he wants, with insight that falls short of total self-awareness and thus produces erratic, uncompromising decisions. This stubbornness also made Butler an all-star, and why isolation feels so appropriate. Coming off an impressive individual postseason run with the 76ers that saw Butler reassert himself as one of the sport’s true difference-makers, the move to Miami throws him out of the spotlight as much as it pulls him in. It would be a shock if his new team advances any further than his former one did last year (out), but any progress made on South Beach will be credited to him, and him alone (in).
Viewed through the lens of big-picture relevance, Butler’s move also makes you wonder where he currently stands in a league that’s brimming with talent, and where he goes from here. Considering his unceremonious exit from Minnesota 10 months ago, his cachet is teetering in a fascinating way.
Last year, Butler didn’t make the all-star team for the first time since 2014, a temperament and age-related slip (Butler turns 30 in September) that may signal irreversible decline. But he was also the second-best and most consistent player on a playoff team that could’ve won it all, averaging 22 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game against Toronto in Philadelphia’s narrow second-round loss. Butler is still a top-15 player (though far closer to 15th than first), and the only one who’ll navigate the 2019-20 season as the sole star on his own team. (One could argue Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Portland’s Damian Lillard are in the same boat, but Jamal Murray’s fourth season may very well yield a breakout, and boxing C.J. McCollum out from the “star” conversation on account of a technicality feels wrong.)
Just about everyone else in that stratosphere — including a few stars who weren’t even free agents — went the other way this summer. It began when Anthony Davis sidled beside LeBron James. Then, Paul George hopped on Kawhi Leonard’s shoulders, Russell Westbrook joined forces with James Harden, and Kyrie Irving fled Boston to (eventually) play with Kevin Durant. This is a renaissance age for the Dynamic Duo, sure.
But just like the myth of a mutual breakup, no team can have two best players. Many factors went into their decisions – if Westbrook was adamant about staying in Oklahoma City without George, he probably could have – but George, Davis, Westbrook, and Irving essentially turned themselves into overqualified Robin’s who will inevitably sacrifice on-court production to their respective Batman for the sake of team success.
That’s good for them, but it didn’t suit Butler. He swerved further away from the pack by willfully quarantining himself from contemporary starpower. He could’ve re-signed with the 76ers or gone to the Clippers, Rockets, or Lakers, but instead paddled upstream to be the face of his own franchise. Life as a sidekick — to Joel Embiid, Leonard, Karl-Anthony Towns, whoever — wasn’t in the cards.
Now, Butler’s season will likely unfold in one of three ways.
In the first, he averages 25-8-8, neglects load management, maximizes every possession, hits a bunch of clutch jump shots, routinely defends the other team’s top scorer, leads Miami to a top-four seed, and garners semi-legitimate MVP consideration. Behind door number two, he’s a realist who prioritizes self-preservation during the dog days of the season, then barely drags Miami to the playoffs while understanding their championship window probably won’t open until they land another star, be it next year or, more likely, during the ripe summer of 2021. The last option is the nuclear option: the Heat aren’t good, Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow plateau, and Butler struggles to thrive in lineups that can’t create enough space to complement his diverse, albeit inescapably ball-dominant, skill-set. Off the court, Butler’s frustration fractures Miami’s cultural bedrock, darkening the Heat locker room with a man-made mushroom cloud.
All are possible, but the first outcome is by far the most interesting. What would it even mean to be an extremely good NBA player in 2020 and actually want to be your absolute best self, free from the burdens of sacrifice and expectations? Butler has purposely taken on a greater challenge than anybody else — for less money than he would have received in Philly! — to stare into the depths of unknown and momentarily unchartered waters. Before the year begins, it’s fun to ponder what the legacy of wanting to be a lone wolf will be, both for Butler and the league as a whole. If he raises his profile in a way that can’t be done by a peer who’s forced to share credit, will anybody else follow?
LeBron James made a similar move to his own team last summer, but 1) comparing anyone to LeBron James is a fool’s errand, and 2) he signed with the Lakers believing a second star would immediately follow. The other analogue is Leonard’s championship run with the Raptors, but Kawhi did not choose to play there as an unrestricted free agent and several of his teammates had a pedigree zero players on Miami’s current roster possess. Still, Leonard’s championship ring is proof that recognition as the undeniable primary cause of a winning team is a priceless way to squash doubt. For at least one season, Butler will have a similar opportunity.
Butler isn’t LeBron or Kawhi, but he doesn’t have to be. All he needs to do is channel his remaining gifts in an effort to resurrect a proud organization that’s spun into irrelevance. Accepting that challenge is worthy of applause, even if conquering it is a completely different story.