Could Butler have replicated Heat's success with Bulls?


Jimmy Butler leading the Miami Heat to the 2020 NBA Finals surely left the three teams that traded him earlier in his career second-guessing.

First on that list is the Bulls, who sparked the current rebuild by shipping Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the rights to Lauri Markkanen on draft night 2017. Indirect or no, the decision signaled a belief within the Bulls organization that Butler wasn't good enough to build a championship-caliber team around — a belief that appears misguided in retrospect. The Heat came two wins from a title in 2020.

But is it even worth relitigating? Is there a world where the team surrounds Butler with the right personnel, he blossoms into the player he is today and the Bulls produce similar playoff magic as the Heat had he stayed in Chicago?

Speaking with K.C. Johnson on the latest Bulls Talk Podcast, Tom Haberstroh said he's not so sure.

"I do think that the Heat empowered Jimmy Butler in ways that I just don't know if he would have gotten the same treatment in Chicago, obviously he didn't," Haberstroh said. "But you know, you look at the numbers, you look at the usage rate and the assertiveness that you saw down the stretch and the assists, that was not the Jimmy Butler in Chicago. Averaging 10 assists per game? That was new.

"The playmaking aspect, he's reached a different level. Could he have done that in Chicago? Maybe."

Indeed, Butler set career highs in assists per game (6.0), assist rate (28.3%) and free-throw attempts per game (9.1) with the Heat this season. His season-long 24.6% usage rate is second only to the 2016-17 campaign, his last with the Bulls, when 26.1% of the team's possessions with him on the floor ended in a Butler field goal attempt, free throw try or turnover. 


Those numbers only spiked as the playoffs dragged on. He averaged 26.2 points and 9.8 assists per game on 55.2% field goal shooting and 25% usage across six Finals games, and became just the second player in league history to log multiple 40-point triple-doubles in the championship round.

All of the above may have never come to fruition in Chicago. But the rub? Butler was trending in that direction — statistically, at least. The second-highest assist rate (24.3%), true shooting percentage (58.6%) and free throw attempt average (8.9 per game) of his career to date came in his last season with the Bulls. He finished that year third in the league win shares (13.8) — the only representative in the top six from a team that finished .500 or below.

Less than two months after being ousted in the first round of the playoffs that year, he was traded. Three years, even playing just 58 games, he finished eighth in win shares (9.0) in 2019-20 as a member of the Heat.

Now, the Butler trade wasn't a purely statistical decision. By the end of his Bulls tenure, for example, locker-room tensions between he and Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were taut. Finances were a factor too; had Butler stayed, he may have qualified for a designated player exception that could have led to a contract extension in the $200 million range.

But the Heat threw caution to the wind in signing and trading for him last offseason, and so far, the move has been a rousing success. Miami has also done splendid work surrounding Butler with young, promising players that match his intense work ethic and play style. Having a Hall-of-Fame-caliber coach in Erik Spoelstra doesn't hurt either. "Heat culture" is more than a buzz-phrase.

"I certainly believe that the egalitarian offense that the Heat arranged where it was like, We don't have any point guards here. Bam Adebayo's a point guard. Jimmy Butler's a point guard. Tyler Herro's a point guard. Goran Dragić is a point guard. That sort of stuff if you're playing next to Derrick Rose, I'm not so sure you get that," Haberstroh said. The "Three Alphas" team constructed around Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo bears mention in that vein as well.

"Jimmy Butler was sensational in Miami and I think he was sensational in Chicago," Haberstroh said. "It was just going to take a little bit more tough love throughout the organization to get there."


So when you hear Butler talk now about finally feeling "wanted and appreciated" in Miami, that's the crux of it. Butler couldn't have succeeded to this degree anywhere. And the sum of his experiences have made him the player and person he is today — Chicago years included.

But no one would blame Bulls fans for pondering what could have been.

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