Jimmy Butler never wanted to leave the Bulls, who began their ongoing rebuild by trading him in June 2017.
He’s now three teams removed from that day and, this offseason, had his choice of where he wanted to go after trades to the Timberwolves and 76ers.
Butler chose the Heat.
“He always makes it a point about how the Bulls didn’t like us. One of our first conversations, I was like, ‘You underestimated how much we disliked you as a team,’” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday at the United Center. “I’m dead serious. We didn’t like them. They didn’t like us. That’s what you want in a playoff series, borne out of respect and high-level competition with type-A personalities going after each other.
“When you go through a couple series like that, you gain deep respect for what’s on the other side. When we were finally able to sign Luol Deng, that was something that grew out of respect.”
There’s a saying about 'Heat culture' that has existed since the days of the Pat Riley-coached teams centered around Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway that battled the dynasty-era Bulls. The rivalry intensified when Butler, Deng and company battled Spoelstra’s Big Three of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
And you don’t need to see the Heat’s 10-3 record to know that culture fits Butler like a glove.
“It’s our whole organization. Everybody is around the work every day. Everybody is putting their time in,” Butler said Friday. “It just makes me smile because that’s what I do. I don’t got too much to say. It makes it fun because when you put in that much work, you’re not doing it for no reason. You’re doing it because you want to win.”
Butler, now in his ninth season, has been around long enough to know every season presents challenges and adversity at some point. Unsurprisingly, Butler raised that almost certain likelihood in unsolicited fashion.
“Everything is phenomenal now. Like I tell everybody, I’m happy, man. We’re winning. We’re competing at a high level. Organization is great — people around it, teammates,” Butler said. “I want to see what happens whenever it’s not going so well for us. I don’t want to lose two in a row or three in a row; don’t get me wrong. But whenever it isn’t the way that we want it to be, how are we going to respond? That’s going to be a test for myself and everybody else here.”
Given that Butler is this team’s unquestioned alpha dog and shares the same serious-minded competitiveness that Spoelstra does, you have to like the Heat’s chances to persevere. Butler joined an organization that, top to bottom, shares the same values as him.
“He has helped us win. We’ve been looking for a guy like this for awhile,” Spoelstra said. “He’s a competitive, two-way player. And he just knows how to impact winning.
“He’s a throwback player almost, just in terms of not caring about what his individual statistics are. He’ll impose his will when he needs to. If we need a 35-point game like we did in Phoenix, he’ll do that. But he’s distributing the ball. He’s playing effectively point guard for us in a role that I’ve had Dwyane and LeBron in before. He has gobbled all that up and really helped our young guys gain a lot of confidence.
“He has a tremendous work ethic. And I think he relates to the guys who can go toe-to-toe with him as far as work ethic and competitiveness.”
Spoelstra said Butler’s talent and competitiveness remind him of Wade, and the fact that his competitiveness doesn’t have an off-switch recalls Wade, Mourning and Udonis Haslem.
In other words, Butler is 'Heat culture' now.
“That’s why we say we try to get like-minded people who share your values and standards. He does,” Spoelstra said. “We speak the same language.”
Butler’s strong friendship with Wade began when both played for the Bulls. But even Butler called Wade a “Heat lifer.” And given that Butler is in the first of a four-year, $142 million deal with the Heat, he has the makings of forming a long-term relationship with the franchise he once disliked — but respected — as well.
“I got to do what’s best for me, my family and my people. I got to do what made me happy,” Butler said of choosing the Heat. “And, like I tell everybody, I’m happy. This place fits for me.”
Butler is 0-2 at the United Center as a visiting player, losing each game by one point. One came with the Timberwolves and one with the 76ers.
Other than saying he loves the Bulls’ ownership, which he called “incredible,” he said he doesn’t much follow the franchise’s fortunes anymore. He did notice how the Bulls on Wednesday honored Deng, whom Butler always credited as a mentor.
“I wish I could’ve been here as well. Lu taught me so much about the game and being a pro. I was very fortunate to be able to learn from him. He’s just an incredible, incredible human being,” Butler said. “I’m glad he got to go out here and they honored him here. He did a lot for this organization and obviously did a lot for me. In this organization, I was able to be around so many good people, him being at the top of the list.
“It’s always special to play here. This is where I started. This is when I was a kid at the age of 21. And I was fortunate to be able to play in front of these wonderful fans in this great city and obviously all the history that went on here with the players that I was able to play with. This is always home. I still have places here. I’m here throughout the summer all the time. I’ll always have love for this city. That will never change.”
Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.