Two of “The Three Alphas” are in the NBA Finals. And the third, Dwyane Wade, is assuredly there in spirit, rooting for Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat to beat Rajon Rondo and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Before Wednesday’s Game 1, Rondo, who colorfully coined “The Three Alphas” nickname for their lone shared season with the Bulls in 2016-17, called Butler one of his favorite teammates.
Given that Rondo once scorched the Earth with an Instagram post excoriating the leadership tactics of Wade and Butler after they blasted the Bulls’ younger players’ care factor, that’s as good a place as any to note that, just like in life, things evolve in the NBA.
There are so many misperceptions of Butler that it’s hard to know where to begin. All you need to see are his interactions with Bulls staffers — from both basketball and business operations — any time he returns to the United Center to know how favorably his former franchise feels about him.
That said, the view that Butler advancing to his first NBA Finals as the face of a franchise assures he could have done the same for the Bulls had they not traded him in 2017 flirts with revisionist history.
His final two seasons in Chicago, wherein he first wrestled with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah for alpha dog status in 2015-16 and then teamed with Wade and Rondo in 2016-17, led to a cumulative 83-80 mark and one first-round playoff exit — not to mention a preference for slower pace and isolation plays. He didn’t mesh with Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota or Brett Brown in Philadelphia.
All of these experiences led Butler to find what clearly is his perfect fit with Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and the “Heat culture.”
But this isn't the same Butler from his Bulls years. While his indefatigable work ethic hasn't changed, he has evolved as a player and leader.
“I say what I want to say, the way I want to say it. But I think I’ve gotten better at relaying it to this guy, that guy, this woman that’s walking around, whatever it may be,” Butler told JJ Redick on the latter's podcast back in March. “But they know that where it’s coming from is from the heart and it’s because I want to win.”
Butler wanted to win just as badly when he played for the Bulls. Nobody ever doubted that. He never wanted to leave Chicago. And it’s indisputable that he has earned everything he has achieved. His well-documented backstory is remarkable.
But let’s not forget that Butler got so fed up with what he viewed as preferential treatment for Rose and Noah in 2015-16 that he began dressing apart from his teammates and with his personal trainer in a small office outside the locker room. Or that rather than surrounding him with young, athletic shooters like the Heat have, the Bulls signed Rondo and Wade for the 2016-17 season.
From both perspectives, Butler’s and the Bulls’, there’s no guarantee what’s happening now could have happened here. Should the Bulls have tried? In that management regime’s eyes, they did for two seasons.
Finances clearly played a role in Butler’s departure. With a third-team All-NBA selection in 2017, he took a step towards qualifying for a designated player exception that could’ve led to a contract extension north of $200 million.
The exact figures could have been negotiated. But remember: Butler famously bet on himself in rejecting a rookie contract extension worth roughly $44 million before the 2014-15 season, then won 2015 Most Improved Player and, in turn, roughly $50 million more. Those negotiations would have been intriguing.
Instead, then-executive vice president John Paxson, who had flirted with trading Butler to the Boston Celtics on 2016 draft night, fulfilled his itch to undertake a full rebuild and traded him to the Timberwolves on 2017 draft night. The Bulls have sputtered since and completely overhauled its management and coach this year.
What often gets lost in the false narrative of Butler as locker-room cancer is that he always looks inward first. And that he never would challenge a teammate to do something he isn’t capable of or that Butler hasn’t put the work in to do first.
Even in his infamous “coach harder” critique of Fred Hoiberg, Butler included himself in the targeted group. And this interview from USA Basketball training camp in advance of winning a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil sounds like it could be lifted from a Heat media session today.
“I'll say what needs to be said. What I want (those) guys to do, whenever I'm on some [B.S.], I want them to tell me. I want you to say my name, man to man. That goes along with everybody. Say my name. And I'm going to do the same to you,” Butler said then. “Whenever you're [B.S.]ing and not doing what you're supposed to be doing in practice and the game or not taking care of your body, you need somebody holding you accountable. You can't beat around the bush and say: 'Hey, guys, we need to take care of our body. Hey, guys, we're taking bad shots.' It's: 'Jimmy, you need to do this. You need to do that.' "
Is his approach for everybody, particularly in an NBA that skews younger? No. But find the right young players — Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson — and look what can happen.
Butler has found his home. On Tuesday, Heat guard Goran Dragić called him a “great teammate who always brings the best out of other guys.” That Butler and Rose reconnected and rebuilt a respectful relationship during their time in Minnesota is another example of how things evolve in the NBA.
As for Butler, he never has cared about the outside noise. He’s simply focused on winning.
“Everybody going to have their own opinion. Nobody is in the locker room. Nobody is in the practices. It’s all he-said, she-said at some point,” he said of his reputation on Tuesday at NBA Finals media day. “I just take being a bad guy. I like it that way. It doesn’t bother me. I know who I am. I’m cool, content with that. I belong here. Me ruffling feathers? It’s OK here.”