Bulls fans have watched with considerable interest over the last two-plus seasons as Jimmy Butler’s basketball odyssey has taken him to Minneapolis, Philadelphia and now Miami. After all, it was the draft night trade in June 2017 that sent Butler to the Timberwolves in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the draft pick that turned out to be Lauri Markkanen.
The consensus around the league initially was that the Bulls didn’t get enough for their All-Star small forward, but as Butler forced his way out of Minnesota and then bailed on the 76ers in free agency, while LaVine and Markkanen began to look like future All-Stars, most observers around the league graded the Bulls as clear cut winners in the trade.
Butler surprised most people by leaving a potential championship contender in Philadelphia in a sign-and-trade deal with Miami this past summer. It looked like the latest chapter in Jimmy believing the grass would be greener with a new team. At the time of the trade, Butler talked extensively about the culture established by Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra in Miami, based on hard work and sacrificing of individual goals, but given Butler’s recent history, not many people believed he was capable of a total buy-in.
We’re only 10 days into the new season, but the early returns are encouraging. The Heat were able to win two of the three games Butler missed to be with his newborn daughter, and then Butler returned to score 21 points in a win over Atlanta on Tuesday. He came back with 11 assists, 9 rebounds, 6 steals and 3 blocks in a rematch against the Hawks Thursday night, showing his team-first approach with only 5 points.
With the Eastern Conference looking to be wide open after Philadelphia and Milwaukee, the Heat could be in position to contend for a top 4 seed in the playoffs. And this time around, Butler is determined to steer clear of any controversy.
Butler told reporters in Miami following the win over the Hawks on Tuesday, “All good things. We won. Obviously I’m a father, but I’m blessed beyond measure. I get to play basketball with some incredible guys, for an incredible organization. Life is good right now.”
Butler’s daughter is even named Rylee, but he insisted the name had nothing to do with the Heat president and former head coach.
There is another Chicago connection to Miami’s fast start. Former University of Illinois and Simeon star Kendrick Nunn turned a strong Summer League performance into a roster spot with the Heat, and wound up in the starting lineup last week with Butler away from the team and Dion Waiters serving a team suspension for detrimental conduct.
Nunn took full advantage of the opportunity, scoring more points in his first five NBA games (112) than any undrafted player in league history. He also set a franchise record for total points through five games in a debut season, besting the likes of past Heat stars Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, Glen Rice and Dwyane Wade.
Nunn was a teammate of Jabari Parker’s on Simeon’s four state championship teams, but he made it to the league the hard way, getting little attention from pro scouts after transferring from Illinois to Oakland University. He had to endure being cut by NBA teams and spent a couple years in the G League before finally catching on with the Heat.
Miami is also thrilled with the play of Tyler Herro, their lottery pick from the 2019 draft. Herro was the best pure shooter available, and quickly established himself as a potential steal with his outstanding play in Summer League. He’s been a great fit in Miami’s offense and came off the bench to score a career-high 29 points on Tuesday.
With the emergence of Herro and Nunn, and Butler taking over the lead role, Miami’s somewhat redundant roster suddenly looks a lot more formidable. Third year center Bam Adebayo has improved considerably and is averaging a double-double early in the season.
Veteran guard Goran Dragic, a former All-Star, has accepted a reduced role off the bench to let Justice Winslow try to establish himself as the Heat’s starting point guard, while another new acquisition, former Illini big man Meyers Leonard, is starting alongside Adebayo, allowing Kelly Olynyk to feast on backup big men. Waiters and another former Bull, James Johnson, are also available to provide some depth.
No, Miami won’t be a championship contender this season, but once Riley gets a couple of the bad contracts he handed out in 2016 off the books, you can bet he’ll go big game hunting again in free agency, trying to land another major star to go along with Butler. You’ll also be hearing rumors throughout the season about a possible trade for Oklahoma City point guard Chris Paul, especially if the Heat continue to build off their hot start.
Long term, the Bulls made the right decision to trade Butler for three players who could jump-start their rebuilding program, and the jury is still out on the ceilings for LaVine and Markkanen.
But at least for now, it looks like Jimmy Buckets has found the perfect landing spot on South Beach, and fans around the league will be watching closely to see if he can finally find happiness as the No. 1 star on a consistent winner.
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