Jimmy Butler Is Always Keeping Score
Four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler knows what you may think of him, but he also knows what he wants out of the game. If that makes for some uncomfortable moments, that's cool with him, even if he dreams of working at Target sometimes.January 31, 2019
On a bright yet wintry afternoon at an expansive manor in Philadelphia's suburbs, Jimmy Butler is adding things up.
"Whatever you want from this game, win and you can have it," he says while wearing a 76ers hoodie and sweats, having recently left the team's practice facility. "Name it. You want money? You want a max deal? If you win, I guarantee you have a better chance of that. You want the finest woman in the world? I guarantee: If you win, you're going to have a chance at that. You want all the cars, you want the big house—whatever it is—if you win, I guarantee you'll have a chance at that. Winning is that trump card that everything can be at your fingertips, but you got to win."
Butler has done plenty of winning but is aiming for a destination where legacies are earned. He's reached the playoffs six times in his seven completed seasons and likely is headed back there this spring. Only twice has he gotten as far as the second round, however, and after a first-round loss with the Timberwolves last spring, he made it clear he wanted to play somewhere else—somewhere that winning didn't have to be taught but was expected.
In November, Butler and the Timberwolves publicly divorced when Minnesota dealt the four-time All-Star to the Sixers, a team that seemingly fit what Butler wanted. The famed Process is over. The Sixers' expectations are now. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons didn't need a teacher so much as a partner. Philly is 20-9 with Butler in the lineup. Butler is averaging 19.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. But it is difficult to engineer a championship chemistry in the throes of a season. After the trade, Embiid groused about the shots he was getting. It was also reported that Butler aggressively confronted coach Brett Brown about his role in the Sixers offense, an event Brown chalked up to communicating "candidly."
"We're still figuring each other out," Butler says of his transition to the team. "I'm still figuring out our schemes, [and] the coaches are still figuring me out as a person and a player. … What our [coaches] see and what you see and what you expect, sometimes it's a tad bit different … so you try to talk that out. ... I'm cool with it, too. I understand it, but we're still working towards everything."
They need to work fast. The season is well past the halfway point, there are three teams in front of the Sixers in the Eastern Conference standings, and the Celtics are close behind. Of greater concern to the franchise is that Butler can be a free agent this summer, which doesn't give the team much time to extend him the five-year, $190 million offer he can command from it this offseason. It doesn't give Butler much time, either, to determine if Philly is a place he wants to remain.
I promise, it's going to work itself out, Butler tells himself each day. It's going to work itself out. You're going to figure it out. When? I don't know, but you'll figure it out.
Again, Butler is adding up the pluses and minuses.
"We still can be better in so many areas," he says. "When you see flashes of it in the game when I'm playing, I'm like, Damn, we could be really good if we do this consistently, or, Damn, we could be really good if we don't make this mistake all the time. It's special because I think everybody sees it, but then once you go over and you look at it yourself, you're like, Man, I can actually see what everybody else is talking about."
Some moments in some games, he thinks he has it solved. At other times, he cycles through the play calls in his head to make sure he is on the same page as his teammates.
"Guys really enjoy playing with one another," he says. "We're smiling. We're having fun, and that's the biggest part of the game. You know talentwise what you're going to get, but when you can have fun, it makes it a lot easier because you're getting along with your coworkers/teammates. You're coming in and you're smiling. You're loving to be there to learn. You like being around one another. It's good. It's refreshing because it's a long season, and you've got to be around the same group of people, players, coaches, everybody for what? I don't know, six, seven months?"
Basketball is basketball, he says. It will work itself out. Butler believes that.
The stories are out there. Tales of how the Bulls didn't see Butler as the kind of alpha dog worthy of a max contract. Or the lack of patience he apparently had in grooming some of his teammates in Minnesota—so much so that he led the T-Wolves' bench players over the starters in a fiery scrimmage before this season. The reportedly "disrespectful" discussion with Brown over Philly's style of offense,
But there are other tales—not nearly as juicy but more a reflection of who Butler is, or at least is trying to be.
He overhears a teammate requesting a suite for family and friends before a recent game against the Rockets, but when he hears the teammate ultimately deciding to not pay the $7,500 cost, Butler, unprompted, foots the bill.
Butler made another expensive gesture earlier in the season, while still in Minnesota, when he paid for a private flight so his Timberwolves teammate, Tyus Jones, could watch his younger brother, Tre, play his first college game for Duke.
And then there was his arrival in Philadelphia, when he delivered 67 pairs of Air Jordan sneakers to the organization's operations staff.
"I don't want them to ever feel like we're not the same type of people," Butler says. "We all have really, really good days. We all have some really shitty days. We all have families that are in our hair all the time. We all have friends. We all want to go have a glass of wine on the weekends; whatever it may be. We're one and the same. I just may be a tad bit more athletic, but I'm telling you: If you tell me a joke that I think is funny, I'm going to laugh. If you tell me a joke that I think is corny, I'm going to be like, 'Nah, that one wasn't the one,' just like anybody else would do. I think it's great just for them to be able to see me outside of the fierce competitor because I'm more than just that."
Butler knows his talent makes him different from those working for the team or those paying to watch him. He's also cognizant that his rise from the last pick in the first round of the 2011 draft to a place among the NBA's elites is a bit atypical, especially for someone who feels his career easily could have gone another way.
"Don't get me wrong," Butler says, "I know I'm extremely blessed, but I caught a lot of breaks and people that entered my life at the right point in time. I could easily be in their shoes, you know; a gruesome day at work and then coming home and taking my kids to watch what I 'could have been.' … Maybe you're just going just because you've never been to a game before, or maybe it's just like, You know what? I'll watch it on TV; long week at work. This is my time to go have a beer and just watch some really good basketball. I don't know what it is, but I look at it like that could be me."
Butler does not often revisit his upbringing, even if it is well-chronicled. He grew up in Texas, admiring Tracy McGrady. His father left the family when Butler was an infant. His mother asked him to leave the house as a teenager. Few colleges granted Butler a second look before he played for Tyler Junior College. He caught the eye of then-Marquette coach Buzz Williams, where he worked himself from the bench to the leading man for a Sweet 16 team in his senior season. He followed a similar path after the Bulls drafted him in 2011, maneuvering through limited minutes his first two seasons into a four-time All-Star.
It's an inspiring path. He sees the same drive in the people in his new NBA home.
"Man, everything about this city is just grit, hard work, getting where you fit in, grind it out all day long, and by all means, do whatever you can to be successful in any way, shape or form," Butler says. "Just go give your all—all your heart, blood, sweat and tears. All of that good stuff. That's what Philly is all about. You look around the stands when you're playing and see people so joyful that just got off a tremendously long day of work. They're there to watch some people really, really compete."
Basketball is basketball.
The rules are rigid. One team plays offense. The other plays defense. A shot is taken. The ball will either sail through the net or not. One team wins. One team loses.
There's a comfort Butler finds in those expected outcomes, which may be why he repeats the phrase in his conversation with B/R. Basketball is basketball. Whatever messages he's trying to send or maneuvers he's making produce results with which no one can argue. There's no interpreting to be done.
"You know what you're going to get out of a game of basketball, man," Butler says.
Like any performance space, the court is an escape.
"What people don't understand is, outside of basketball, there's so much stuff going on," Butler says. "You've got family to have to worry about. You've got your body to have to worry about. There's stuff that you can't see. You don't know how this person is feeling when he's out there on the basketball court. He can hide it because he's hooping, but man, everybody got their own demons. … He's got his own stuff to deal with, just like you've got your own stuff to deal with. You may think that his job isn't hard as a basketball player, but there are days basketball players might want to have the job at Target. It may not pay as well, but I guarantee you don't got a gazillion eyes on you that's making you nervous or that's worried about every move that you make. That's the part that I'm saying. Basketball is basketball. You know what you're going to get, but you can't predict everything—not when it comes to being a person."
In a short amount of time, the Philadelphia 76ers are becoming familiar with the person Butler is.
"I think he's coming in with the right attitude and mentality," Ben Simmons says. "He's just trying to make sure he's doing everything correctly and buying into what we've already built here. I think he's doing an amazing job of that."
Most first-year general managers take a few seasons before they engineer a league-altering trade. But in Butler, first-year Sixers GM Elton Brand saw a chance to get the kind of closer who had yet to emerge in Philly. "He gives us a chance, later in games as a closer in the fourth quarter," Brand says. "Regular season, it may not show up, but playoffs, that's when you need those closers."
Before making the deal, Brand, who recently ended his 17-year playing career, reached out to some of his former teammates who had also played with Butler. All raved about him. But in deciding to send popular Process mainstays Robert Covington and Dario Saric to Minnesota for Butler, Brand understood he was changing the team's trajectory. "Like, now the pressure's on," Brand says.
The two talk—not just about basketball but life. And while Butler has found Brand to be a reliable sounding board, Brand says Butler has been what he had hoped he was getting.
I think everybody wants to paint a certain picture of me nowadays, which is fine, but unless you're around me consistently, you don't know.
— Jimmy Butler
"He's done everything we've asked of him to make this work," Brand says. "It's just his work ethic, the way he takes care of his body, way he focuses on his health and just truly wants to win games. I was upset and disappointed how they portrayed him for his past. His past kind of followed him because there was nothing here that warranted articles and all that stuff. He's done nothing like that. He's been a great teammate and is well-respected. You talk to his teammates—they love him off the court, on the court. We know what a special player he is."
Still, an ESPN report of friction between Butler and his new team is out there. Butler did not specifically address the report, although a person within the organization said Butler spoke up to advocate a teammate's role in the offense.
"I think everybody wants to paint a certain picture of me nowadays, which is fine, but unless you're around me consistently, you don't know," Butler says. "All you hear is 'this happened,' but you don't know the tone that it happened. You don't know where it happened. You don't know what was said or how it was said, or what play we were even talking about—if we were even talking about a play at all. I just think somebody says something to somebody and they say something to somebody else, and before you know it … the whole thing just gets blown out of proportion.
"I don't feel the need to fix any of it. People are going to think what they want to think. I'm cool. I know who I am. I know what I'm about. The people that were there know who I am, know what I'm about. My guys around here, my family know who I am, know what I'm about. That's all I'm worried about."
Butler says he doesn't expect anything different from his teammates, wherever he is. Honesty is what he's trying to offer, and honesty is what he hopes to get in return.
"[A perfect teammate is] somebody that's always going to tell you the truth, even if you don't like to hear it," Butler says. "[Somebody that] is always going to look out for you. If you need help in any certain situation, they're going to be there. They're going to make sure that you can be the best player that you can be, whether they're telling you something, teaching you something, showing you something or making sure that you're just doing your job out there on the floor. If you need them to be the voice for you, they'll be the voice for you. ... All in all, I think that you just got to have that person's best interest at heart, realizing ... it is a game, but that teammate, he's a person, too."
A teammate knows where he stands with Butler. "He's never going to be passive about telling you what he sees," Sixers rookie Landry Shamet says.
"That's my boy, man," says Taj Gibson, who played with Butler in Chicago and Minnesota. "I've been with him my whole career from Chicago to Minnesota. I get Jimmy. Me and him never really butted heads. So for me, it was great. I was with him from the start of his career. Even later on, he was always in my corner; [he's always] given me good advice. Always holding me down, good or bad. He's always been a great teammate to me."
JJ Redick labels Butler a friend. "I wasn't in Minnesota or Chicago, so I don't know," Redick says. "I can only speak to his time in Philly. And even [the Butler-Brown discussion that] was reported about in Portland—this is the NBA. We're a good team with expectations, with good players, and we're all trying to figure it out. That's the shit that happens in the NBA."
The way Butler has handled that "stuff," though, doesn't always translate the way he may have hoped. In Chicago, the Bulls front office decided to trade Butler to kick off a rebuild instead of put pieces around him. In an ESPN report, Kentucky coach John Calipari accused Butler of bullying Karl-Anthony Towns (among others) in Minnesota. Butler bristles at the charge.
"I don't think that's a good choice of words," Butler says of Calipari's accusation. "Maybe I was hard on him. OK, cool, but to say bullying, no, man, I didn't do that.
I would tell anybody the truth. I would tell anybody what I thought.
"I just think that when you have so many talented guys, there ain't too much that you can say. … They're all talented. You know they're going to be a No. 1 pick, No. 2, No. 5, whatever it may be, but to say that I'm bullying somebody, that's different.
"If that's the case, then you got to say that I was like that with everybody. I would tell anybody the truth. I would tell anybody what I thought, but everybody just made, once again, a bigger story out of nothing. … I just think we were coached differently whenever we were in college. I'm sure my coach [Williams] would have my back, like [Calipari] got KAT's back. Just leave it at that because I just think you're great at what you do, man, at the college level."
At 29, Butler isn't sure how much remains in his basketball career. Maybe five years. Maybe eight. Maybe more. Maybe less.
He wants to leave while still intact enough to teach his kids how to play the right way. Not that he has any children, although he wears a ring on his wedding finger because he likes the look. He weighs the risks and rewards in all his choices, calculating the reactions to actions before purposefully deciding.
"I could still beat my kids [on the court] till like the seventh, eighth grade," he ponders, sifting the odds of playing another half-dozen seasons, adding: "You start going into 38; man, that's tough."
First, though, there's this summer and free agency.
Aside from a wrist injury that sidelined him for three games before his Tuesday return, Butler says he's enjoying his time in Philly. "To tell you the truth, man … I don't even know what I'm going to have for lunch tomorrow, so I can't tell you what the future brings, and I don't worry about it," Butler says. "I live for the right now. … I smile and have fun. I hoop. … I hope wherever I am, I'm happy. I can tell you that. Am I happy here right now? Yeah. I guess when [free-agency] time comes around, we'll figure it out."
That "we" doesn't just include the Sixers and his agent. It also encompasses friends—people he refers to as brothers and spends time with daily. Some work for him, some don't. He trusts them all.
"I'm going to sit down and talk with all my guys. See where their heads are at. A lot of them got kids; a lot of them got families. I got to make sure that they're happy in order for me to be happy and for my body to be right and for my training to go the right way. If they're miserable, they're not going to want to do their job, so I've got to keep them happy. With them happy, I can continually be the player that I am.
"My people mean the world to me. If you're around me enough, you will know that I really do care what they think. I take their opinions and what they say to heart, so I've got to worry about that. I've got to worry about everything around me: the city, the organization, the players. You sit down, and you map it all out, and you come to a decision. Obviously, I'm the biggest part of their decision, but I think everybody has a little bit of say in it."
There's a lot to consider for Butler. There are his teammates and their ability to help him go deep in the playoffs. There are his off-court interests, like the winery he hopes to open when his playing days are through, a passion sparked when actor and friend Mark Wahlberg introduced Butler to some better vintages soon after they met a few years ago when Butler was still in Chicago. Or the kids in that city he occasionally mentors (when his travel allows) through the Youth Guidance program.
Most important, however, is Butler himself, and whether he believes the Sixers, or some other team, are willing to meet him on his terms.
"I know what goal I'm going to have, and I can't do it by myself," Butler says. "I need the team to have those same goals. We got that shit here, man. Everybody wants to win. That's why you can smile knowing whatever your role is, if we win, your role is going to grow a little more.
"I can't change who I am. I'm not going to. Some people are going to like it. Some people are not going to like it. That's just me in a nutshell. I get it. I understand it. I accept it, but you're not going to sit here and say that I'm a bad person because of it, because then you just say that somebody is a bad person just because you don't like the color of their shoelaces. You're just making up stuff to say why they're a bad person because they're different, because they handle things differently than you would, because they were raised differently than you were? You don't understand why they do what they do. That don't make them a bad person. That just makes them different from you."
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.