PHILADELPHIA — There is no doubt that Jimmy Butler is one of the best basketball players in the world and has been for some time. He is tenacious on both ends of the floor and unafraid of any opponent or moment.
On Saturday night, he returned here to take on the 76ers, his most recent former N.B.A. franchise. Philadelphia fans heartily booed him every time he touched the ball. The Sixers crushed the Miami Heat, 113-86, to win their fourth straight. Butler, like the rest of his team, struggled, shooting 4 for 13 from the field. He did get some dunks in, which only amplified the displeasure at the Wells Fargo Center.
Afterward, he shrugged off this game as just like any other. “To tell you the truth, I legit didn’t even pay attention,” Butler said of the jeers.
For other athletes, this may seem like a platitude. For Butler, it was a sign that he was too immersed in yet another honeymoon period to shift his focus. Watching Butler on Saturday, he truly didn’t appear to notice even as taunts that he’d never win a championship and finger points to the lopsided scoreboard flew his way.
Miami is now his fourth team in four years, an unusual path for a superstar in the best years of his career. Butler, 30, clashed in splits with each of his first three teams — the Chicago Bulls (six seasons), the Minnesota Timberwolves (one season plus 10 games) and the Sixers (a bit more than half a season). In Chicago, Butler openly pinned blame on others, clashing with Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls’ coach then, and publicly going after his Bulls teammates after a loss, saying, “I want to play with guys who care.” He later told ESPN that he “probably went about a lot of things the wrong way.”
The Bulls traded Butler to the Timberwolves, and after a first-round playoff exit against the Houston Rockets, he requested a trade that hadn’t materialized by the next preseason. So an irritated Butler didn’t show up to early practices. Once he did, he put on a show in what became one of the most talked about practices in N.B.A. history. He cursed out a front-office executive, antagonized his coach and the team’s younger starters, and led a team of reserves to a victory in a scrimmage. He immediately sat down for an ESPN interview after the practice and called out teammates — just as he’d done in Chicago on his way out.
Traded to Philadelphia last season, Butler played next to two bona fide All-Stars, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, in a city that especially loves hard-nosed players. That marriage started off well, too, with the Sixers going 21-9 in Butler’s first 30 games. He carried them offensively in several playoff games. If Kawhi Leonard’s fortuitous bounces at the last second of the Eastern Conference semifinals had rimmed out, Butler might be a champion right now.
Yet again, the situation wasn’t exactly right.
Even with Leonard out of the conference, Philadelphia didn’t run it back when free agency began. There have been differing reports as to whose choice this was, but the Sixers shifted quickly to replace Butler with Al Horford, while Butler opted for warmer pastures in South Beach, later suggesting that something went awry. He told Yahoo this month: “Stuff just don’t work out. Nobody knows what really went on in Philly, and we’re going to leave it that way.” And his former teammate Simmons told ESPN in an interview published recently that the Sixers’ chemistry is better this season. (He didn’t mention Butler specifically.)
After the game, Butler greeted Embiid, whom he still considers a close friend, and briefly interacted with Mike Scott, another teammate from last season. But in the locker room, Butler declined to delve any deeper as to why he left Philadelphia.
“That’s something in the past,” he said. “I’ll leave it there. What happened in the summer with talks, that’s for us to know.”
Sixers Coach Brett Brown wasn’t keen on discussing Butler, either. He wouldn’t comment on why he thought Butler left, and said they hadn’t spoken recently.
“He had some great games for us,” Brown said. “And we came close at the end. Sometimes things just don’t work out. He’s in a really good place, and we wish him well.”
Outwardly, Butler is having an absolutely joyous time in Miami playing for a franchise he long admired. He has had a slow start shooting the ball, but he is sharing it well — averaging a career-high 6.7 assists per game. The Heat (11-4) are unexpectedly one of the best teams in the N.B.A. and play their home games in one of the best cities for a winter sport.
But Heat fans should be cautioned: Butler has had several honeymoon phases now — and each one has been shorter than the one before. There is a legitimate question as to whether this one will last, no matter how warm the weather (83 degrees on Saturday) and how long the contract (four years, $140.8 million.)
Butler himself has said he has issues following directives, something coaches might find difficult. On his then-teammate J.J. Redick’s podcast last year, Butler said: “Now, first of all, I have a for-real problem with authority. When somebody is telling me what to do as a grown man, I have a problem with it.”
We all have bosses. N.B.A. players, even the great ones, are no different. Butler’s new coach, Erik Spoelstra, is a demanding one who drew criticism from the notorious gym rat Ray Allen for holding what he saw as an exorbitant amount of practices and shootarounds. Pat Riley, the president of the Heat, has long preached a culture mandating peak conditioning and effort, a challenge that figures to suit Butler’s personality.
Riley said at a news conference introducing Butler: “I hope he likes it. But it’s going to be hard. He’s going to find out.”
After being routed by his former team, Butler did express some perspective. “I don’t like that we lost, but I like that we lost,” he said. “Because this is when your character is really going to be shown. When adversity hits, how are you going to handle it?”
Adversity has historically not been something Butler has handled well. He has fashioned his demeanor after intense types like Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, calling out teammates and coaches with the excuse that he expects the same excellence from them that he demands of himself.
The issue, however, is that Butler is not any of those players. He has made four All-Star Games, two all-N.B.A. teams and two all-defensive teams without ever making clear that he can be the best player on a championship team. For Butler, a player very much in his prime, it’s up to him, not just his teammates, to make this latest honeymoon last through June.