Year None: Jimmy Butler

The 2019-2020 NBA season came to an abrupt halt on March 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the season effectively three-quarters of the way through, many storylines, records-to-be, and developing comebacks were left in the lurch; all the bizarre, beautiful, and too-absorbing minutiae of the league halted. This is a look back at the most compelling of those suspended narratives in an attempt to figure out what could have been while reconciling, maybe wrenchingly, that however the season concludes, this will be a year in basketball that never fully happened. Welcome to Year None.

In Philadelphia, the worst thing was, he was fading. It was very true in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, unmistakable as he ran down the court, always on the outside and trailing. It was so strange to see him not going boldly and not going first. He was running at a half-clip. But even before all that it was evident, some flourishes here and there, dust-ups, entanglements like giving his best regards to T.J. Warren. Blowing kisses. But his whole heart wasn’t in it.

When Jimmy Butler is working he thrums with joy so strong it could easily eclipse itself into menace. It most often does. If work is the crux of whatever’s at hand — plays that pit his stealth and athleticism against the poor soul that can’t see him coming, the kind of full-body taunt he has so cooly perfected, the trusted, honing routine of practice — then his joy is maniacal.

Work had been missing in Minnesota. The young and lolling core of the team perfectly fine to themselves, but loose and undisciplined to someone like Butler who doesn’t set standards so much as permanently push against the shifting markers of his own. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, as receptive as they may have initially been to the idea of a vet, could have in no way been prepared for the metronomic force of Butler’s imposed rhythm. That kind of speed, not just velocity of intent but its physicality, like being placed on another planet where the atmosphere holds its own crushing weight, laden with ozone. To them, it was not play, not any kind they’d ever been accustomed to, and to Butler it never was to begin with — it was work.

Philly seemed, on paper, to be a better fit. Joel Embiid could still be the team’s brooding core as Butler became its roving impulsion. A ranging, mercenary style player on the floor who was willing and had the intelligence to be where he was needed, the intuition to know when. But one thing Butler does not do, if there is no lasting point behind it, is wait. Too often with the Sixers he was made to, as Embiid deliberated, as Tobias Harris, learning the team, got his reads wrong, or as Ben Simmons hesitated. Butler can always be trusted to bring backbone, some flinty, pressing support, but something needs to be there in the first place — a plan, a system, a star — bearing the team up.

Waiting can be meditative, strengthening, eventually to resolve. But for that, waiting has to be the whole point. An intentional state. Even on a team headed to the postseason, the Sixers had no clear plan once they got there. Butler had already been stagnating, growing listless as a stopgap, a catch-all to second-chance for Simmons, a clean up distributor lurking around the perimeter. His job, his work, was only to be there, a body manipulating distance on the floor — spacing it, shrinking it, slicing through it. The irony being that with all that space taking up his game there was no room to cook.

A short break for a riddle, here. If work is Butler’s well to draw joy from, isn’t that depth, on a team needing so much of it, almost endless? Sure, but how often is the guy going to be hoisting up for what has no hope of being quenched, for something stuck in a permanent drought? Butler is as determined as he is precise, but there is nothing about him that’s wasteful. Intelligent players who have taken the lessons and learned over time know when to push, pull-up, draw (fouls or requests for new contracts while they’re still in a position to be autonomously plotting the trajectory of their careers). In Butler’s case the better, catchier analogy are the lessons learned in the late Kenny Rogers ‘The Gambler’.

There is a healthy measure of pride tied up in all that, too. For another player it might be detrimental, but for all the ways he’s been painted difficult, relentless, standards stretching toward extraterrestrial, his pride has never gotten in anybody’s way, only in his. With the Wolves, any chemistry souring, exploding, Butler almost waited too long, his exit made necessary when the team extended Wiggins contract by five years and $148 million. With the Sixers, Butler played through the team’s best shot to get past the semis in nearly two decades, then made his mind cleanly up immediately after. If joy is Butler’s power, then pride is the legs that propel it, the ask to any coach the same — to value and respect the work that goes into it. Brett Brown was close. But the biggest mistake was not having a clear place for Butler, a role he could fill and improve upon, the freedom to work long and hard and the strength of the existing team to not take that personally.

That Miami took so long seems a kind of intentional withholding by Pat Riley, a masochistic test to make sure Butler was ready. Because was there ever a player, LeBron James included, that magnetized so easily toward Riley’s unyielding system as Butler? But who, somehow, is able to make that system seem all light and ease, fluid as the gas in South Florida’s mess of buzzing neons, soft as its Deco pastels gradually fading in the salt and sun.

To see Butler in a Heat uniform is to scrub your brain instantly of any previous associations. The franchise as fated to him as he was to it. Everything he feeds his joy on is there. Fitness in South Beach treated almost as a state resource. Gyms off the boardwalks, the steel bars permanently buffed by sand, the lifestyle of working out matched only by the aesthetics of it. The work on one’s body never done, but needing to never look like effort. Effort as leisure and the leisure to treat effort as commodity. For Butler, he is as at home playing dominoes with seniors in the park, slowly smoldering Cubans clamped between two sets of grinning teeth, as he is dragging tractor tires across the endless clipped emerald of his Bermuda grass backyard, never so strained that he could not turn to flash a smile.

Like Butler, the city can seem formidable, roving in its reach and difficult to slip into. But wait around a little, shift your senses past the buzzing wall of heat and hard bodies, find the pop and soft sprawl of flamingo pink bougainvillea, tendrils of giant philodendrons coiled around thatch palms, a bird of paradise spiking air thick with frying plantains, strong coffee, redolent of salt, orange. Miami is all elements slinking endlessly together. Air so heavy it turns into water, water lifting to frothed masses of cloud over Biscayne Bay, rich as the slices of coconut cake that sit in dripping glass displays in open-air South Beach bodegas. The low and permeant dark roil of the swamp never farther than a deep inhalation, kept off by the high-shine of glass towers, the heat sluicing from their sides, architecture all a bit of a wink and a feint — pink marble exteriors, soft scalloped Deco finishes — to the water on all sides of the city waiting on the eventuality to swallow it up.

It’s that same hidden softness that Butler sits so well in, the basketball embodiment of a wink and a feint. In a city so saturated, with heat, with color, with life, his joy is flush. His physicality is paired now with a lightness that was missing when he had to play the anchor and it underscores the moves that have always made him dangerous — step-backs from the elbow of the three-point line; accelerated, incontestable drives to the rim; glinting steals that have him full-body arching in hairsbreadth gaps between guys who see him, for a second, as spectral — with an incendiary pluck. In Miami, he’s been having fun.

His production shows it. Free to do a little bit of everything Butler’s become the generous team player he’d been angling to get back to since his time in Chicago. His assists this season were sitting at a career high of 6.1 per game, his rebounding the best since his last season in Chicago. The versatility of the fast, young and rapacious roster around him makes it so Butler can lead as easily as he can downshift to support. Bam Adebayo, explosive, strong, with a biting effervescence, has come to trust Butler intuitively for all the time they spend bullying the paint. Adebayo will scrape out defenders by spiraling, coiling them close to his body, so Butler has a clear line for a bounce pass, a rocketing heave, anything that leaves Adebayo’s capable hands and ends up glancing Butler’s and into the basket. Likewise Butler has helped grow Adebayo’s two-man game with the ease of his give-and-go plays or setting deceptively simple pick and rolls for the big and graceful Adebayo to collect.

The remainder of the Heat’s young rotation has found in Butler an easy leader, most of them already knowing the essential and unyielding team system Butler arrived designated to lead. In how he will check over his shoulder on a clean breakaway, searchingly, Tyler Herro looks to Butler for the finish as much as where to start when it comes to navigating a career. Meyers Leonard has found a new physicality alongside Butler that didn’t seem relevant in Portland’s more dogged and less flashy lineups, and Duncan Robinson is determined to draw his blueprint as a small forward using Butler’s depth as his cornerstone measurement.

The inevitability of Butler in Miami, the fluidity of his present joy and the leisure of his effort, doesn’t mean a loosening of drive. That he’s reached a summit instead of a plateau. Throughout his career it has been the work that’s given him an edge or a specialty in competition, it has also been what he measures his accountability against. To run out of work would mean the winding down of his career. In that sense we should all be thankful that in Miami, with the Heat, under the neon, the hazy airbrushed sunsets in smeared coral and magenta, the slow and eventual surrender to sea level, Jimmy Butler will stay a perfectionist.