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D’Angelo: Jimmy Butler didn’t need to hear the Heat’s pitch, he didn’t need to see Pat Riley’s rings, he knew he belonged from the start

Tom D'Angelo
Palm Beach Post
Heat players hold up the Eastern Conference Championship trophy after defeating the Celtics on Sunday night in Lake Buena Vista.

Pat Riley never even had a chance to throw his bag of rings onto the table before Jimmy Butler had something to say:

“By the way, I'm in,” he said.

It was the summer of 2019, and members of the Heat recruiting party – Riley; coach Erik Spoelstra; cap guru and the most underrated executive in the NBA, Andy Elisburg; among others – were confused.

“What? We haven't even given you our pitch yet,” they said.

Jimmy Butler didn’t need the speech about the culture. He didn’t need to know how the Heat, about $32 million above the salary cap entering free agency, would fit him in.

He certainly didn’t need to see the rings.

Butler just knew what he had to do to escape the mismanaged Philadelphia 76ers, who were in their seventh — or was it eighth? Ninth? — year of The Process.

Exactly one year to the day that Butler was introduced in Miami, he became as important as any acquisition of the Riley era, joining names like Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic.

Of course, add Dwyane Wade if you are including draft picks.

Pulling off the stunner of the Summer of ’19 is just one piece – albeit the most important – of Miami’s return to the Finals, which start Wednesday in the Lake Buena Vista bubble against LeBron and his Lakers.

Following the Heat’s 125-113 victory Sunday over the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final, Spoelstra didn’t start with Butler when documenting this journey back to the top following the Big Three era. He started in 2015 — seven months after LeBron backed off his promise and returned to Cleveland — when the Heat traded for Dragic.

“This was a promise that Pat and I made to Goran Dragic six years ago that we would have a contending team,” Spoelstra said. “No one would know those turn of events, a bunch of events that we couldn't control, and he stayed with it, stayed with it, and we are able to build some solid pieces around him.”

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Opinion: The 'heart and soul' of the Heat, Bam Adebayo is transforming into a superstar

Miami Heat ready for LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers

The moves to get here have been dizzying, not unlike any other Riley rebuild, but let’s start with what may become the second most important draft pick in Heat history, Bam Adebayo.

The man selected 14th overall in 2017 has become the antithesis of the player he succeeded at center, Hassan Whiteside. He allowed Miami to dump the self-centered Whiteside and turn over the position to a consummate young pro who has blossomed into one of the more feared centers in the league.

Adebayo is humble, thankful and shies away from any credit for Miami’s resurgence despite being a central figure in that rise. And he did something after Miami’s Game 5 loss to the Celtics that is not in Whiteside’s DNA — he demanded all the blame be placed on his shoulders.

If Whiteside had a stat line of 13 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, he would be saying he did his job.

And while Spoelstra made it clear that Adebayo was not the reason the series was extended to six games, he loved the gesture.

“He is a great, elite competitor,” Spoelstra said. “I love everything that he's about.”

Butler, Dragic, Adebayo – the new Big Three of the Heat.

The Heat like to tout their culture — and there is something to that — but let’s face it, every winning organization has a winning culture. More specifically, it’s about structure and stability.

Take a look at the most successful franchises in sports over the past 20 years. The Patriots have won six Super Bowls and played in seven other AFC title games with one coach, and one voice, at the top: Bill Belichick. The Spurs have won five NBA championships and have been to four other conference finals with one coach, and one voice, at the top: Gregg Popovich.

The Heat now join the Spurs and Bulls with six Finals appearances, seventh most in NBA history. And although Miami has had three coaches the past 20 years, there has been one voice at the top: Riley.

Spoelstra is an extension of Riley. So, when he said he had to “calm things down” early this season when it came to players trying to outwork each other, you know it was serious. Riley is famous for his grueling training camps, practices and conditioning drills. Imagine Riley, or Spoelstra, asking players to back off?

“Everybody is trying to beat each other into the gym,” Spo said Sunday about early season workouts. “All right, that's getting ridiculous now, how early guys wanted to get in there and work.”

Jimmy Butler looks to pass against Kemba Walker and the Celtics in Miami's clinching win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The catalyst was the newcomer: Jimmy Butler.

Stories of Butler’s competitiveness are legendary. He does not care what others think, even teammates, some of whom he has offended and dissociated himself from if they didn’t have his drive and thirst to compete.

Oh, well.

“You want to run a practice and compete, Jimmy is going to make sure that that's going to go to a different level,” Spoelstra said. “Because he can't do anything without competing fiercely. And doing whatever it takes to win.”

Dragic, Adebayo, drafting Tyler Herro, signing Kelly Olynyk, acquiring players such as Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala at the trade deadline, and developing players such as Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn … every piece has been important.

But the best fit and the most important move was finding a way to bring in Butler.

“What this whole thing comes down to is being wanted, being appreciated for what you bring to the table,” Butler said Sunday. “And as I've said time and time again, as Spo constantly says, we're not for everybody, I'm not for everybody.

“But here I am. The guys we have, we're for one another. We're going to constantly compete for one another, and this is home for me.”