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Inside the evolving conversation surrounding Jimmy Butler

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A year ago, Jimmy Butler was changing teams for the third time in three years. He didn’t make the All-Star Game for the first time in four years, and he had developed a reputation as an irritant or a malcontent or a difficult teammate — or all three.

These days, Joel Embiid tweets as if Butler is the one who got away. The Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves could be watching Butler’s Eastern Conference finals run with the Miami Heat and wondering what might have been.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra and Butler’s Heat teammates have repeatedly praised his leadership, especially in the bubble. Butler has often said he doesn’t pay attention to what is said or written about him, but those close to him know that’s not true.

Butler hears what is said, and it has motivated him throughout his rise to basketball stardom.

Here’s how Jimmy Butler has been discussed by those who have lived the journey alongside him.

ESPN Daily Podcast: What drives Jimmy Butler


From the night the Bulls drafted him No. 30 overall in 2011, Butler brought a chip on his shoulder with him. The entire course of his basketball life centered around the premise that hard work will take him wherever he wants to go. While he initially struggled to find his place in coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation, Butler had no problem clicking in what was already a tight Bulls locker room.

Early in his Chicago career, the conversation surrounding Butler focused on a hard-nosed role player who was a piece to a larger puzzle, not the focal point of a contender.

Bulls general manager Gar Forman, on draft night 2011: “[Butler] is a guy that’s a real fit for us. … The type of makeup and character he has, I think he’ll fit in our locker room and with the culture we’re creating.”

Bulls guard Derrick Rose, in December 2011: “He has a lot of confidence, quiet confidence, where when he’s out there, he’s always doing something good. He can defend. Plays smart, man, especially being a rookie.”

Thibodeau, in February 2012: “We’ve liked him from the start. We love his attitude and approach and the way he works every day, his demeanor. And we know he’s going to get better and better. … As he gets to learn the league and the tendencies of the players and the teams, he’s only going to get better and better. But he’s got a very serious approach to the game.”

Thibodeau, in March 2014: “The best thing about Jimmy is his demeanor. He will do it over and over and over again, and he doesn’t complain about playing the big minutes.”

Buzz Williams, Butler’s college coach at Marquette, in November 2014: “He’s not arrogant. He believes in the value of work. He’s way smarter than he ever has gotten credit for. He studies way more than anybody could ever think. He takes great pride in his craft and he always has. … He was never an all-conference player. He was never an honorable mention all-conference player. He wasn’t first-team. He wasn’t on a list.”

While the Bulls’ staff appreciated Butler’s tenacity, there was still doubt throughout the organization that he would develop the type of offensive game needed to be a permanent solution at shooting guard on an already loaded roster with an MVP in Rose.

Then, after years of taking a back seat, Butler exceeded even the most optimistic expectations about his ceiling — a better player than his most ardent supporters expected.

Butler turned down a four-year, more than $40 million offer before the 2014-15 season, just a few million shy of what he and his representatives were asking for, because he believed he could eventually make more. He was right. Butler signed a max contract worth over $90 million the following summer. After inking a superstar deal, questions surfaced surrounding Butler’s leadership.

Williams, in November 2014: “Jimmy has lived his life betting on himself. And so when you say, ‘We’re going to give you four years, $42 million,’ Jimmy doesn’t process it as four years, $42 million. He doesn’t look at it that way because he’s always bet on himself. And so if there’s a question of, here’s the option, take the guarantee or bet on yourself, well, he doesn’t know what the guarantee is. He’s always going to bet on himself. But that’s not specific to the Bulls, that’s not specific to the NBA; that’s specific to his heart.”

Former Bulls center Joakim Noah, in October 2017: “Jimmy went from the 15th player on the team, the last player coming off the bench, to the star player of the team in four years. When that happens, I’m sure that there was an adjustment period for him. There was an adjustment period for the organization. And there was definitely a change of culture.”

Tension that had been building between Butler and some of his teammates over the years finally boiled over when Butler and Dwyane Wade ripped some of the Bulls’ younger players after blowing a late lead to the Atlanta Hawks in January 2017. The decision to vent their frustration publicly angered both the Bulls’ front office and the locker room.

Bulls guard Rajon Rondo, in January 2017: “My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”


When Butler was dealt to Minnesota in the summer of 2017, he was viewed as the missing piece to a potential contender. With former No. 1 overall picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as support and Thibodeau coaching, Butler was introduced with high expectations at a news conference inside the Mall of America. “Big three, big whatever,” Butler said at the time. “Let’s get some big wins.”

Towns, in June 2017: “This is what dynasties are made of. When you put players together with a bunch of talent and they mesh well, it makes dynasties. We’re talking about a top-15 player in the league.”

Thibodeau, in June 2017: “He’s one of the best two-way players. Watching him become a three-time All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist, All-NBA, it’s a tribute to the way he works and who he is as a person. He’s a great person, he’s a great leader and we’re thrilled to have him.”

Butler found early success with his new team, and the Timberwolves qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. But soon after the season ended, Butler made it clear to Thibodeau that he wanted out of Minnesota, in part because he wasn’t convinced that Towns and Wiggins, both of whom struggled with consistency the previous season, were going to put in the work needed to become championship-caliber players, according to sources.

The frustration that had been lingering since early in his tenure in Minnesota exploded during a heated training camp practice when Butler challenged teammates and executives. It set the stage for a deal shipping him to the Philadelphia 76ers a month into the 2018-19 season and provided a new narrative around Butler’s work ethic — one that cast him as perhaps too aggressive.

Timberwolves center Taj Gibson, just before Butler was dealt in 2018: “It was like a right hook. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know. I thought — it looked like from everything things were going good.”

Thibodeau, in November 2018: “I have known Jimmy a long time. Obviously, we felt when we had the opportunity to get him that we had to take advantage of that. It is rare when you have the opportunity to get a top-10 player. We knew there was risk involved with it.”

Towns, in March 2019: “We don’t know what was said behind [closed doors]. I don’t know what the front office told Jimmy. I don’t know what Jimmy told the front office. I just think that both parties came to a conclusion at the end of the day. If he wanted to be traded, as he wanted to, as he got, I wish it could have happened quicker. We would have had more time to get our team ready. We would have had more time to get our culture ready, our season ready.”


For the second time in 18 months, Butler was sent to a new team. As was the case in Minnesota, Butler found himself in the middle of two well-established young stars. His reputation from the Minnesota fallout lingered as he stepped into a combustible team with championship aspirations.

76ers GM Elton Brand, in November 2018: “In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, we have two of the NBA’s top-20 players. Now we’ve added a third top-20 player in Jimmy Butler, who is one of the NBA’s very best on both ends of the floor.”

76ers owner Josh Harris, in November 2018: “This is a city that loves fierce competitors and those who will push against all obstacles to find a way to win. That’s the ethic that we’ve built our team on [and what Butler does] every night on the court.”

76ers coach Brett Brown, in January 2019: “When you come into a situation with Ben and Joel and JJ [Redick], it doesn’t always equal immediate comfort. As I’ve said to all of our guys over the years, you can’t always win on your terms.”

After reports of early issues with Brown, Butler found his rhythm and developed a strong bond with Embiid. But the Sixers endured a second-round loss to Kawhi Leonard and the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, and that set up Butler’s exit from Philadelphia later that summer.

“Hell yeah [the last year] was difficult,” Butler acknowledged during a March appearance on “The JJ Redick podcast.” “It was so different. And on any given day, me as a person, as a player, I didn’t know who the f— was in charge. I think that was my biggest thing.”

76ers center Embiid, to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in October 2019: “It was a big loss, because me and him, we got to the point where we’re really close, we’re still close, we talk a lot and that’s my guy. That’s my brother forever. I wish he was on the team because I feel like the relationship that I built with him could have gone a long way. Jimmy, when it was the fourth quarter, we knew the ball was going to be [in] either me or Jimmy’s hands. And I knew I could count on him too.”


Spoelstra, the Heat coach, had heard the stories about Butler’s previous stops but valued Butler’s talent and work ethic. After Butler committed to sign with Miami, the Heat worked out a sign-and-trade deal that brought the mercurial All-Star to South Beach, where he found acceptance in a like-minded organization.

Spoelstra, in February: “We believe in Jimmy and what he’s about. We’ve had a lot of guys like that, that probably if they’re not in this system, probably people think differently of them. Udonis Haslem. I just think Jimmy is the 6-7 version of Alonzo Mourning. Or the 6-7 version of Dwyane Wade. These guys boil over with competitive fire because they care.”

Heat forward Haslem, in February: “He’s just one of our type of guys. His DNA falls in line with who we are and what we represent as an organization and the kind of guys that we want to bring in.”

Heat forward Duncan Robinson, in February: “I just don’t think it’s very common that you see a star player like that be willing to defer, particularly to younger guys. We had a game where he took three shots, but we won and he did everything else. He just does whatever it takes to win.”

Heat guard Goran Dragic, in February: “We’ve built a great chemistry, we talk a lot, and I’m happy to have him on the same team. All these years he was guarding me and it was not fun. He’s a great two-way player … tremendous team player who shoots straight up, tell you if you’re not doing your job, and that’s something I really like.”

Heat forward Andre Iguodala, in February: “When he was in other places, he got knocked for saying he was disruptive towards his other teammates, but you put him around some guys that actually want to get to the grind, what did he do for them? He upped their level of play, right?”

Heat center Meyers Leonard, in September: “He is the ultimate competitor. Everybody wondered, ‘Oh, well, is he too competitive? Or is he an a–hole?’ No, he’s not. He’s a winner.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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