CHICAGO - Jimmy Butler is in the NBA Finals.
It has been a little more than three years since the Chicago Bulls traded Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves on the night of the 2017 NBA draft and launched themselves into a rebuild. Butler is on his third team since, but he finally has found his match, leading the Miami Heat to the Finals on Sunday night in an Eastern Conference finals clincher against the Boston Celtics.
The Bulls, meanwhile, still are mired in that same rebuild. They haven't made the playoffs without Butler, and their record wasn't good enough this season to qualify for the NBA's restart in Florida.
That makes Butler's ascension particularly tantalizing to watch for Bulls fans. The Heat tore through the Eastern Conference as a No. 5 seed and were able to pull off what the Bulls bet was not likely. When they traded Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for pieces that always were unlikely to live up to his elite talent - Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and essentially a pick swap to move up from No. 16 to select Lauri Markkanen with the No. 7 pick - the Bulls were making a gamble that a team centered around Butler would not be able to reach these heights.
This postseason has made it clear the Bulls lost that gamble.
The mistake of trading away a franchise player in the prime of his career can sometimes take a long time to recover from. Indeed, the Bulls already have started making steps to do so. They turned over their organization to a new regime led by vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas, who has injected some life into the rebuild since getting hired in April to oversee this unprecedented offseason, including bringing in new coach Billy Donovan.
The Bulls roster is young with some talent and upside, with another high draft pick on the way and salary cap flexibility, but ultimately the challenge for Karnisovas will be to transform a roster that has not won a lot of games. In the three years since Butler's departure, the Bulls have won 27, 22 and 22 (out of 60) games and missed the playoffs in each season.
The NBA is a league driven by star power and despite the criticism Butler consistently has been among the top 15-20 players in the league with the ability to play like a top-10 player at his best. He worked his way from the end of the Bulls bench into an All-Star and wanted to remain in Chicago to build a winner.
Perhaps most confusing about the Bulls' approach is that they never really attempted to build around Butler. His rise to stardom began as injuries started to derail Derrick Rose's time in Chicago and while Butler helped lead those teams to the playoffs, they were not crafted to play to his strengths. Rather than build a team around him, they seemed intent on trading him before 2017, nearly pulling off a deal the year prior during the draft.
In the one season Butler played in Chicago without Rose in 2016-17, the Bulls put together their failed "three alphas" team of Butler, an aging Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Still, that team jumped out to a 2-0 lead against the Celtics in a first round playoff series before an injury to Rondo derailed those chances and ended the experiment. The Bulls lost in the first round and Butler never got another chance to prove that he could lead the Bulls.
It leaves Bulls fans to wonder what if. What if the Bulls had attempted to create a team that ran its offense through Butler and surrounded him with shooters like the Heat, who were second in the NBA in 3-point percentage this season?
On the same night the Bulls were punting on a future with Butler, the Heat were drafting Bam Adebayo with the 14th overall pick. Maybe the Bulls' player development staff would not have been able to foster Adebayo's growth in the years since, but that represents the gap the Bulls have to make up if they want to get to the same position as the Heat.
And what if the Bulls were able to see Butler as the leader who wanted to create a winning culture - even if he rubbed some people the wrong way? Would they be reaping the benefits the way Miami is instead of trying to find a way out of a stagnant rebuild?
Yes, the Bulls will have company in the Timberwolves and the Philadelphia 76ers in kicking themselves for allowing Butler to get away, but they were the only team that seemed eager to enter into a Butler-free future well before they pulled off the trade. And now while they are searching for a new direction, Butler begins the Finals on Wednesday night with a sense of vindication.
"I think that's what this whole thing comes down to - being wanted, being appreciated for what you bring to the table," Butler told reporters Sunday night. "We're not for everybody. I'm not for everybody. But here I am. The group of guys that we have, we're for one another. My leadership style works here."
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