Timberwolves forward James Johnson only got to play with Jimmy Butler for a little more than half a season.
But when the Wolves visited Miami on Feb. 26 after Johnson came to Minnesota via trade from the Heat, the 11-year veteran had effusive praise for Butler.
“I loved him,” Johnson said. “I love his work ethic. I love what he stands for. It sometimes can be misconstrued. Me, personally, one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
It speaks to how well things were going for the Heat in Butler’s first year with the team. There were no leaks to the media about practice tirades or chewing out coaches in film sessions as there were in Butler’s previous stops with Minnesota and Philadelphia.
No calling out his coach for not coaching hard enough like there was in Chicago under Fred Hoiberg. Butler was happy and the drama, coincidentally enough, faded away. Winning followed in its wake as Butler and the Heat have now advanced to the Eastern Conference finals after upending favored Milwaukee in five games.
Later in that February interview, Johnson also touched on why Butler likely tore through the Wolves the way he did.
“He’s not for everybody,” Johnson said. “But I think what made him a great teammate for this situation, this organization and to me is he came into something that he felt was like him. … Jimmy, when he got here, was totally different than anything I’ve ever read on him.”
Two years ago, it was easier to dismiss Butler’s parting shots about the Wolves when all the drama and media leaks around his exit played out like a bad soap opera. Butler was cast as the disgruntled star, the bad teammate, forcing his was out on his own selfish terms.
But it was always curious around that time that none of Butler’s teammates, those who were a part of the infamous scrimmage with the third-stringers, never came out and said those things. Instead, others like Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Tyus Jones said they still had good relationships with Butler.
Nobody was ever mad, at least publicly, at Butler for forcing his way out of town the way he did. Some of that might have had to do with the fact that athletes generally frown upon those who speak on another athlete’s financial situation, and Butler had an impending new contract on his agenda.
But if Butler was such a bad teammate, why didn’t anybody want to say so?
"When [Butler] was in other places, he got knocked for [speaking his mind]," Heat forward Andre Iguodala told ESPN in February. "He was disruptive toward 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?”
It just took a while for Butler to find the team that was going to embrace his demanding style.
The two seasons since he left Minnesota have shown maybe Butler does know a thing or two about winning at a high level in the NBA.
He nearly led the 76ers to the Eastern Conference finals last season against the eventual champion Raptors. The Heat could very well win a title this season.
He received criticism for going to Miami when it seemed he was with a contender in Philadelphia. Now the 76ers are contemplating their future as an organization and the Heat are a step away from the finals.
Butler was chided for forcing his way out of Minnesota, and the Wolves went through an overhaul after his absence, firing Tom Thibodeau and bringing in Gersson Rosas to run the basketball operations.
Some of that overhaul you could say was tied to Butler’s exit, and that his decision not to re-up with the Wolves kneecapped the organization and Thibodeau’s plans. But it was never a good mix of personalities between Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, who Butler questioned concerning his work ethic on multiple occasions.
Butler is the unquestioned leader of the Heat. That also wasn’t the case in Philadelphia with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, or in Minnesota with Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
And the Heat have the front-office stability and support of Butler to let him act how he wants. Veterans and rookies like Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn have bought in, and the results have been evident.
The move turned out to be a smart move so far.
"Don't nobody be on their own agenda here," Butler told ESPN. “It's not about stats. It's not about fame. It's not about money. It's not about none of that. It's legit about winning a championship, and we're capable of it. It's punched into our minds every single day."
Butler has been searching for the team that can take his punches for the last three-plus seasons. He finally found it in Miami.