Jimmy Butler knows what’s coming on Saturday night in Minneapolis. He understands, relishes and even encourages the looming prospect of the chilliest welcome any visiting N.B.A. player is bound to receive this season.
“They’re going to boo me,” Butler said of the Minnesota fans who watched him force his way out of town via a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers in November — months after Butler led the woebegone Timberwolves to their first playoff berth in 14 seasons.
“I would boo me, too. I’m not going to lie to you.”
Now a key member of what is widely regarded as the most potent starting lineup on the N.B.A. map outside of Golden State, Butler will be back at Target Center for the first time since the trade turmoil that captivated the league for the first two months of the season.
Butler insisted he was unfazed by what awaited him, and went on to suggest that a number of his Philadelphia colleagues, as well as some longtime friends who plan to be in attendance, will partake in the inevitable hostilities.
“I might actually join in on the boos,” Butler said.
Those who have spent any time around the rugged swingman surely don’t doubt it. At a time when N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver openly frets about player happiness — and when standouts such as Boston’s Kyrie Irving and Golden State’s Kevin Durant routinely rail against the approach of some of the news media — Butler is the rare star who savors the game’s edgy side and has embraced his portrayal as a villain.
“Oh, I love it,” Butler said in a phone interview, throwing in a profanity for emphasis. “I love it. I love it. Who wants to be loved all the time?
“It’s O.K. It’s fine. I don’t need everybody to like me. I know who I am. I can’t say that enough. I know what I’m about. I know where my heart is. People will say, ‘He’s this way, or he’s that way,’ but nobody knows except for the people around me every day. Ask them and they’ll tell you differently.”
Elton Brand, the 76ers’ general manager, certainly falls within that category, describing Butler as “a caring person” who has quickly endeared himself “not only to his teammates but to our whole business operations staff and in the community.”
As a first-year general manager, Brand had his own reservations before going through with the first major move of his tenure, having watched chaos engulf the Timberwolves from afar — with no shortage of the noise coming from Butler himself after news leaked of the mid-September trade request he made in private.
But when Brand did his research, consulting former coaches and executives who had worked with Butler, along with former players he knew well who had firsthand knowledge, such as Nazr Mohammed and Mike Dunleavy Jr., he received little in the way of dissenting feedback.
“Even with the story that was reported, that wasn’t a big deal,” Brand said, referring to an ESPN report in January that asserted Butler “aggressively challenged” Philadelphia Coach Brett Brown. “He didn’t curse. He wasn’t loud. It was his reputation following him.”
Butler, 29, admitted in a recent interview with Yahoo Sports’s Chris Haynes that he is a “confrontational” teammate, but that he is also trying to be more selective in showing his blunt nature as he gets older. It should be noted that, as Brand found, Butler has also been a largely popular teammate in his stints with the Chicago Bulls and Team U.S.A. — and, frankly, with numerous Timberwolves apart from the All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns.
Butler took a hit in some precincts after informing the since-fired coach with whom he’s so closely associated — Tom Thibodeau — that he was no longer interested in trying to nurture Towns and Andrew Wiggins and wanted out of Minnesota. One example of the damage: Butler is one of the top 12 players in the Eastern Conference, but East coaches snubbed him as a reserve for the All-Star Game in February.
Yet Butler plays on, insisting he would “do nothing over” in Minnesota and reveling in the knowledge that for the first time in his career, he’s on a team capable of getting to the N.B.A. finals.
“I will tell you that we’ve got a lot of talent,” Butler said.
The Sixers haven’t established the required consistency to earn the label of East favorites, going 10-6 since the All-Star break with middling placement in both offensive (18th) and defensive (12th) efficiency in that span. Butler, though, is doing what he can to make it work, sacrificing in a manner that would seem to invalidate some of the criticism.
Philadelphia followed its trade for Butler on Nov. 12 by acquiring Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 6, giving Brown two All-Star-caliber players to team with the dynamic duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and the shooter extraordinaire J.J. Redick. In the 20 games since, when those five players share the floor, Butler has scaled back more than anyone, taking fewer shots (46) than the other four — with Embiid by far in the lead (95 shots).
Of course, in fourth quarters, Butler has emerged as the most reliable offensive option of the quintet, shooting 12 for 18 when all five play together, highlighted by last week’s game-winning jumper against Boston after the Celtics had won six of the teams’ seven previous meetings. The natural drop in Butler’s per-game averages this season, playing for such a loaded team, tends to overshadow the fact that he still ranks 16th in the league in a category (Real Plus-Minus) strongly associated with team success.
“He’s a special talent at closing and winning games — and not just offensively,” Brand said. “He’s just a winner.”
An indication of Butler’s true standing in the game will come July 1, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent for the first time. Brand has said repeatedly that he hopes to keep Philadelphia’s new core four together, but Butler is expected to attract serious interest from both Los Angeles teams as well as the Nets. The Clippers’ special adviser Jerry West, to name one prominent fan, is said to be a longtime admirer of Butler’s two-way impact.
Not that Butler is prepared to discuss much about the future. He brushed off free-agency talk in our conversation and claimed that he didn’t even know Minnesota was on this week’s calendar until I told him.
He stuck mostly to periphery subjects. Those include Butler’s devotion to playing dominoes and Uno, his friendship with “the best soccer player in the world” — Paris St.-Germain’s Brazilian star Neymar — and the trusty American football he travels around with. Butler said he plans to toss the football with other 76ers with greater regularity during the playoffs.
“I’m telling you — it takes away some of that pressure,” Butler said.
Thibodeau still lives in Minneapolis in the wake of his Jan. 6 firing, but politely declined to comment about Butler’s visit. Butler, for his part, continues to refer to Thibodeau as “my guy.” He said they maintained regular contact.
Although Butler remains unwilling to dig deeply into the reasons he pushed so hard for an exit so soon after the dramatic impact he had in his lone full season with the Wolves, give him this: He is prepared to take whatever pent-up frustration has been stored up for him in the Twin Cities.
Rather than ask for forgiveness from the locals, or even civility, Butler said: “I did what I did. I’m cool with it. I’m in a good place.”
He has only one request for the basketball public: Pick someone else to win the East besides the up-and-down Sixers.
“Don’t pick us,” Butler said. “I hope people say we’re going to lose in the first round. I don’t want anybody to think we’re that good because I think it makes us play a little bit harder.”