Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler share a unique relationship built on their love of hard work, the grind, and a four-letter word that starts with F. The two men are inextricably linked, dating back to their time together with the Chicago Bulls, where Thibodeau coached the team that selected Butler as the 30th pick in the 2011 draft. Butler ultimately became the type of two-way player that earned Thibodeau’s trust, and the coach went on to build the Minnesota Timberwolves around him after getting fired by the Bulls. Butler famously forced his way out of Minnesota, leading to Thibodeau’s firing from the franchise.
Since their most recent breakup, Butler has landed with the Miami Heat, leading them to within two games of an NBA title during an unlikely run in the Orlando bubble in 2020. Thibodeau, hired by the New York Knicks in 2020, became Coach of the Year in 2021 and has the team back in the conference semifinals for just the second time in 23 years. The Knicks and Heat’s current rivalry features Thibodeau and Butler as the main characters. Thibodeau has acknowledged the things that stood out about Butler early in his career were his toughness and competitiveness, but he never knew how good he would become. Butler’s defining All-Star characteristic is how hard he plays.
Butler’s rise on the court was concurrent with a shift in his personality off of it, increasingly isolated thanks to a burgeoning ego that had swelled with his success. This was a precursor of things to come for Butler and Thibodeau, with Butler’s rise within the organization causing friction within the Bulls’ locker room. Players still respected Thibodeau, but his methods had worn on a proud group of players who grew tired of his demanding approach over five years. After the 2014-15 season, Paxson and Forman fired Thibodeau, and after the 2016-17 season, Butler was in line for a new five-year max deal that he could have signed as early as the summer of 2018. But, Chicago hesitated for the second time, unsure whether it wanted to commit to Butler in the future for that kind of money, leading Butler to force his way out of the organization.