Josh Peter of USA Today looked at former Lakers coach Pat Riley’s success with the Miami Heat, with Johnson noting how Butler’s mindset is similar to his.
“Team first,” Johnson told USA Today. “Winning first. Making your teammates first. All those things were first for me and first for (Butler).
“That’s why the Heat are in the NBA Finals, and so Jimmy has lifted the play of all his teammates around him. He’s made them better. And because he’s the hardest worker on the team, those guys follow that. He’s tough as nails, so they follow that.”
Riley designed the system that allowed Johnson to flourish, with the pair capturing a total of five NBA championships during their time together.
“They knew I was all about winning,” Johnson said. “I didn’t care how many points I scored. I didn’t care how many shots I took. I just wanted to win. … So that’s how we are alike. And then we could take the game over when we wanted to take it over when it was winning time.”
Riley was an assistant to Paul Westhead when Johnson won Finals MVP honors as a rookie in 1980. After Westhead was dismissed in November 1981, Riley took over and cemented his partnership with Johnson.
Living up to his nickname, Johnson continued to provide the Lakers with someone who could play any position and provide major results on the court.
Unlike Johnson, Butler has yet to be part of a championship squad. That’s something the Heat superstar hopes to rectify in this year’s NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets.
Butler has played his entire career with an edge to his game. That mentality was likely forged when was the last pick in the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft.
During Butler’s 12 seasons in the league, his intense approach has rubbed opponents and even some teammates the wrong way. He played for three other teams prior to joining the Heat in 2019.
In contrast, Johnson was the top overall pick of the 1979 NBA Draft and played his entire career in a Lakers uniform. One continuing aspect of his career was the fact that he wasn’t afraid to smile on the court and exude happiness.
Of course, that image belies the fact that Johnson possessed the same level of intensity as Butler. That enduring passion led to him winning not only five titles with the Lakers as a player, but also making four other trips to the NBA Finals.
Given his close relationship with Riley, Johnson is undoubtedly hoping that Riley can add to his array of titles. If that does occur, Butler will finally fill a gaping hole in his outstanding basketball legacy by winning his first NBA title.