'Risk Is Just the Price of Admission': Jimmy Butler Gamble No-Brainer for Sixers

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist INovember 11, 2018

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 02:  Jimmy Butler #23 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on against the Golden State Warriors during an NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on November 2, 2018 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Jimmy Butler saga came to its merciful conclusion Saturday, with the news that the Minnesota Timberwolves had shipped the disgruntled four-time All-Star to the Philadelphia 76ers in a blockbuster deal.

In some ways, it was a no-brainer. For the Sixers, a third star was needed to complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and there were no guarantees in 2019 free agency. Unless you are an elite team in an elite market, you get your stars however you can. And unless that route is free agency, there are always risks.

The Oklahoma City Thunder wrote the blueprint with Paul George, and the Sixers are following it. The difference being, new general manager Elton Brand must be awfully confident the risk of losing Butler to free agency is minimal, considering he surrendered two starters in Dario Saric and Robert Covington in the deal.

According to ESPN.com, the two sides have "every intention" of finalizing a multiyear contract this summer after Butler presumably opts out of the final year of his deal ($19.8 million). Financially, the difference is staggering: Philly will be able to offer Butler a five-year deal worth a projected $190 million—one year and about $50 million more than anyone else.

Then again, there are five months of basketball to be playedplus, the Sixers hope, a deep run into the postseason. And while Butler (a creator, a competitor and a defensive stopper) would seem to be an ideal fit alongside Embiid and Simmons, these star trios are never foolproof. George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony went just so-so. The jury is still out on Anthony, James Harden and Chris Paul.

The flip side? For the Sixers, who endured years of endless tanking in the hopes of landing just one elite star, the risk of doing nothing far outweighed the risk of adding Butler. Getting a player of his caliber is rarer than ever, because they're all on the same teams in today's star-hoarding NBA.

Think about it in the context of "The Process," former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie's master plan to tank like nobody had ever tanked before. Hinkie-led teams won a grand total of 47 games over three seasons from 2013-14 to 2015-16, all in the name of accumulating as many lottery picks as possible in the hopes of hitting it big with just one.

"People commit to years of tanking to get just one top-tier player," a longtime NBA executive told Bleacher Report. "And that's only a 25 percent chance in a perfect draft."

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
Joel Embiid and Ben SimmonsChris Szagola/Associated Press/Associated Press

If that doesn't put the risk the Sixers took in perspective, nothing will.

"Risk is just the price of admission to get in the game," the executive said.

But it doesn't mean there isn't any.

"There's a lot," a current Eastern Conference executive told B/R. "Depending on his future contract, whether he behaves and whether he actually stays or leaves."

The second part of that clause, Butler's behavior, may be the trickiest to navigate. As one person who has a history with Butler told me recently, as good as he is on the court, "He can be a huge pain in the ass."

In his candid conversation with The Athletic's Sam Amick, Butler revealed just how difficult he can be, and one exchange in particular jumped out.

The interview occurred Friday night, after Minnesota closed out a West Coast road trip in Sacramento with its fifth straight loss, falling to 4-9. It would be Butler's last game with the Timberwolves.

Q: You played 41 minutes tonight...
A: That [expletive] has to stop.
Q: Why?
A: We've got [expletive] 14 other guys.

Well, then...

If Butler couldn't stomach Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau's heavy minutes, how do you suppose he'll respond to the analytics-driven approach to substitution patterns the Sixers have adopted under coach Brett Brown, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe detailed?

There will be some issues to iron out.

"It's a great deal for Philly if they think they can rein Jimmy in," a prominent agent told B/R. "Brett Brown is pretty good with personnel, pretty good with managing that stuff. But with Jimmy, don't forget that dealing with people is not something he does well."

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Then there's this: What does the Butler acquisition mean for the most recent No. 1 overall pick acquired as a result of Hinkie's scorched-earth "Process"? What becomes of Markelle Fultz?

By sending JJ Redick to the bench and replacing him with Fultz this season, the Sixers seemed to be doubling down on the notion of getting their third superstar from within. It wasn't working; the fact that a perfectly potent starting lineup was broken up to this end didn't help the optics.

My starting lineup Wednesday in Orlando (the earliest Butler is expected to make his debut) would include Redick...not Fultz. Now that the third star is in the building, there's no need to continue force-feeding Fultz in the hopes of what might be.

By pulling off this deal, the Sixers entered unfamiliar territory. After years of lose-forever mode, Philly now finds itself in win-now mode.

Which brings us to the final aspect of the risk-reward equation: following the money.

Assume for a moment that everything goes perfectly, Butler behaves and the Sixers make a deep playoff run in a wide-open East. Then assume Butler cashes in on the extra $50 million or so and returns to the Sixers as a free agent next summer.

"When Simmons is up," another Eastern Conference executive said, "that's three max contracts. Wow."

From years of barely fielding a competitive team to going deep into the luxury tax? Whether that's a validation of The Process or an indictment of it doesn't really matter. But it tells you everything you need to know about how hard the Sixers are rolling the dice. They're all in.

Is there risk? There always is. In this case, it's a risk that anyone in the Sixers' shoes would've gladly taken.

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