Jimmy Butler's 'Really Hard to Play With,' but 76ers Hope Talent Outweighs Risk

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2018

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler (23) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 5, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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For months now, head coach Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers have been telling us they don't think they're as good as they should be.

"I think that another high-level free agent is required. … I think we need help to win a championship," Brown told reporters the day after the undermanned Boston Celtics eliminated them from the 2018 conference semifinals in five games.

The original hope was to lure an A-lister over the summer, but the Sixers struck out. Next, Brown decided to break up his wrecking ball of a starting lineup so he could give Markelle Fultz, last year's enigmatic No. 1 pick, more run alongside the Sixers' stars. Maybe, the Sixers thought, Fultz could start resembling the player who vaulted up draft boards the previous summer and help bridge the gap between them and Boston and Toronto.

The change hasn't worked. Fultz has flashed glimpses of an intriguing skill set, but it has become clear that if he ever manages to fulfill his potential, it won't be anytime soon. Even worse, his refusal and inability to shoot from the perimeter has made him unplayable alongside Ben Simmons. In fact, the Sixers have been outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions in the 137 minutes the two have shared the floor.

The Sixers might have been 8-5 entering Saturday's game against the Memphis Grizzlies, but management came to the realization that the roster had too many holes. Chemistry is great, and schemes can add a few wins here and there, but talent wins out in the NBA, and the Sixers didn't have enough.

If they had any intention of competing for championships—of validating all those years of losing—they'd need to find a third star to slot alongside Simmons and Joel Embiid.

Jimmy Butler shooting over Joel Embiid.
Jimmy Butler shooting over Joel Embiid.David Sherman/Getty Images

On Saturday, they did just that. Jimmy Butler is now a Sixer. Dario Saric and Robert Covington no longer are. (Officially, it was Butler and Justin Patton to the Sixers for Saric, Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick.) Five years since former general manager Sam Hinkie tore everything down, the Sixers now have the pieces to contend for a title.

That the Sixers felt the need to go get Butler shows how desperate they felt. His issues in Chicago and then Minnesota are well-chronicled. "He was the problem in both those situations," one scout who recently gathered intelligence on Butler for his team said. "He's really hard to play with. He's very demanding, very hard on his teammates."

Injecting such a presence into any locker room would be dangerous—let alone one boasting a pair of headstrong stars. "You can tell they have some major chemistry issues," a rival executive who watched the Sixers recently said. Perhaps he was overstating it, but it's become an open secret that Embiid and Simmons aren't best of friends. 

Embiid is an introvert who, going back to his high school days, has struggled with being told what to do. Simmons is also quiet, and there are already questions about how much time he devotes to his craft.

"There's a difference between clocking in for work and engaging in the process of getting better and working at your craft, and I think he's done an unbelievable job," JJ Redick told reporters in October. That was meant as a compliment, but it also revealed how some of Simmons' teammates viewed his work ethic coming into the year. And it's fair to say Fultz doesn't seem to boast the type of personality that will respond well to fiery barbs.

How Butler fits into this atmosphere will be fascinating to watch, even if Brown believes there's nothing to worry about.

"It's not like we don't have a way we behave and how we play," Brown said. "It's on display. We've been doing this for a while.

"This thing just didn't happen. There were rumblings going on for a while. ... So we all dug in. We're very protective of who we bring in the program. It's not like anybody is welcome. You do your homework, and he for sure is welcome."

The status of Butler's contract represents another risk. He's slated to become an unrestricted free agent next summer (assuming, as we all do, he declines his $19.8 million option). Either the Sixers just gave up two young players for a five-month rental, or they hold up their end of whatever wink-wink agreement they no doubt came to prior to pulling the trigger on this trade and sign him to a five-year, $190 million supermax extension. In doing so, they'd be locking up a 29-year-old wing with thousands of Thibodeau miles on his odometer through the 2024-25 season.

If you're the Sixers, do you want to be paying a mid-30s Jimmy Butler $35 million? They don't have a choice if they want this trade to be any more than a rental, but it wouldn't be a surprise if three years from now we're viewing the remaining money on that contract as an albatross.

Yet Butler is so good that none of this might matter. His elite two-way skill set is exactly what the Sixers were lacking. 

On offense, Butler is a dynamic scorer who can generate looks for himself and others in the half court. That's something this Sixers group—just 19th in the NBA in half-court scoring, according to Cleaning the Glass—has lacked.

Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

Simmons does most of his damage in transition. His clunky jump shot—and, like Fultz, his refusal to shoot from the perimeter—makes him easily guardable in pick-and-rolls. Embiid is great on the low block, but it's hard to match the league's top offenses by relying on bully-ball post-ups.

Brown has done all he can by installing a ball-movement-heavy scheme, but that can only cover up so much. A good example: No team has launched fewer corner three-pointers—the type of high-efficiency shot usually generated off dribble penetration—per game this year, according to Cleaning the Glass. And the Sixers ranked second-to-last in that category last season.

Butler can solve these problems. His jump shot is steady enough—37.8 percent from three on 4.5 attempts per game this year—that he'll fit snugly off the ball when Simmons and Embiid go to work.

More important, he's dynamic as a ball-handler in pick-and-roll and isolation situations. The 13.4 drives he's averaged per game is the 14th-best mark in the league. It's also four more than Simmons, the Sixers' top player in this category, has averaged.

This could pay dividends at the end of close games. It's in these moments when the Sixers' attack, having to rely on a complex two-man game between Embiid and Redick, often stalls.

"They have their closer now," one executive said Sunday.

Losing Covington will hurt the Sixers defense, though an argument can be made that Butler, come crunch time, is more valuable on that end. Covington is an analytics darling, and there are high-ranking executives within the Sixers' front office who absolutely love him. He's long, he's led the league in deflections the past two years and he can cover multiple positions.

But there are plenty of scouts and coaches across the league who view his work on that end as overrated. He's not always great on the ball, and in the playoffs—when matchups are targeted—his weaknesses can be exposed.

Butler, on the other hand, is a lockdown one-on-one defender. Any lineup featuring him, Simmons and Embiid will give opposing guards fits.

All of which is why, despite the risks, this move was a win for the Sixers. They lose depth but no doubt will be big players in the buyout market, just as they were last year with Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. They could also dangle a first-round pick, or perhaps even Fultz.

Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson with the Bulls.
Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson with the Bulls.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

In October, they'll have to decide whether to pick up the $12.3 million option for his fourth year, a huge amount for a reserve guard. If they decline that option, Fultz will become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020. Maybe the Sixers feel they're better off cutting bait now and bolstering their depth.

It's also worth noting that, through some cap gymnastics, the Sixers can still carve out about another $20 million in space to sign one more high-level player this summer to slot alongside Butler, Simmons and Embiid.

But tweaking along the margins is the easy part; it's stars who move the needle, and the Sixers now have three. The Process, it can be said, has officially come to an end. Philadelphia now has a team ready to compete for championships.

       

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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