PHILADELPHIA — Brett Brown was aware of the gossip. He read all of the rumors and heard all of the horror stories.
For months, Jimmy Butler had been on his and the Sixers' radar. The team began discussing him internally last season, a process that involved scouting him but also gathering intelligence on him as a person, as a teammate and as a competitor. The Sixers knew they'd likely be presented with the opportunity to gamble their future on his ability to be their third star.
When that time arrived, they wanted to ensure they were prepared.
That moment did arrive, and in early November, the Sixers pushed their chips into the middle of the table. They sent Robert Covington and Dario Saric—two young and dependable rotation players—to Minnesota as part of the package to bring Butler to Philadelphia.
"This is a very exciting day for the city and our program," Brown said in Orlando the day trade became official. "We'll be amongst royalty for a while now."
Once Butler arrived, Brown put on an optimistic front. Such is his nature. Yet he couldn't help but wonder how Butler would gel with his team both on and off the floor.
Brown's Sixers had always favored an egalitarian side-to-side offense. Would Butler, who rode a heavy diet of isolations and pick-and-rolls to stardom, be open to playing a new style? And what about in the locker room? How would Butler fit alongside rising stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid?
Five weeks have now gone by. Since acquiring Butler, the Sixers have played 18 games, two of which he's missed due to a groin strain. Over that stretch, they've climbed into third place in the Eastern Conference thanks to a 12-4 record with Butler in the lineup.
It hasn't been a turbulence-free ride. There have been bad losses to bad teams. The defense, as Embiid recently said, seems to "make every guard look like a Hall of Famer." The team, depleted in part because of the multiplayer package surrendered to add Butler, is in desperate need of more depth.
But those are all issues on the margins, the sort of holes that can be plugged with savvy moves and adjustments. The Sixers traded for Butler because they believed they were on the cusp of title contention. They may not be at that point yet, but with 18 games having gone by, it's safe to say they made the correct bet.
Butler's game-winning daggers against the Hornets and the Nets and his back-to-back 38-point outbursts have garnered most of the attention. But his willingness and eagerness to eschew his conqueror instincts and blend into his surroundings is what has stood out most to his coaches. The Sixers' starting lineup—which Brown considers "the best starting five in the game"—has throttled opponents to the tune of a 20.6 net rating over 159 minutes of action.
"When he first came here, I was caught off guard with how sort of complementary [he was]," Brown said.
Since joining the Sixers, Butler is holding onto the ball nearly two fewer seconds per touch than he did last year in Minnesota. He's dribbling it less, too. The Sixers ranked toward the top of the league in passes per game prior to Butler's arrival, and that number has only gone up ever since. At times, Brown said he's had to push Butler a bit and "remind him of his resume."
"For the most part, you just take what the game gives you. If somebody has it going and the ball is going into the basket, you just keep getting the open guy the basketball," Butler said when asked how he, Embiid and Simmons handle divvying up offensive responsibilities. "I think all three of us are great at seeing the mismatch and attacking it. So as long as we keep doing that, the ball will find the open guy. I can tell when you are going to attack and they can tell when I'm going to attack, so it's a common-sense move."
What's perhaps most impressive is how Butler has managed to alter his game while simultaneously utilizing his toolbox of skills that attracted the Sixers in the first place. Knowing when to pick your spots is a difficult tightrope to walk, but thus far, Butler has proved to have a deft pair of feet.
Show a random person a Sixers game, and they would never guess that many consider the guy in the No. 23 jersey to be one of the league's top divas. Butler will spend multiple possessions passing and cutting like any another wing, aggressively hunting for openings—whether it's catch-and-shoot jumpers or seams created by a dribble handoff—within the flow of the offense.
Prior to joining the Sixers, only 37.8 percent of Butler's made baskets were assisted. Since his arrival in Philly, 64.8 percent of his baskets have been assisted, with a huge majority of that jump coming on looks at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass. It seems like he and Simmons connect for backdoor dunks every game.
All the while, Butler has provided the Sixers with a weapon they previously lacked. Butler's drives per game have dropped from the 12.1 he averaged with Minnesota last year to 8.3 with Philadelphia, but that number is still nearly twice as much as every Sixers rotation player other than Simmons. It will likely only rise as the season progresses.
"This thing will grow to him having a more prominent role offensively," Brown said. "When it matters most, he's going to have the ball a lot."
This doesn't mean there aren't issues in paradise. Sixteen games is not a minuscule sample, but it isn't a sturdy one, either. Butler could grow tired of sharing the load.
We've already heard Embiid grouse a bit about his role as a part-time floor spacer. While his number of touches has only gone up since the Butler trade, adjusting to the new presence of a superstar takes time. As Brown said Wednesday, "that ecosystem is always delicate."
There's also the team's lack of depth. And the question of whether the Sixers should be open to handing a 30-year old with Tom Thibodeau miles on his legs a five-year max deal.
But those are all secondary concerns. First on the list was finding a third star who could complement Simmons and Embiid and give the Sixers a chance of making another leap.
So far, Butler has been exactly that.