Can Sixers Stop 'Young-Player Killer' Jimmy Butler from Killing the Process?

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IJanuary 5, 2019

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown, left, talks with Jimmy Butler (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

It didn't take long for things to go sideways in the Jimmy Butler-Philadelphia 76ers universe. Is anyone really surprised?

Only 24 games into the Butler era, brotherly love seems to be sorely lacking in Philly. According to a report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, Butler has been openly questioning coach Brett Brown's offensive system and his role in it. According to the report, the discourse during a recent film session in Portland became "disrespectful" and went beyond the customary friction that can sometimes occur between player and coach.

"The team should be concerned," a Western Conference executive told Bleacher Report. "Brett has been the voice the last few years, and now Jimmy is making a scene. It's a problem."

When the Sixers acquired Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 12 in exchange for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-rounder, it seemed like a risk worth taking. It was time for the baby Sixers to grow up, and they needed a veteran star to complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

The forging of this Big Three, however, has been anything but smooth. Butler hasn't been the only one complaining about his role; Embiid has, too. After a 117-111 victory over the Pistons in early December, Embiid questioned why he wasn't getting many post touches since Butler entered the mix.

"I haven't been myself lately," Embiid told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey at the time. "I think it's mainly because of the way I've been used. I'm being used as a spacer, I guess; a stretch 5 … Our setup, [Brown] always has me starting on the perimeter and it just really frustrates me."

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Joel Embiid recently questioned his usage.
Joel Embiid recently questioned his usage.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Brown's role has shifted, too. After spending his first three years as the sacrificial lamb for former GM Sam Hinkie's "Process," Brown was charged with teaching a bunch of youngsters the ways of the NBA—Embiid, Saric, Jahlil Okafor and Simmons. With the acquisition of Butler, his job description changed again into: "Here are your three stars, make their games and egos fit, keep everyone happy and let's go to the Eastern Conference Finals."

Seriously, has any coach in the NBA had a tougher job than Brown over the past few years? I refer you to a quote from a prominent agent after the Butler trade for some insight into just how tough his job has become.

"It's a great deal for Philly if they think they can rein Jimmy in," the 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."

Butler's reputation—"He's a young-player killer," the Western Conference exec told B/R—preceded him. And, as yours truly pointed out:

"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?"

Indeed, there are issues to iron out…but, let's not get carried away.

One Eastern Conference exec described Jimmy Butler as a "young-player killer." Can Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid withstand Butler's ways?
One Eastern Conference exec described Jimmy Butler as a "young-player killer." Can Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid withstand Butler's ways?Matt Slocum/Associated Press/Associated Press

"We're coming together," Brown told reporters after Tuesday's victory over the Clippers. "We have a new opportunity. You don't just click your heels and throw Jimmy Butler in and everybody's going to be playing the same way and style. It [doesn't] work like that. So my job is to grow a team."

Brown, who received a contract extension before the season, continues to have the full support of ownership and GM Elton Brand, ESPN reported.

And, consider this: As The Athletic's Rich Hofmann pointed out, the Sixers have the fifth-rated offense in the league since they acquired Butler, per Cleaning the Glass. After Saturday's game against the Mavericks—for which Butler is questionable with an upper respiratory infection—Brown and his Big Three will still have 42 games to figure this out.

To say this little midseason kerfuffle is an indication that Butler's future with the Sixers is somehow in doubt would be a stretch.

"This, too, shall pass," one Eastern Conference executive told B/R.


"Follow the money," another Eastern Conference exec said.

Despite the sometimes-clumsy integration of Butler with Simmons and Embiid, the Sixers remain committed to ironing things out and coming to a long-term agreement with their new star this summer, league sources said. It isn't difficult to understand why. When Butler presumably opts out and hits free agency in July, the Sixers can offer him a five-year max deal worth an estimated $190 million. That's one year and $49 million more than anyone else can offer.

Was there risk involved in acquiring Butler? There sure was. In today's NBA, if you're not in a destination market that can compete for premier free agents, trading for and hoping to re-sign a star is often the only way to acquire one.

"There's a lot [of risk]," one of the Eastern Conference executives told B/R. "Depending on his future contract, whether he behaves and whether or not he actually stays or leaves."

The "behavior" aspect of that risk has already taken a predictable turn. As far as the staying or leaving part, it's too early for the Sixers to panic. Brown still has more than a half-season to make things fit, and 50 million reasons to think it will all work out in the end.


Ken Berger is a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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