According to a January 5 ESPN report, Butler in recent weeks has "aggressively challenged" Sixers head coach Brett Brown about his role within the team's offense. Butler's frustrations boiled to the surface during a recent team film session. A witness described Butler's outburst as "disrespectful."
Butler, unsurprisingly, disputed the framing of the report Monday.
"I don't think any part of it was confrontational," he told reporters. "We're in here, talking, trying to win games, making sure everybody's happy. Confrontation? That's not the word I would use."
Brown, speaking to reporters on Saturday, took a similar stance, downplaying both the report and the incident. "I didn't feel like any of that crossed the line," he said. "He's vocal. He's all in and he has opinions, but it's instigated by me. None of this should surprise anybody. He's got opinions. He wants to be heard. And he should be heard."
It is worth noting that by now Brown has mastered the art of serving as a human shield. He's played that role for, among others, Sam Hinkie, Bryan Colangelo, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. It's not to say that he lies. Let's call it an adept understanding of how to handle the press during times of conflict. Brown will confirm the negative report—but then attempt to reframe it in a positive light.
"There's nobody trying to figure this out more than I am," Brown told reporters Saturday.
Brown did seem to truly believe there was nothing wrong with Butler's actions. Even if not, he's fully aware that it's in his best interest to figure out how to successfully integrate Butler into his team's offense and ecosystem.
All of which sets the Sixers up for what will be a fascinating and consequential seven-month period. For the first time in years, there are stakes and expectations. There's also a microscope on the team and its stars.
That microscope doesn't just come from the media, but also opposing front offices. An opposing team has already called to ask if this latest blowup means Butler might be on the market, according to league sources. This, as rumors swirl around NBA circles that the Sixers, spooked that Butler will bolt when he becomes a free agent this summer, are contemplating dealing Butler before the trade deadline. The team has never considered dealing Butler, according to league sources. But it's worth noting that the vultures around the NBA, often willing and eager to sow discord, have emerged.
Also, worth remembering as the season progresses: It was ownership, and specifically managing partner Josh Harris, that originally pushed for the Butler deal.
Harris, a private equity maven who, along with a group of nearly a dozen partners, purchased the Sixers in 2011 for $280 million, is a regular presence in Philly. But in the wake of Bryan Colangelo's dismissal, he and the rest of his group have grown even more hands-on. This was made clear during the draft, when, according to league sources, it was minority owner David B. Heller who pulled the trigger on the trade sending No. 10 Mikal Bridges to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Zhaire Smith and a future first-round pick.
At that point the Sixers didn't have a general manager in place. Instead, a group of four executives along with head coach Brett Brown would meditate on a matter, then send it up the chain to ownership for a final decision.
Eventually, former All-Star Elton Brand was promoted from executive vice president of basketball operations to that vacant role. But the presence of a general manager hasn't loosened Harris' grip on the wheel. He often meets with Brand after games and occasionally attends Brown's postgame press conferences.
None of this is to say that Brand and Brown weren't on board with the Butler trade. They were. Brand negotiated the deal—essentially two solid but replaceable rotation players in Robert Covington and Dario Saric for a star. And it was a good one. The Sixers have gone 15-6 in games where Butler plays. They're a better team now than they were before.
But there was a reason Butler was available. When it comes to his skills, he's fantastic, one of the top 15 players in the NBA. But his personality can be grating and abrasive. He's both difficult to play with and to coach. Most of this he admits to, though for him it's always been under the guise of competitiveness.
"I feel like if you're not doing everything in your power to help the team win, I'm going to have a problem with whoever it may be. It doesn't matter, I'm going to have a problem and I'm going to voice it over and over and over again," Butler told Sixers teammate JJ Redick on Redick's podcast. "To you, to coach, to management, whoever it may be. I'm not scared of confrontation, I like confrontation, I thrive in confrontation because I'm the type that when you challenge me, I'm going to show that I can do it."
The Sixers were aware of all this. They began scouting and gathering intelligence on Butler last season in anticipation that a day would soon arrive when they'd be granted the opportunity to acquire him.
They were, and they did, and now they have to figure out how to make it all work. Because if they don't, you can be sure it won't be Harris being traded or falling on a sword.