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 to ESPN 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."
Having to deflate a Sixers controversy is nothing new for Brown. He's spent years six years doing so, serving as a shield for, among others, Sam Hinkie, Bryan Colangelo, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. But life for him and the Sixers is different now. There are stakes and expectations, and with that comes a new sort of pressure. There's also a microscope hovering over the team, and its stars, and it's not just the media and fans peering through. At least one opposing team has already called the Sixers to inquire if this latest blowup means Butler might be on the market, according to league sources. The Sixers have 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 become more involved in basketball decisions. This was made clear during the draft, when the Sixers, operating at the time without a general manager, 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 at the behest of minority owner David B. Heller, according to league sources.
A little over two months later 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. An example: He occasionally attends Brown's postgame press conferences and often meets with Brand afterward.
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, perhaps one of the top 15 players in the NBA, was available. 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.