The Philadelphia 76ers may very well have overtaken the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference ‘pound-for-pound’ rankings, now with the tools to qualify for the NBA Finals.
The trade for All-Star wing Jimmy Butler went against the grain of what many, including myself expected to happen, but now he’s jumped ship to Philadelphia he gives the 76ers a two-way option as a developed scorer from all parts of the court, as well as a willing and able defender in four positions.
Both sides have completed a handful of games since the trade, and all results have gone how many would expect this early on. The Sixers are in the process of balancing the usage and minutes of the Sixers’ new big three, but Butler’s 28-point home debut against the Utah Jazz along with a game-winning shot against Charlotte has delivered an exciting taste-tester for what’s to come. On the other side the Wolves have seemed to get more out of wing Andrew Wiggins, who became incredibly overshadowed by Butler, along with newcomers Robert Covington and Dario Šarić getting increased minutes in their new homes.
Though with the obvious positives come a few negatives for the Sixers, and those negatives could outweigh anything that makes the move a good one.
Pro: A championship-caliber ‘Big 3’
The obvious positive is the 76ers ability to contend for a title now. After a successful first season in which it was genuinely time to take them seriously, a strong play at Paul George in free agency should have been the their number one priority.
The duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, with a healthy host of role players led to the Sixers winning 16 straight games to finish last season and snatch the third seed in the East. What they were missing though to take the next step was a versatile scorer, able to play inside as well as the perimeter, along with being a willing and able defender.
Such qualities, being the bread and butter of George are also the same for Jimmy Butler, meaning the Sixers did get their missing piece. Joel Embiid, like most center’s adapting to the new style of today’s NBA, is able to shoot the ball at a successful rate around the perimeter as well as inside. However he lacks the pace and athleticism that Butler has, while Ben Simmons, who has almost all aspects of basketball well-developed much like Magic Johnson, can’t shoot the ball to save his life.
Since his Most Improved Player of the Season award in 2015, Butler has been posting at least 20 points, 5.2 boards and 3.3 assists a season, to go along with four All-Star selections and two All-NBA Third Team awards. This year he was averaging a respectable 21.3 point a game off a career low in minutes with 36.1 prior to the trade.
Purely from a gameplay perspective, Butler’s addition gives the 76ers an important element to their team that is not only a well-rounded and developed talent, but someone that has the hunger to win as well as the skills to do so.
Con: Personalities, on and off the court
While Jimmy Butler adds a dynamic element to the Sixers’ offensive system, opening plenty of avenues for he and Simmons to explore, there’s two problems that could arise in terms of on and off the court personalities.
Going back to Paul George for a second, the quality that seperates him from Jimmy Butler is the personality, with George seeming a more relaxed presence on and off the court while Butler, as we saw in Minnesota, is far more intimidating.
On the court, the Sixers rank 29th in offensive efficiency in the fourth quarter. Within that Joel Embiid has been a big part of their crunch time scoring, ranking seventh in the league in fourth quarter points prior to Butler’s arrival, while Butler himself was leading the league with 9 in the fourth off an impressive 49 per cent shooting. From one perspective Butler can lend enough of a hand that the Sixers crunch time offense improves, but not too much of a hand that Embiid’s expressive and arrogant personality leads in a toxic relationship and team environment. Mixing with Ben Simmons should have no issues, as he acts as a facilitator on the offensive side rather than a scorer, making for an easy combination to develop with Butler.
Another factor that may not bode well for the Sixers is Butler played his best basketball personally when he wasn’t surrounded by high-quality teammates. Notably the 2016-17 season, when Derrick Rose had been traded to the Knicks and his best teammates were an aging Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, he averaged career highs in games started, points, rebounds and assists.
In order for everything to work, like most big threes in the league’s history, players need to rescind their responsibilities and do what’s best for the team rather than themselves. Butler, Simmons and Embiid would be idiotic to ignore how important that is, but it’s certainly a risk for the franchise in the near future.
Pro: Minnesota’s well-being
The entirety of the Timberwolves franchise, including coaching and management, had to deal with the terrorizing actions of Jimmy Butler, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins copping the worst of it. It is well-known to have a successful team, the chemistry needs to be good with the locker room needing to be without tension. When that doesn’t work, the losses pile up.
Now that he is gone, there is that breath of fresh air with a hint of lavender and freshly cut grass sweeping through the franchise. It’s not as if Minnesota are now in playoff contention, but they’re most definitely in a more comfortable position moving forward.
Andrew Wiggins has struggled to develop into the perennial scorer many had hoped he would, and Butler’s initial trade from Chicago slowed that process more so. So far since the trade though, Wiggins has averaged 23 points, 5.5 rebounds and five assists through two games, while the newly acquired Robert Covington has averaged 13.5 points and six rebounds in 32.5 minutes a game – positive signs already for the Wolves.
On a side not, whether or not coach Tom Thibodeau’s intense defensive approach, which hasn’t even worked since he took over, can succeed in today’s game remains to be seen. But unless he gives the franchise something to salvage from this season it is more than likely he will be moving on at the year’s end.
Con: Three-point shooting
This one comes down to subtraction. It’s not that Jimmy Butler can’t shoot threes, it’s more two reliable shooters are now gone with only one arriving, giving the Sixers fewer options outside.
Butler was stroking the ball from deep reasonably well to start the season before he was traded, averaging a career high 1.7 threes from 4.5 attempts a game as well as a career second-best 38 per cent from deep.
In getting Butler though, the Sixers did away with forwards Dario Šarić and Robert Covington. Šarić has struggled from deep to start the season (30 per cent), but he shot an impressive 39 percent a season ago, while Covington himself has become a perennial shooter from deep, averaging a career best 36 per cent prior to the trade.
If Marco Belinelli and Ersan İlyasova had remained in Philadelphia then Butler’s arrival wouldn’t need additional tweaking, but that’s just not the case. An easy, immediate solution would be to start JJ Reddick more so and increase the minutes of forward Wilson Chandler, while going out and starting trade talks for a spot-up shooter from deep. The likes of Kyle Korver of the Cavaliers, the Heat’s Wayne Ellington and the Mavericks’ Wesley Matthews are just a few examples of lethal shooters who would be in a greener pasture if they were on the Sixers.
THE MARKELLE FULTZ BONUS ROUND – An uncertain future becomes even more uncertain
This is a pro and a con, depending on who you talk to. Sixers guard Markelle Fultz will certainly see it as a con, as his ability to maintain a place in the team and do his best to grow is now brought into question, as the process for the most part is all but finished.
If my own observations are anything to go by, Fultz is a bust and there is no turning back. If a player simply was struggling with shooting percentages, patience and game time is the answer to improve their efficiency. Not with Fultz, whose jumpshot and free throw routine are both genuinely broken. He looks as far from silky smooth and clean as you could imagine, and being able to impact the game without shooting or playing off the ball can only do so much. It just so happens shooting is an integral part of basketball.
No longer being in that rebuilding phase (thank goodness), the 76ers should be aiming to add players that complement their integral pieces of Simmons, Embiid and now Butler, which so far has been achieved with JJ Reddick, Wilson Chandler and Amir Johnson.