A desperation move or a decided gamble? Short-sighted or well-calculated? There are many ways you could define the 76ers’ part in the first blockbuster trade of the 2018-19 NBA season. Anyone of them might be correct.
As thoroughly reported, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, and a 2022 second-round pick. The Jimmy Butler timebomb had been ticking for months, with fans and organization members equally disgruntled by its looming detonation. The move seemed unprecedented for Philadelphia, however, and only time can tell whether this move was responsible or not.
It seems that 14 games were enough for the 76ers to decide that their then-current roster configuration would not best their division rivals. It might not have even succeeded against the dark horse Milwaukee Bucks. They struggled mightily against Blake Griffin’s rise-from-the-dead Detroit Pistons. Considering the starting lineup’s circus status, Philadelphia’s doubts regarding its roster were well-founded.
But taking a gamble on Jimmy Butler is risky. Sure, the three-level scoring is there and yes, Butler is a four-time All-Defensive Team perimeter guard. Despite the media’s sudden and fervent noise over Jimmy Butler’s shooting abilities, he’s also hitting 37.8 percent of his threes this season. By all means, Butler has earned his reputation as one of the best two-way players in the game today.
The risk involved with Butler stems from sacrificing depth for a veteran on a team with well-developed chemistry. Brett Brown has spent years cultivating a young roster focused on generous offensive schemes and disciplined defensive possessions. The new switch defense hasn’t been perfect and there were pitfalls along the way — the loss to Boston in the semifinals last spring comes to mind. But the team was on the threshold of their first playoff appearance in six years and the talent potential was ripe and obvious. Throwing a vocal player into that mix who has had problems with young locker rooms two out of the last two seasons raises serious questions.
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Markelle Fultz has yet to overcome whatever combination of mental and physical handicap that prevents him from regaining his multi-faceted offensive form. The team’s acquisition of a dynamic scoring threat in Butler is indicative of that problem. Butler had a habit of denigrating youth on the Chicago Bulls and his defensive criticisms were less than inspiring for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota. The possibility that Butler sends Fultz to a psychiatric institution for his shooting is not entirely out of question.
Regardless, the front office’s refusal to send Fultz in a deal for Butler shows their commitment toward the young guard. A bigger question then might be Butler’s fit with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the de facto co-leaders of the young Sixers squad. Butler is a post up heavy scorer who likes the ball in his hands. With Simmons as the primary facilitator and Embiid as the outspoken scorer, where does the Sixers’ new All-Star piece fit into the puzzle?
Recent reports quoted Embiid and Simmons as ready for the imminent adjustments in play and leadership. All reports paint Butler as a veteran alpha, maniacally obsessed with winning. Though that description is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, it may take time for his maniac attitude to mesh with a team that has already placed crowns on the heads of two young players. Embiid and Simmons reportedly found common ground with Butler’s aggressive mentality, but who knows how quickly shades of Minnesota could appear in Philadelphia. How long could it take for Butler to shout insults and expletives at the 76ers’ young roster, or scream at GM Elton Brand that they need him?
The 76ers gave up a solid stretch four and upgraded their 3-and-D forward in their trade for Jimmy Butler. His dual-threat perimeter/post play and defense will revitalize the 76ers’ offense in the same way his outspoken attitude will energize their roster. Whether his dominating personality will complement or clash with that of Embiid and Simmons is anyone’s guess. Whether he personally destroys Markelle Fultz’s mental faculties is another threat entirely. Either way, the 76ers have a lot of time to figure it out before the playoffs. They have even more time to extend Butler’s contract as his pending Free Agency looms in the distance. For Philadelphia’s sake, let’s hope it’s not as dramatic as his trade request was.