Go big or go home: 76ers going all in with Jimmy ButlerNovember 10, 2018
The Philadelphia 76ers were in danger of falling behind an improving batch of contenders in the Eastern Conference, so they made a massive move to keep up or perhaps pull even with the pack: acquiring Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
After a summer of mostly inaction aside from internal turmoil, the 76ers sat and watched as the Toronto Raptors picked up Kawhi Leonard, while the Milwaukee Bucks revamped and improved with a new coach and new philosophy to complement Giannis Antetokounmpo. And the Boston Celtics already loomed as playoff favorites, getting deeper and more experienced with each passing day.
So the 76ers finally pushed their chips to the center of the table by snagging the league’s most disgruntled star who has wanted out for months, signifying they’re no longer satisfied with being the NBA’s darlings who lead the league in hilarious social-media posts headlined by Joel Embiid.
They hope to surpass Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee with Embiid, Ben Simmons and now Butler, one of the league’s best two-way players with something to prove in a contract year. Although the 76ers weren’t on Butler’s initial list of preferred teams, only Embiid is locked into a big-money, long-term deal, so they’ll have the cap space to give Butler the deal he’ll likely command this offseason.
On its face, the Timberwolves and 76ers appeared to be in similar positions when they acquired Butler, so it’s a risk considering how Butler didn’t mesh with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. But Embiid and Simmons appear to be about the right things on the floor, even with some deficiencies here and there.
Butler’s frustration with Minnesota was well known, highlighted by him challenging the team’s appointed hierarchy with well-timed practice appearances and subsequent national TV interviews.
Butler’s a hard driver who seeks like-minded teammates who’ll either follow his example or be smart enough to get behind him if they don’t have the stomach for it.
It’s hard to see the 76ers’ front office, headlined by Elton Brand, not doing its due diligence on Butler just to take a chance on what could be a six-month rental. This appears to be a long-term relationship.
Butler’s unlikely rise to stardom has coincided with a bit of bad luck, as the Bulls were on the downside of a productive but unsatisfying run when he became an All-Star in 2015, followed by middling years before a rebuild. The Timberwolves’ best players lacked the urgency Butler wanted and they were little more than an afterthought in a deep Western Conference.
Some of his teammates in Chicago had a hard time accepting “little brother” Jimmy turning into “big brother,” and the Timberwolves had too many players with big-brother talent and little-brother mindsets.
Perhaps he’s found the perfect match at the right time.
Butler adds an edge in terms of the team’s personality, but more importantly he gives them a closer: a perimeter player who can create his own shot in playoff situations when defenses shut down secondary players or even Embiid, who struggled mightily against the Celtics in last season’s five-game semifinal series.
Butler couldn’t carry a mismatched Bulls roster past the Celtics in 2017, leading to his trade to Minnesota. The Houston Rockets were thought to be on a championship trajectory in last season’s playoffs when they bounced the Timberwolves in the first round, but Butler won’t have to shoulder the entire load in Philadelphia.
He’ll be tasked with facing the likes of Leonard, a comparable star, and Jayson Tatum, a rising star, and Antetokounmpo, a supernova — all for the right to play in June. In short, Butler gets to do what he’s always believed he could do: go against the league’s best with a crew of talented players alongside him to show he belongs in the same category as the league’s elite players.
Butler’s arrival doesn’t cure all of the 76ers’ ills. They gave up one of their best shooters in Robert Covington on a roster that didn’t feature much shooting aside from J.J. Redick. How Butler works with Simmons will be curious, given how both like to create plays, and Butler will have to deal with added attention due to Simmons’ lack of outside shooting.
It’ll be a task for the 76ers’ front office to add more shooting and for coach Brett Brown to work Butler into his system, giving him enough isolation plays without breaking the flow of the offense.
Before Butler tore his meniscus last February, he went on a 36-game tear with the Timberwolves, averaging 24.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists and two steals while nearly shooting 50 percent from the field — after admitting he wasn’t fit to take a supporting role while Towns and Wiggins were trying to figure things out on their timeline.
He’ll be expected to duplicate that production while providing hellacious defense on a team that ranks 10th in efficiency and is giving up nearly 113 points a night.
At worst, this could be a disaster if Butler doesn’t sync with Embiid or his personality is too strong for a team that doesn’t have enough experience in dealing with established players expecting maximum effort at all times, but it says here that won’t be the case.
If nothing else, though, Butler found a franchise of like mind — wanting to win now and willing to let him lead the way.
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