Jimmy Butler and The Process Will be Fascinating
Butler getting traded to the the Sixers could be good, or bad, or completely combustible.
Photo by John G. Mablango/EPA-EFE
Jimmy Butler has finally been traded, in a move that elevates his new team’s short-term future while momentarily stabilizing the one that had to let him go. The Philadelphia 76ers gave up 24-year-old Dario Saric and 27-year-old Robert Covington—two "Process" byproducts who helped round out the 2017-18 season’s most dominant five-man unit—along with Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick for Butler and Justin Patton, a seven-footer with zero games of NBA experience who recently broke his foot for the second time since he was drafted.
In the grand scheme, this is a big deal for everyone involved and has long-term ripple effects that will impact both organizations (along with some others throughout the league) for years to come. T.J. McConnell recently told SB Nation’s Seerat Sohi, that “Trust the Process” is in Philly’s rearview. But as some have already pointed out, the step towards whatever their next identity is has yet to take form. The Sixers were the NBA's darling a year ago. After years of intentional failure, they finished fourth in net rating and won a playoff series. Today, they feel stuck in neutral/slowly sliding in reverse. They rank 20th in point differential and are stuck with more questions than answers.
What they need, they ostensibly can't have: patience. And now they’re throwing the league’s most outspoken and controversial star into a young locker room that suddenly has to win right away. As 11th hour as this trade kinda feels, it’s hard to argue with Philly’s bottom-line logic. They made fantastic use of two role players who developed wonderfully in their system, then turned both into one of the world’s 12 best players. That’s good and smart. They completed the deal without surrendering any of their own first-round picks (or the unprotected gift owed by Miami in 2021), Zhaire Smith, Landry Shamet, or Markelle Fultz. In other words: even though Saric and Covington have yet to reach their primes (though Covington is up for debate), the Sixers did not mortgage their future to bail out the present. They still have intriguing trade assets and room for internal growth. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a significant gamble.
Butler knows how to impact games without the ball in his hands—I recently called him a diamond-encrusted Swiss army knife. He can defend point guards, wings, and stretch fours. He cuts, screens, and generally knows how to function at every position as a less brilliant version of LeBron James. From that perspective, everything is wonderful. But in a playoff series where he’s sharing the floor with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Fultz (assuming he's still on the team), space will be an issue, as will shot distribution and the delineation of crunch-time responsibilities. Simmons is actually quite intriguing off the ball—a duck-in monster whose touch within five feet is serviceable—but he also can't shoot. How do those two fare beside Embiid, still Philly's best and most important player? It’s increasingly pedantic to worry about “who gets the last shot?” but it’s also fair to wonder how Butler will react to spending the rest of his prime as a third banana, either spacing up in the weak-side corner or colliding with help defenders who aren’t shy about having one foot in the paint whenever he takes off for the basket.
In other words, the long-term fit is questionable, at best. But if Butler is happy to leverage the attention defenses already give Simmons and Embiid, and willing to sacrifice touches and shots for the promise of better looks and more efficient opportunities, Philly's path towards basketball civility is well lit. That’s a very big “if,” though. And beyond this season (one in which Philadelphia is still not promised to escape what promises to be a blood bath in the second-round), we’ve yet to dig into how Fultz works in what's quickly turned into an extremely win-now situation.
Fultz is not ready to contribute in a playoff series, and it’s not crazy to imagine a scenario where Butler uses his own free agency to convince Philadelphia’s front office that a trade is necessary. The former No. 1 overall pick's trade value should be lower than the Sixers think it is, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be dealt for an older piece who can actually contribute right away. With Butler in town, Fultz's days feel numbers. (Moving Fultz in a trade that brings no long-term money back could make things a bit more interesting for Philly's free agency pursuit.)
And that's a big reason why this feels desperate. The Sixers weren’t championship contenders before they traded for Butler and even though they elevated their general ceiling by bringing him on, their primary concerns (depth, shooting) only got worse. It speaks to the organization’s sudden distaste for patience, which is both understandable (given how they were shunned by All-Star free agents over the summer) and silly. Instead of letting Fultz evolve at his own pace, seeing how this season plays out and then taking one final shot at a free agent who’d better fit what’s already there (like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, or Tobias Harris), they’ve gone all in on someone who’s more awkward, old, and expensive than the four players listed in that parenthetical.
Butler also has a $30.6 million cap hold, which, when combined with J.J. Redick’s (at nearly $16 million) all but eliminates them as meaningful free-agent buyers. Renouncing Redick (along with McConnell, Amir Johnson, Mike Muscala, and Wilson Chandler) gives them nearly $20 million to spend, but whatever they get with that money probably won’t offset the loss of arguably their second-most valuable player so far this season.
The long-term prognostication is more grim than it should be, but that's what happens when you're building around two players that are odd in a league that's current aesthetic magnifies their flaws. Assuming they give Butler a max contract this summer, what will that thing look like on the trade market? In the meantime, the Sixers should still have some scary-ass lineups that most opponents won’t know what to do with for the rest of this season. Simmons, Butler, Embiid, Redick, and Shamet is one that should handle its business on defense while supplying three stars with necessary breathing room. And touching on something that was already said, Butler may have a more enjoyable experience with Philly than he did in Minnesota (or even Chicago).
It’s early, but the percentage of Butler’s jump shots that have been assisted this season is down 11 percent from last year; only James Harden and Chris Paul are lower on that list. As the lone starter on bench groups that have really struggled to generate efficient offense, whether Butler puts the ball on the ground or surveys the court from the mid-post, opponents have not hesitated to double and triple-team him.
That should change in Philadelphia, where so long as he plays with at least one of Redick, Simmons, or Embiid every minute he’s on the floor, Butler won’t have to expend the same amount of energy on offense, while the defensive coverage he faces may be less hostile. And just because this isn't a perfect fit doesn't mean it's horrendous. Off the ball, Butler is not Fultz. He made 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season, and 44.2 percent in his final dance with the Bulls. Ignoring anyone that good isn’t a great idea.
A bulk of this analysis centers around Butler’s relationship with the Sixers because it's utterly fascinating to imagine how good/bad/combustible it can be. But the Timberwolves should be commended for replacing a four-time All-Star with two logical pieces that can share the floor with Karl-Anthony Towns. Covington is slightly antiquated but definitely useful, while Saric has yet to reach his full potential and, despite early-season struggles, should be better in an environment that calls for him to do more stuff with the ball.
We’ll also see how Towns (and Andrew Wiggins, I guess) responds to the relief of life without Butler. It’ll be an uphill climb for the Timberwolves to make the playoffs, but if they slow roll their own semi-rebuild into the summer and add a lottery pick in the draft, they’ll be in decent shape going forward, with Towns, Saric, Covington, much less day-to-day stress, and an ability to develop on their own timetable. That’s not what a starved fanbase wants to hear, but it’s better than keeping Butler, losing in the first round, then watching him walk away for nothing.
Outside of Philadelphia and Minnesota, the ripple effects of this trade can’t be ignored. Teams that were rumored to have interest in Butler but no cap space to sign him this summer (the Houston Rockets, Miami Heat) are shit out of luck, with no clear avenue to add a perennial All-Star. And teams with cap space that didn’t want to fork over anything of value, knowing they could hunt Butler in free agency—the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, etc.) are probably not too thrilled, either.
For now, the Sixers are better but still a move or two away from being considered dangerous enough to win a championship, and the Timberwolves escaped with a solid haul (assuming you ignore the fact that they could have this version of Zach LaVine next to Towns for the next ten years). It’s easy to make snap judgements about a move like this and assume all participants will be static from here on out, but for everyone involved, more change feels like it’s on the horizon—a.k.a., welcome to the NBA.