By trading for Jimmy Butler, the Philadelphia 76ers raise their ceiling in the Eastern Conference and will force others to adjust.
The Philadelphia 76ers entered the season with two of the league’s best 25 players and, less than a month into the regular season, they’ve acquired a third.
The Sixers on Saturday agreed to trade Robert Covington and Dario Saric, along with Jerryd Bayless and a 2020 second-round pick the Minnesota Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler and second-year bigman Justin Patton. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was the first to break the news.
The risk-reward for Philadelphia is clear. Butler is the league’s ultimate bull in a china shop. He broke stuff on the way out of Chicago and on the way out of Minnesota. We’ll see in the next few weeks how Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins will deal with the PTSD from the Butler experience. The Sixers are betting that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons fare better. Simmons is very much self assured of his powers and Embiid makes a living investing in the real estate of other’s minds. Their bravado is the identity of the Sixers and it’ll be interesting to see how this added ingredient will impact the chemistry of the team.
Butler is a top-15 player and a two-way agent who lifted Minnesota to a top-three seed in the West before a meniscus injury sidelined him for several weeks. The Timberwolves almost fell out of the playoffs completely before Butler returned for the final three games of the season, including a play-in game against the Denver Nuggets, and led the Timberwolves to wins in all three. Minnesota has Butler to thank for breaking its 14-year playoff drought.
It’s been 18 years since the Sixers have been to the conference or NBA finals. Adding Butler increased their odds of getting there this season. ESPN reports that Butler and the Sixers have “every intention of formalizing a long-term agreement this summer.” The Sixers had dreams of landing a third star this summer–whether it be Paul George, Kawhi Leonard or Butler–and now they have it.
At first glance, Butler isn’t as clean a fit as those two. He’s the weakest shooter of the bunch even though he’s making almost 38 percent from deep this season. However, he’s also only shooting 30 percent on his catch-and-shoot attempts.
Too often Butler prefers to dribble his way into a tough shot rather than take the easy one. The easy opportunities should be there playing alongside Simmons and Embiid. Butler will have to tweak his game for the greater good, but we will have to wait and see if that actually happens. Sixers coach Brett Brown should give some time to a Butler-plus-bench group that’ll allow Butler to get some turnaround fadeaways out of his system.
But Butler impacts winning in a way George hasn’t in Oklahoma City and may demand the ball less than Leonard. He also solves a crucial problem for Philadelphia. In the playoffs against Boston, the lack of a second creator next to Simmons came to a head. They anointed Markelle Fultz to the starting lineup this season to solve for that issue but, with Fultz progressing slowly, the Sixers are getting another shot creator in Butler who can contribute at a playoff level right away. Butler is an underrated facilitator who has hovered around five assists per game in each of the previous three seasons. If he likes you, he’ll make you better.
At the time of the trade the 76ers are third in the East but, with a negative point differential, their footing is precarious. As of this writing, there are seven teams with a better point differential than the Sixers. Philadelphia is making its move to try and fix that.
Leonard, when healthy, is still the first or second-best player in the East (Giannis Antetokounmpo is really good) and certainly better than Butler. But put Toronto’s top three next to Philadelphia’s–Leonard, Lowry and, uh, Paskal Siakam (?) versus Butler, Embiid and Simmons–and things get interesting.
This is also the Boston Celtics’ ticket to the finals. They don’t have the singular talent of a Leonard or an Antetokounmpo, but they have more depth with their talent in Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown. The Sixers now are somewhere in the middle of having more top-end talent than Boston and more depth than Toronto or Milwaukee.
The top five teams in the East are set with Toronto, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston and Indiana pulling away from the rest of the conference. By the postseason, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston should pull away from the other two.
The Miami Heat have been trying to climb into this conversation and were perhaps the closest team outside of Philadelphia to landing Butler. Pat Riley has been seeking a star to build to around since LeBron James left in 2014, and Butler seemed to have all the requisite traits to be a culture fit in Miami–hard working, veteran savvy, a nasty streak.
According to reports before the season, the Heat were ready to offer Josh Richardson, Kelly Olynyk and its 2019 first-round pick for Butler. Somewhere along trade talks there was a snag in the line, and Riley walked away from his whale.
Richardson’s play to start the season may have something to do with that. Richardson has taken a leap in his fourth year, averaging 20.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, all career highs by a mile. He may never be as good as Butler is now, but he’s under contract through 2022 for a fraction of what Butler will re-sign for and is just 25 years old.
Trading Richardson for Butler would have put Miami in that tier with Indiana and Milwaukee, but to get into that top tier they’ll likely need to pair Richardson and his team-friendly deal next to another star. That might be impossible, but even if they traded for Butler, they wouldn’t have had the cap space or trade assets to pair Butler with the sort of talent he has now in Philadelphia. A Butler trade was a dead end either way, even if landing Butler got them further down the road.
There are a few more ripple effects in the East. The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks will have cap space this summer, but won’t be using it on Butler after he likely re-signs in Philly. With Butler back East, there’s one less spot for guys trying to make their first All-Star team like Simmons, Tatum, Caris LeVert and Zach LaVine.
Then there’s the Washington Wizards, who rivaled the Timberwolves for the most dysfunctional locker room in the league. With Butler traded, Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld may be on the clock. Things have gone south in Washington and it seems to be a matter of when, not if, they blow everything up. The teams that didn’t win the Butler lottery may kick the tires on Bradley Beal or talk themselves into John Wall.
This is the NBA now. One star moves and another is ready to go, and the consequences of such trades are as outsized as their impact on the court. The Butler trade is big. Others will react.