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Jimmy Butler Lets the Sixers Know They Picked the Wrong Guy

Three years ago, Philly pointed the finger at Butler and sent him packing after an early playoff exit. Now Butler has returned the favor, sending his former team home while reminding them of the gravity of their mistakes.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, which is why Jimmy Butler—who has made doing too much kind of an integral part of his personal brand—decided to brandish not one, but two daggers to put the 76ers out of their misery on Thursday.

First, Butler weaved through several catatonic Sixers to track down his own miss, sized up James Harden in the short corner, and splashed a 3-pointer to give Miami a 20-point lead with just over five minutes to go in Game 6:

Four minutes later, Butler split a half-hearted double-team to get into the paint for a scoop layup that prompted Doc Rivers to call his last timeout of the season, allowing Jimmy to bid a fond farewell to the faithful few still left in their seats at Wells Fargo Center for the dying embers of Miami’s series-clinching 99-90 road win:

That final drive capped off another excellent performance by Butler in this postseason: 32 points on 13-for-29 shooting, eight rebounds, and four assists in 43 minutes of committed two-way work. After a dominant defensive performance in Game 5 left the Heat just one win away from the Eastern Conference finals, Butler smelled blood and went for the jugular early, scoring nine points in the first five minutes to stake Miami to an early lead. (Amid Butler’s hot start, Danny Green, his primary defender, suffered what the Sixers are concerned is a serious knee injury, ending his night after just three minutes.)

The hosts battled back to take a few brief leads in the second quarter, but after the Heat headed into halftime down 49-48, Butler came out of intermission intent on restoring order, outscoring the Sixers 11-4 by himself in the first six minutes to give the Heat a double-digit advantage they wouldn’t relinquish this time:

Butler was poised, calculated, and confident. He carved Philly up in the pick-and-roll. When he saw a driving lane, he took it, looking to either get all the way to the rim, kick the ball out to the perimeter, or slip a feed to a cutter. When he didn’t, he maneuvered into a pocket of space in the half-court coverage and pulled up for a midrange jumper. He ran the floor hard off Sixers turnovers, hunting early offense; he guarded Tyrese Maxey and Harden, plus whoever else Erik Spoelstra needed him to on switches, wreaking havoc on and off the ball.

It was an exceedingly professional performance, delivered in the crucible of a closeout game on the road—the kind of outing that once led former 76ers head coach Brett Brown to admiringly refer to Butler as “James Butler … the adult in the room.” That was all the way back in 2019, during the six-month span when Butler let the bridges he burned light his way from Minneapolis to the East Coast, setting up shop in Philly as the Sixers looked to turn the fruits of the Process into championship-caliber results.

Back then, Jimmy—not James, Coach; it’s “literally Jimmy”—was the home-run swing for a “star-hunting” Sixers franchise whose competitive development was ahead of schedule thanks to the tantalizing talents of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. (There was also Markelle Fultz, but that’s a whole ’nother story; he and Jimmy didn’t overlap for long.)

Embiid could Dream Shake in the post and pop for 3s at the arc, but he needed a complementary threat to give him room to operate. Simmons was the power forward–sized point guard who pushed the ball in transition but lacked the jumper to unlock good defenses late in close playoff games. Butler, with his one-on-one scoring prowess and advancing playmaking, was supposed to be the connective tissue between the two, amplifying their strengths and creating harmonious offense while hopefully having an easier time imprinting his hard-earned snarl on Philly’s young princes than he did in Minnesota. The results were … mixed.

Philly went 43-25 after trading for Butler—and, a couple of months later, Tobias Harris—and outscored opponents by a very strong 10.5 points per 100 possessions when Jimmy and Joel shared the court. At issue, though? Embiid-Butler lineups were a scorching plus-18-per-100 when they played without Simmons—more than twice as potent as when all three were on the floor together. Those splits hinted at a fundamental sticking point with the roster that then-GM Elton Brand had constructed: It didn’t quite have enough shooting to constitute a seamless fit. And when the gears in Philly started grinding, it made a hell of a lot of noise.

Butler reportedly clashed with Brown over his role in the Sixers offense shortly after his arrival, chafing at the coach’s preferred system, which was more egalitarian and heavy on ball movement, and looking for more leeway to run the pick-and-roll and operate in isolation. Brown did move in Butler’s direction, entrusting the All-Star with more opportunities to run the offense, especially as the Sixers moved into the postseason. He didn’t have to like it, though: Yaron Weitzman reported in Tanking to the Top, his 2020 book about the Process-era Sixers, that Brown “had lobbied [Philly management] not to re-sign” Butler once he reached unrestricted free agency that summer.

Butler averaged a team-high 22 points, seven rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game against the Raptors in the second round that year, thriving as the primary late-game playmaker on a team that came one four-bounce thermodynamic miracle in Game 7 away from advancing. His primacy, though, shifted Simmons into a smaller, less central offensive role, against which the former no. 1 draft pick bristled: Weitzman reported for Fox Sports last summer that “Simmons’ frustration at being relegated to off-ball duty [against Toronto] contributed to the front office’s decision to not re-sign” Butler, and to instead back Simmons, a homegrown talent seven years younger and about to sign a post-rookie-scale maximum contract that would be cheaper than Jimmy’s full-freight veteran max.

So: The Sixers re-upped Harris on a five-year, $180 million contract, and sent Butler away in a sign-and-trade that cleared room for Al Horford and Josh Richardson. Philly zagged by tripling down on giganto-ball at a time when everybody else was looking to swap more traditional centers for wings who could dribble, pass, shoot, and run the pick-and-roll with Embiid—you know, like Butler. Miami, on the other hand, bet that Butler’s perpetual hard-ass routine would play much better in the Biscayne Bay boot camp built by Pat Riley, and would reboot a franchise mostly mired in mediocrity since LeBron James’s departure ended the Big Three era.

The Sixers have a better regular-season record than the Heat since the deal, owing largely to Embiid becoming a perennial MVP candidate, but the path there has been circuitous and chaotic. (As if, in Philly, it could ever be anything else.) The duct-tape-and-chicken-wire-ass Embiid-Horford-Simmons fit never really worked. Brown’s plan to play Simmons at power forward and bring Horford off the bench got scuttled when Simmons got injured in the bubble. The Celtics dominated Embiid and the short-handed Sixers in a four-game sweep, leading to two additional years of unwinding and upheaval. Out goes Brown, replaced by Doc Rivers. In comes Daryl Morey, to finish what Sam Hinkie started. Out go Horford and Richardson, replaced by Green and Seth Curry, to put more shooting around Embiid and Simmons. Philly wins the no. 1 seed in the East. Embiid tears his meniscus. “The Pass” happens. The vibes on pretty much everything not related to Embiid and Tyrese Maxey become absolutely rancid.

From there: the Simmons holdout, which begat February’s blockbuster, in which Morey dealt Simmons, Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks to Brooklyn for Harden, a former MVP who’d sulked his way off two teams in 13 months with a hamstring strain and a rough start to this season in the middle … but hey, that’s fine, because the Sixers desperately needed a wing who could dribble, pass, shoot, and run pick-and-roll with Embiid. (You know—like Butler.) That partnership looks good until it doesn’t, when it becomes clear to all observers, including Embiid, that this version of Harden isn’t the MVP model that Morey had in Texas—and, in fact, is so desiccated that he can muster only two shot attempts, four assists, and three turnovers in a scoreless second half of a win-or-go-home game while Embiid toils through a broken orbital bone, a torn thumb ligament, and triple-teams.

The good news: Harden, a free-agent-to-be, promises he’ll be back, whether that means picking up the $47.4 million player option he holds for next season or working out a new long-term deal, meaning Morey didn’t just deal two firsts, Curry, and Simmons for a three-month rental. The bad news: After watching Harden average 18 points and seven assists per game on 40.5 percent shooting against Miami and once again effectively disappear when his team needs him most, “I’ll be here” almost sounds like a threat. (Even Harden’s answer to a question about why he took only two shots in the second half of Game 6—“We ran our offense, and the ball didn’t get back to me”—evoked a ghost of Sixers Christmas past.)

And after all of that—the wheeling and dealing, the trades and pivots, the drama over Doc’s job and the shortcomings of a roster that featured maybe six viable options by Game 6—where do the Sixers end up? Getting stopped in the second round, again, as the guy they let go to Miami put them down and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in the three years since the Sixers picked Brown, Simmons, and Harris over him.

Asked before the 2020 Finals about the differences between his time in Miami and Philly, Butler said that with the Heat, he gets to be himself without having “to worry about anybody trying to control me, as it was said people were trying to do over there.” He also claimed, though, that he had “no hard feelings toward any of those players, anybody in that organization.” His post-victory reaction on Thursday suggests something a bit different—and that he, clearly, has not forgotten who Sixers brass chose, and who they didn’t.

Neither, for that matter, has Embiid, who’s spoken on the record about letting Jimmy go being “a mistake,” and reiterated that stance after Thursday’s loss:

You can understand why Embiid might wish he was still going into playoff battles with Butler, who, since going to Miami, has proved himself a legitimate superstar and foundational franchise cornerstone. He spearheaded the Heat’s collective bubble lock-in, propelling them on a surprise run to the Finals. Once there, he authored two of the finest individual performances in Finals history, pushing the heavily favored Lakers to six games, despite Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic both suffering injuries in Game 1.

He’s a relentless competitor who answers all those questions Philly’s currently asking itself—about effort and mental and physical toughness—while also producing at an even higher level than he did when in the bubble.

Jimmy Eat World

2019-20 Bubble 21 38.4 22.2 6.5 6.0 2.0 23.8 0.616 13.5 24.9
2021-22 10 37.4 28.7 7.6 5.4 2.1 31.2 0.618 6.8 30.1
Data via and Cleaning the Glass

Butler’s leading the Heat in minutes, points, assists, and steals this postseason, and trails only Adebayo in rebounding and shot blocking. Game 6 marked his fourth straight outing of 30 or more points in a road game this postseason—something no other Heat player besides Dwyane Wade has ever done. If you’re making a list of players who’ve been better than Butler this postseason, I’m not sure it could reasonably have more than two names on it—Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic—and, given how comfortably Miami has handled its business and how efficiently Jimmy’s gone about his in the process, there’s a pretty good argument that it shouldn’t have any.

The job only gets harder from here. The Heat await either a rematch with the Celtics, whom they defeated in the Eastern Conference finals in the bubble, or a rubber match with the Bucks, whom they eliminated in the bubble but who swept Miami out of 2021’s first round. Despite being the East’s top seed, a distinction they earned despite every key member of their rotation missing significant time this season, Butler and Co. likely won’t be favored against either opponent. No matter who Miami faces, though, don’t expect Butler to blink.

“He’s never scared of the moment,” Heat forward P.J. Tucker told reporters after Game 6. “And that in itself is a talent, because I’ve played with guys who are really good, but when they get in those big moments, they shy away and they don’t really want it. And he wants every part of every moment.”

That’s why he keeps seizing new ones—and one reason Philadelphia, for all the churning and searching they’ve done since letting him go, still has yet to rise to meet the ones that matter most.