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Jimmy Butler’s Arrival in Philly Signals the End of the Process

The controversial team-building strategy was supposed to develop young talent while accumulating enough assets to acquire a star player. The Sixers got their star. But is Butler the right addition to the locker room? And what does the deal mean for the franchise going forward?

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The Process was fun while it lasted. Now it’s over. Officially. Whatever comes next will be new and different—which may or may not mean better—but it certainly won’t be the same Sixers we’ve grown accustomed to these past few years. The strategy has shifted.

The Jimmy Butler saga ended for Minnesota on Saturday, which means the Jimmy Butler saga is only just beginning for Philly. The Sixers sent Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, and a 2022 second-round pick to the Timberwolves for Butler and Justin Patton.

That’s not just a trade, it’s a signal—to the rest of the league, perhaps, but mostly to the Sixers themselves. Whatever modifications there were to the Process before this were minor by comparison. Even before head coach Brett Brown moonlighted as the team’s chief front office executive for a summer, he was pretty open about telling anyone who would listen that “another high-level [player] was required.” That wasn’t necessarily a popular opinion among the rank and file. Joel Embiid said it wouldn’t matter if the Sixers added another piece in the offseason because they had him, and he could take them to another level. Any internal debate about the necessity of attaining a third top-tier player is over now. New general manager Elton Brand just settled it by bringing in Butler.

The pre-trade cost-benefit analysis evidently involved the upper reaches of Sixers management. According to Woj, Sixers principal owner Joshua Harris was “heavily involved” in the negotiation and “worked closely” with Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. Taylor’s involvement tracks with previous reports about the Wolves owner encouraging other owners to reach out to him directly, bypassing his president of basketball operations, Tom Thibodeau, and his general manager, Scott Layden, both of whom were initially reluctant to offload Butler. The part about Harris rolling up his sleeves and reaching out to help facilitate a deal is a bit more surprising. For a long time, Harris had a reputation as someone who was around the team—usually sitting courtside at games with his kids—but not necessarily engaged with actual basketball operations. His role has changed.

Over the summer, the Sixers dispatched an entourage, including members of their ownership group, to Los Angeles in the hopes of landing then-free agent LeBron James—and LeBron wasn’t even there. James sent his representatives instead. The Sixers money men flew all the way across the country just to talk to the guys behind the guy. That was the biggest, brightest indication of their desire to add another big name to the mix—until now.

After the Celtics defeated the Sixers last postseason, people inside the organization told me that there was a general feeling, voiced openly by people like Brown, that the team needed another star in order to launch them into the NBA’s upper atmosphere. But at the time there was a divide about how to acquire that kind of player. The Sixers obviously would have preferred to just write a massive check to a max-money free agent and retain their in-house assets. But when they failed in free agency, the internal debate shifted to what they’d be willing to give up if the right opportunity came along. That they landed on Covington and Saric as their answer comes with serious symbolism.

Covington and Saric are useful, talented players, sure, but more significantly, they were the very embodiment of the Process-era Sixers. Covington was an undrafted free agent in 2013 and spent some time in the G League before the Sixers scooped him up and signed him to a criminally cheap contract that paid him a grand total of $3.016 million through his first four seasons in the league. Saric was acquired in a 2014 draft-night heist when the Sixers took Elfrid Payton 10th, then shipped Payton to Orlando for Saric, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick. Saric stayed in Europe for a couple of seasons before finally coming to the NBA—which only grew his legend among Sixers loyalists. He was an idea, “the Homie,” and he was worth the wait. Crucially, both Covington and Saric were brought in by the patron saint of the Process, Sam Hinkie. To Philly fans, Covington and Saric weren’t just players, they were folk heroes. And now they’re gone. And something and someone very different has replaced them. (I’m not sure if the trade will work out for the Sixers, but my favorite reaction came from a friend who immediately texted “at least they got rid of Bayless.”)

Butler is poised to be a free agent this offseason. The Sixers can’t negotiate a new deal with him yet, but if they can convince him to re-sign, the Sixers could still free up enough money to get close to adding another max slot, thereby supercharging a team that now has three stars (though this would involve dumping Fultz and renouncing almost everyone else). If they can’t keep him, Butler would be an awfully expensive rental for Philly, and it would be a disaster for the Sixers’ short- and long-term prospects if he walked after all this. Even with some sort of wink-and-nod assurances, it’s a gamble for the organization. According to Woj, the Sixers and Butler “fully expect” to reach a long-term contract this summer—barring any “physical issues or Butler failing to fit into the Embiid-Simmons dynamic.” There’s enough wiggle room in those caveats that the Sixers could shimmy the entire organization through the opening sideways with space to spare.

Stockpiling assets in the form of players, picks, and cap space in the hopes of parlaying them into a star was always a core tenet of the Process—but so was finding the right fit without trying to jam a square wing into a round team dynamic. It’s worth wondering whether previous stewards of the franchise would have placed such a big bet on Butler. Either way, to the extent that any familial, homegrown, hand-holding environment ever existed, that’s over now for the Sixers. They chose to scrap the organic growth plan in favor of rapid acceleration.

Butler’s arrival poses obvious chemistry questions and creates the potential for volatility. He didn’t just mouth off to his teammates, sit out games, and force a trade—he also shouted at a vice president to go get him a salad for lunch. That’s a lot. Maybe a trade to Philly will soften Butler a bit, but I’m not counting on it. The attitude is part of what makes him such a killer on the court. So what happens if he gets peckish one day and barks at one of his new comrades to go fetch him some balsamic vinaigrette?

My guess is the reactions to that kind of approach won’t be as passive-aggressive in Philly as they were in Minnesota. Simmons isn’t Andrew Wiggins, and Embiid definitely isn’t Karl-Anthony Towns. They’re far from pushovers. Over the summer, I watched Embiid try to physically and mentally ruin Meyers Leonard and Mo Bamba in various pickup games. He was merciless. And those are two guys he knows well and likes. The question now isn’t just about Butler dishing it out in practice, but how much he’s willing to take in return.

Then there’s the matter of Markelle Fultz. The Sixers have been careful with how they’ve handled him, but careful isn’t exactly Butler’s style. What happens if Fultz doesn’t play particularly well in a game—or even a practice? Will Butler let him hear it? Or will he adapt to his new environment? It’s hard to imagine Butler showing any kind of love but the tough variety. After all, part of the reason the Butler deal finally went through was because he reportedly made the Timberwolves environment so “dysfunctional” that even Thibs finally realized that he had to go or the team wouldn’t have any shot of winning anything anytime soon.

The Sixers must feel confident that Butler will suspend his intra-office shit-talking, or at least turn it down. But they won’t really know for sure until they fold him into the franchise. Just as they won’t know about his fit on the court until he plays next to Simmons and Embiid. Just as they won’t know if he’s going to stick around until they actually offer him a fat new contract and he decides to sign it—or doesn’t. There’s a lot the Sixers don’t know right now, but they do know this: The Process is finished. It’s all a bit strange. Sixers fans have been bracing for this for a while. It’s something people discussed for years and even fantasized about. Imagine when the Sixers start getting stars. And now they have. I always knew this day would come, I just didn’t think it would come so soon—or look quite so hazy.