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How Jimmy Butler Meshes With the Sixers’ Young Stars

Philly now joins Golden State as the only teams with three of the NBA’s top 20 players. It can all work out, with a little creativity from the coaching staff.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Philadelphia raised its ceiling on Saturday, and Sam Hinkie’s dream of turning flexibility into championship contention is closer to becoming a reality, two leadership overhauls later. In acquiring Jimmy Butler, the Sixers now join the Warriors as the only two teams with three of the NBA’s top 20 players. A franchise that tanked three seasons under Hinkie has ended the Process. But as Joel Embiid said in 2017: “We’re always going to be trusting the Process.”

Head coach Brett Brown had talked about “star-hunting” during his time as acting interim GM; now that he’s gotten his prize, his next challenge will be synthesizing the on-court talent of Butler and his new star teammates, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The work isn’t over for the Sixers front office, either. General manager Elton Brand must replenish the team’s depth after sending two of Philly’s best shooters (Dario Saric and Robert Covington) to Minnesota.

Butler’s impact on the Sixers will be manifold, but it will be seen immediately in late-game situations. Philly ranks 29th in offensive rating during the fourth quarter after finishing 30th last season. The Sixers run pick-and-rolls and isolations the least frequently of any team in the league, but those bread-and-butter plays are a necessity in situations when good defenses clamp down, clog the paint, and fight harder through screens to neutralize a standard offense. Philadelphia didn’t run many of these plays because of its personnel. Simmons’s shooting dysfunction makes him predictable in the half court and Embiid is more of an interior threat who needs perimeter balance.

Butler doesn’t have either problem; Brown can put him any spot on the floor, and he can thrive. Butler will step in and assume the closer role, and jumpstart the Sixers’ stalled offense as a threat who can pull up to shoot from anywhere, attack the rim, and create opportunities for his teammates.

Butler’s presence should be the catalyst that forces Brown to revise the team’s offense, because solving their fourth-quarter scoring woes isn’t as simple as plugging Butler in as a supercharged Covington. Butler has shot a pedestrian 36.3 percent on spot-up 3s through the past six seasons, and now he’s joining a team that features one incumbent cornerstone who’s a career 32.3 percent from 3, and another who is hesitant to shoot with his left hand outside the restricted area.

Butler and Simmons will cut into each other’s touches, which is simply the reality of playing two players who are at their best in possession of the ball. It won’t be difficult for Butler to play without the ball after rising through the ranks as a player who had to prove his worth with limited chances. Butler is a star today, but he first cut his teeth playing away from the ball.

Butler can spot up, attack closeouts, and he’s a savvy cutter. It’s easy to imagine Simmons passing to Butler with a little high-low action, as Butler cuts to the rim. The roles could be reversed with Butler feeding Simmons, and how well Simmons handles that is the real source of intrigue. Butler isn’t an ideal off-ball threat to pair with two ball-dominant stars the way Klay Thompson is with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, but he’s fine. Simmons is the one who may have to make the biggest adjustment.

Brown has an opportunity to get creative with his unconventional point guard. Why not use Simmons as a pick-and-roll screener for Butler? Simmons is an explosive athlete with the body of a center; he can throw down lobs like DeAndre Jordan, or grab the ball and create on the short roll like he’s Draymond Green. If defenses switch, then either Simmons or Butler could have a mismatch that enables them to isolate or slide into the post. Simmons has served in the screening role in the past:

Saric made one of these passes to Simmons, while T.J. McConnell made the other. Now imagine how it’d look with Butler, who can jack up a 3 or probe looking for the right pass. Philadelphia’s spacing won’t be great, but it can be passable when its two worst shooters on the court are the ones engaged in the play. If JJ Redick and a fifth player, like Landry Shamet, are spotting up with Embiid stretching a big away from the paint, then there will be room to operate.

Butler and Simmons shouldn’t have to stagger minutes to an extreme level. However, there’s no longer any reason for Simmons and Markelle Fultz to share the court for more than a few overlapping minutes per game. Butler is the shot creator that Brown desired when he put Fultz in the starting five (and that former GM Bryan Colangelo desired when he drafted him). But Simmons looks scared to shoot and Fultz looks like it hurts when he shoots. Now they can be staggered, allowing Fultz to lead the second unit, or at least serve as a Simmons stand-in as the only non-shooter on the floor next to Butler and Embiid.

Butler could be a blessing for Fultz in the short term, but he could spell the end of his tenure in the long run. It’s a win for the Sixers that they didn’t need to give up Fultz, rookie wing Zhaire Smith, or any future first-round picks in the trade. Now these pieces can be used to go acquire something else to help the team. The Sixers need shooting in a bad way after losing Saric and Covington. They talked a trade with the Cavaliers for Kyle Korver during the offseason and retain interest now, according to league sources. Knicks shooting guard Courtney Lee is also available. Shooters are a scarcity on the market, though; the Sixers may need to look to the buyout market like they did late last season with Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. No matter the player, it should be a priority to retain flexibility heading into next summer.

Butler is eligible next summer for a five-year max salary worth close to $190 million with the Sixers; other teams can sign him for about $140 million over four years. There is no guarantee that Butler re-signs, but financially the Sixers do hold a significant advantage considering Butler will turn 30 next season. Butler has a cap hold of $30.7 million, so they can create about $22 million in cap space before re-signing Butler and after renouncing all other free agents, including Redick. If they dealt Fultz in a deal that created cap space, they could create around $30 million—nearly enough to sign a player to a max contract, or slightly overpay to acquire a second-tier star on the market. In a worst-case scenario in which Butler decides to leave, they could create more than $50 million in space.

In the meantime, Philadelphia needs to make this work now to assure that Butler doesn’t leave. The Sixers “fully expect” to sign Butler long term, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, unless there are “physical issues or Butler failing to fit into the Embiid-Simmons dynamic.” Those are two big caveats. Butler is fierce, and he’s about to enter a locker room with Embiid and Simmons, two other huge personalities. Things will be different, at least; he got fed up with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins for their passiveness, not because they challenged him. Towns and Wiggins are also sieves on defense; Embiid and Simmons are foundations of a top-10 defense. Three alphas can work as long as they coexist on the court.

That’s what the front office and coaching staff is betting on. Embiid can be the best player on a title team, but he needs a scoring partner. It was supposed to be Fultz, and it’s not. It could someday be Simmons, but he’s not there yet. Now, it can be Butler. Friday night’s win against the Hornets was a reminder of why the Sixers expressed interest in Butler back in September, and completed the deal on Saturday. The Sixers blew a 21-point lead in the second half, and during the last seven minutes of regulation Embiid was the only source of offense. Embiid drew foul after foul to keep Philadelphia alive, and hit the team’s only field goal (a difficult step-back 3) during that rough stretch. Butler could turn those blown leads into easier wins for the Sixers.

Managing the present and future is always a delicate balance. Butler’s future max contract could look like an albatross by the end if he doesn’t age well in his 30s. But in the short and long term, it’s a risk that the Sixers had to take. Philadelphia is built for sustainable winning into the 2020s, during which both Embiid and Simmons will be entering their respective prime years. But the Finals window is open now for any postseason-bound team in the East. The Sixers took a gamble to establish themselves as elite both now and later. The pieces they gave up were good, not great. This was a play for greatness. But to reach those heights in the playoffs, there is much more work to be done.