It took nearly two months, but on Saturday, Jimmy Butler got exactly what he wanted. He left a Minnesota Timberwolves team led by two young maximum-salaried players who don’t always play with effort and intensity, who have yet to display a consistent commitment to stopping the other team from scoring, and who he didn’t seem to believe would be good enough to ever win anything meaningful. He joined a Philadelphia 76ers team led by two young players—one on a max and another headed for his own next fall—who have already established themselves as reliably tenacious competitors, who already play NBA defense at an elite level, and who can credibly be considered the core pieces of a viable contender in an increasingly competitive conference.
Butler moved from the Western Conference, in which his disintegrating Wolves were more likely to miss the postseason than make it, to the East, in which the scuffling Sixers are expected to compete for home-court advantage. He exited the 15th-largest media market in the United States, and entered the fourth, a marked upgrade for a player whose initial list of preferred trade destinations suggested an interest in landing where the lights are brightest, and whose brand recognition inside the basketball world far outstrips his public profile outside of it. (When I shared the news with my family on Saturday, my wife’s first reaction—well, after being displeased that I was checking Twitter and Slack during Negotiated Non-Work Time—was, “Wait, which one is he again?”)
And, crucially, Butler, who reportedly plans to opt out of the final year of his contract next summer to enter unrestricted free agency, made all of that happen while keeping the possibility of a huge payday alive.
The Larry Bird exception to the collective bargaining agreement allows a player’s incumbent team to offer him a contract up to five years in length, compared to four years for other prospective suitors, and higher annual raises than anyone else. Since Butler made it crystal clear that he wasn’t staying in Minnesota, that path would not have been available to him without an in-season trade; Saturday’s swap preserves Butler’s Bird rights, and with them the chance to ink a five-year deal worth $190 million. Whether or not new 76ers general manager Elton Brand—or Sixers managing partner Joshua Harris, who reportedly worked through the deal with Timberwolves counterpart Glen Taylor—will be interested in signing Butler to that deal remains to be seen, but Philly reportedly made this trade intending to sign Butler for the long haul.
No matter how you slice it, Butler won. But hitting Powerball doesn’t always have a happy ending. Now comes the tricky part: making the most of a good situation. Butler brings another proven shot-creator and foul magnet to a Sixers team that has struggled to generate efficient offense—especially in the half court, where Philly ranks 21st in the league in points per play, according to Cleaning the Glass. He should pay dividends in close-and-late situations for a team whose possessions too often grind to a halt in those spots; among high-usage players, only LeBron James averaged more “clutch” points per game last season than Butler.
His prowess as a secondary ball handler and offensive initiator gives coach Brett Brown (even more of) a reason to scrap the Start Markelle Fultz Experiment. The Ben Simmons–Markelle Fultz pairing has been outscored on the season while producing points at a level 40,000 leagues beneath the worst team offenses in the NBA. (Fultz should be able to function better with more leeway on the second unit, anyway.) And Butler’s All-Defense on-ball bona fides soften the loss of Robert Covington, one of the best team perimeter defenders in the game, in pursuit of greater offensive gains.
The fit isn’t pristine—it’d be a hell of a lot neater if Butler could shoot it like Klay Thompson, Paul George, or Bradley Beal rather than like a slightly-above-league-average swingman—but it can work. And honestly, for Butler, it kind of has to.
Butler is 29 with more than 17,000 hard-driven NBA minutes on his body. He’s missed 15 or more games in four of the past five seasons and has a surgically repaired meniscus in his right knee. Butler wants to get paid and he wants to be “appreciated”—as often as not in the NBA, those two things overlap completely—but he also insists that his spoiling for a new home is about wanting to win. This next deal, the one that he hopes will carry him through age 34, could be his last chance to do it.
And so he lands with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, an MVP candidate and an ascendant positionless marvel, each of whom lords over the court in his own way. Embiid flashes his snarl and smirk, constantly trying to get inside the heads of his opponents. Simmons glides through conflict with an aristocrat’s imperiousness, unconcerned with whether you think he’s playing the right way or being a coward.
Philly won 52 games and a playoff series without Butler. The Sixers don’t need his confusing brand of leadership—the one that curdled in Chicago and metastasized in Minnesota—to spur their growth. They need him to make plays, hit shots, get stops, and buy in.
They need a top-15-caliber player to accept that some nights—maybe even most nights—he’s going to be the Sixers’ third-best player. When those nights end in losses, what nobody needs is a notebook full of eagerly lobbed quotes about how Some Dudes Just Need to Want It More. If that happens, again, and Philly stumbles rather than soars, it’s going to be hard to dismiss the idea that maybe everybody else isn’t the problem.
“He has to be on his best behavior [in Philly], and he knows it,” a league executive told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. “If he screws up that team, that’ll be three straight teams. Someone will sign him in free agency, but he won’t get all that he’s asking for.”
And there’s the rub: Is Butler really willing to sign up for that, after doing everything his way has gotten him this far?
“Like, you can’t judge the way I do things, whether you like it or not,” Butler told Sam Amick of The Athletic just before the trade. “Because I think that that’s the best way that I know how to express myself and how to get you to do what I’m asking you to do, and however you want me to do what you ask me to do. It’s how you go about it.”
How Butler goes about his business in Philadelphia could be the difference between the Sixers rejoining the championship conversation or spiraling out of control, and between Butler cementing himself as one of the premier versions of the league’s most valuable type of player or being branded as a stay-away malcontent. Butler played the Wolves heads up and won big. But another hand is about to start, and now the stakes are even higher.