It’s not true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. For example, if you’re a chronically disgruntled NBA star like Jimmy Butler, you get three and counting. On Tuesday, Butler got a chance to make his latest first impression, this time for the Philadelphia media and, by extension, 76ers fans.
Given that at the time of his introductory press conference for the Chicago Bulls he was entering the NBA as the 30th overall pick in the 2011 draft, a slot from which the optimistic outcome is generally a solid rotation player, not much can reasonably be gleaned from Butler’s first interaction with the Chicago media. However, after turning himself into not just a role player but the 2015 Most Improved Player, an All-Star, and the best player on the team amid former MVP Derrick Rose’s injury issues, Butler grew discontent with the middling Bulls’ young locker room. Eventually, he forced the trade that reunited him with Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. There, he arrived as a star, and with him came fanfare and optimism. That first impression would be a sign of things to come.
Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, it would not be a sign of good things to come. After leading Minnesota to its first postseason berth since the heyday of Kevin Garnett, history began to repeat itself. Butler again grew discontent with his young teammates. He demanded a trade, embarrassed the youngsters at practice to prove a point, and, with the drama-embroiled Wolves off to a slow start, got his wish last weekend with a trade to Philadelphia. On Tuesday, he arrived in a new city, for the second time in less than 18 months, again bringing fanfare and optimism, but this time wariness too.
Butler’s first press conference in Minnesota can help inform expectations for his run in Philadelphia. First, though, there is one key contextual difference. Butler was traded to Minnesota on draft night 2017, rather than during the season. This changed some of the types of questions Butler faced. In Minnesota, questions about his fit on the team, leadership, and expectations were more open-ended, allowing him to say all the right things about his new teammates’ talent without getting into on-court specifics.
By contrast, in Philadelphia, he was asked directly about his on-court fit and the difference in style of play between Brett Brown’s Sixers and Thibs’s Wolves, giving him a jumping-off point to discuss his skill set and willingness to plug himself into the Sixers’ fast-paced, ball-moving style of play. Because of that, it’s probably best to throw out his more strategic answers in Philadelphia.
Because of the harsh (but fair) reputation Philadelphia’s press and fan base have, it’s probably also best to throw away Butler’s responses about how he thinks he’ll be accepted by the city. Philadelphia’s fans are incredibly easy but necessary to pander to: All an athlete has to do is talk about how hard a worker they are, how blue-collar they are, and how all they care about is winning a championship. Butler did just that. If not for the singularly charismatic and talented Joel Embiid and the singularly Rockyish underdog T.J. McConnell, Jimmy G. Buckets would probably be every Sixers fan’s favorite player already.
The key differences in the press conferences, then, come down to the way Butler envisioned himself fitting into his new team’s culture, and the way he addressed the rocky road that brought him to his new city.
“Thibs let me know you have to work in order to make it. … These young guys are really, really, really talented. I’m just here to push them to the best of their abilities. … They’re gonna come in each and every day and work, which is all you can ask for.”
After his opening statement in Minnesota, in which, for the first and last time, Butler thanked Karl-Anthony Towns for being in the same place as him, Butler spoke immediately about the importance of hard work. As it turned out, when Jimmy said, “They’re gonna come in each and every day and work, which is all you can ask for,” what he meant was, “I hope they aren’t too tired from staying up all night playing PUBG with my future teammate to try hard.” His hope was misplaced. By this offseason, Butler was “fed up” with KAT’s nonchalance, refused to sign an extension, and, well, now he’s in Philly.
By contrast, in his Sixers press conference, Butler addressed the same issue of hard work, but rather than being hypothetical (“I know they’re gonna … come in each and every day and work”), his comments were concrete. He mentioned that the one thing about the 76ers that stands out is “just how hard they play. … They play so incredibly hard, and they want to win, and that makes me smile, ’cause that’s who I am as a whole, as a person, every single day.”
The Sixers have an institutional reputation as a hard-working squad going back to the salad days of Sam Hinkie and athletic, unskilled second-round picks at every position — it’s how Brown managed to maintain a sterling reputation throughout the league during the Process years. The team always played hard even when it was engineered to lose, running on offense, shooting (and missing) 3s, and switching on defense.
The Sixers may have cause for concern, though, because along with this praise, Butler peppered in what could (and, given his history, perhaps should) be construed as a challenge: Immediately after talking about how talented the struggling Markelle Fultz is and (importantly) how he has a reputation as a hard worker, Butler answered a question about fitting into the team’s offense with: “Offense is easy. You shoot the ball when you’re open. When you can drive it you drive it. If you’re not, you pass it.” Later: “If I gotta spend countless of my hours shooting trey balls, I’ll do that.” Fultz and Ben Simmons, infamously, do not follow that first tenet of easy offense, and Simmons seems to have made few strides improving his jump shot in the years since he was drafted first overall.
Perhaps Butler mentioned those jumpers more directly than he did Towns’s and Andrew Wiggins’s defense last summer in the hopes that shooting won’t become a similar sticking point, but given that Simmons seemingly shoots with the wrong hand and Fultz is dealing with an unprecedented case of shooting malfunction and just fired his personal trainer, challenging them to shoot more probably won’t bear much fruit. This could be reading too much into the comments because of Butler’s baggage, but would anyone actually be surprised if, in a month’s time, Jimmy is wearing a “Shoot a 3, Coward” T-shirt to a postgame presser?
“I better have a pretty big impact on [defense],” Butler said at his Wolves introduction. “Whenever you show them what defense can really get you in this league and how teams have turned around because they played defense, I think you really want to do it, and you realize whenever you play both sides of the floor that you are viewed as much more of a [complete player], and that’s your way to greatness, and I think all of these guys are chasing that, being greatness, so you gotta play both sides. So we’ll lock in on that end of the floor.”
KAT came out of Kentucky with a reputation for game-changing defensive potential, but has seen that reputation first stagnate and then be overgrown by a rep as something of a joke. He improved a bit throughout last season, but not nearly enough to overcome his embarrassing early woes. Wiggins, meanwhile, is still seemingly actively avoiding rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, which one might chalk up to a Canadian politeness or metric-system thing before realizing it’s probably just that he’s not very skilled and doesn’t have very good basketball instincts, which, combined with his otherworldly athletic gifts, makes him essentially the perfect person for Butler to despise.
With his seemingly innocuous and rote answers about defense and effort, Butler drew his road map out of town in Minnesota: If his teammates did not meet his core expectations of hard work and commitment to technique and defense, he would not be happy. As it happened, the team won — they were the Western Conference’s third seed before he went down with a knee injury and the Wolves fell to eighth — but didn’t execute on defense, finishing with the league’s fourth-worst rating. True to his word, Jimmy wasn’t happy, and now he’s gone.
In Philadelphia, a different story: “I love to guard, and these guys have some really long arms, they’re strong, they get the basketball game on a mental level. So when you have that, the defense is gonna come, it’s gonna be easy.”
The Sixers are in one way an ideal landing spot for Butler, because as mentioned above, under Brown’s tutelage, they’ve developed a tight-knit locker-room culture that prides itself on defense and effort. Rather than having to establish these as important pillars of a young team’s identity, which Butler failed to do in spectacular fashion under an outdated “defensive wizard” coach in Minnesota, he should simply have to put in the hard work he prides himself on, learn Brown’s defensive scheme, and fit into the team that finished last season with the league’s fourth-best defensive rating. That team just lost first-team All-Defense member Robert Covington, but Butler thinks he’s better at defense than Covington, so that should be no excuse.
Butler was brazen in his Minnesota debut when discussing his history with unhappy locker rooms, pulling a Mike Jones by giving out his phone number while addressing a question about Antoine Walker’s assertion that he was a bad locker-room guy (and later talking to fans on FaceTime, one of the more bizarre forgotten NBA tidbits of the past few seasons).
Thibs and Butler both also addressed the importance of looking forward rather than backward (apparently a key tenet of Butler’s life philosophy).
In Tuesday’s session, Butler was more willing to discuss his last stop, outwardly defensive and sniping: “I don’t think there’s too many of [my ex-teammates] that would tell you I’m a bad teammate. Whatever people wanna say [publicly], it is what it is, but I think I’m an incredible human being and teammate.” Later, less subtly: “All you hear is ‘sources say.’ You never hear ‘a player said.’ … Unless everybody in my past locker room was that fake, I don’t think that I was that big a problem at all.”
When coupled with seeming shots at his former teammates, his assurances that he is a good and cooperative locker-room presence are hard to take at face value, and point to a player who is aware of but uncowed by his reputation as a tough guy to get along with, one who will continue to place the burden of respect on his teammates to earn rather than on himself to give.
The Litmus Test
One important quote that falls into a shade of gray between praise of basketball IQ/toughness and challenge to his new teammates is a response from about five minutes into Tuesday’s presser: “When we get out there and play together, I think it’ll be a different story, hopefully a good one that ends with a happy ending. But when guys get out there and they know how to play basketball, which everybody on this roster does, it’s all going to fall into place. I don’t think that anybody’s gonna step on anybody’s toes.” Here, Butler is taking the same hypothetical and demanding tone he took when talking about how he knew the players on the Timberwolves would work hard. Like his talk about hard work and buying into defense in Minnesota, this statement is likely to prove predictive of this new partnership’s success. Whether that’s a good or bad thing for the Sixers, only hindsight can tell for sure.
Bobby Hallinan is a writer living in Philadelphia, so he’s allowed to say stuff about Philadelphia fans.