The Sixers’ final eight minutes against the Magic on Wednesday night felt like a training simulation out of an X-Men comic, with Philadelphia coach Brett Brown assuming the role of Professor X, corralling his team into the Danger Room for a little critical-situation exercise. The game flow had suddenly aligned itself with the numbers we were all waiting to see tested: What happens when the one of the least-efficient fourth-quarter teams adds Jimmy Butler, who is tied for the top spot in the league in fourth-quarter scoring?
But even when stars align, NBA games aren’t always in the business of wish fulfillment. Philly led by 16 with just under 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but coughed up the lead through a drawn-out series of settled midrange pull-ups from both Joel Embiid and Butler. Whatever heroics were promised with Butler’s arrival would have to wait. In the game-clinching possession, Brown called for an after-timeout play to free up JJ Redick for a routine 3 off a Ben Simmons dribble handoff. After Redick and Butler curled figure-eights around screens set by Embiid and Mike Muscala to clear the right side of the floor, it was all up to Simmons and Redick to tie the game. Redick always vacuum-seals these handoff situations and maneuvers around a screen as tightly as possible to effectively wall off two defenders at once. Unfortunately, down three with just under seven seconds remaining to go, Redick realized what Sixers fans had already discovered this game: There just isn’t enough space. Simmons set his screen right where the right wing and corner connect, leaving Redick no room to squeeze around him. Redick stepped out of bounds. The Sixers lost, 111-106, in the first game of their new Big Three era.
For however long this feeling-out process lasts, the onus will be on Brown, who has been gifted just about everything he could have wanted this season (a fully functioning Markelle Fultz notwithstanding). In the first game of the Sixers’ new season, Brown began experimenting, trotting out supersized lineups with at least three 6-foot-10 sentinels on the court at once, and, strangely, opting to use up about 40 seconds of play in the first quarter without any of his three stars. When Brown did stagger his cornerstones, he opted to play Butler and Simmons together, likely to allow the two to get a feel for each other’s tendencies in game action. It went about as well as you’d expect of two power guards who would rather create opportunities close to the basket with the ball in their hands. Even successful possessions were almost painfully awkward.
The Sixers got an easy spot-up 3 at the top of the arc off a Simmons pass to Landry Shamet in the play above, but in the process of creating the shot, Butler and Simmons show just how cramped the floor can get when Simmons is down in the paint. Butler is forced to pass to Simmons along the baseline because Simmons is occupying his landing zone. The two are so talented that they suck four different Magic defenders into their vortex, but the Sixers acquired a third star to take advantage of an unlimited slate of mismatches, not to make the most of a bad situation. The Butler-Simmons dynamic will be something to monitor during the next 10 games; Simmons, while a willing screener, didn’t make the most of his opportunities away from the ball to lure defenders away from the action. The Sixers won’t ask Simmons to be shooting spot-up 3s any time soon, but if he isn’t going to space the floor traditionally, then Brown will have to find spots on the floor where he can influence the offense when it’s in Butler’s possession. The Sixers will surely need more than the pedestrian performance (nine points, three rebounds, six assists) than they got on Wednesday night. Simmons’s five shots were the fewest he’s taken this season outside of one game when he was in foul trouble and another game in which he played eight minutes.
If there was a bright spot in the Sixers’ performance on Wednesday, it was how comfortable Butler felt as the second option on the team. After his incendiary exit from Minnesota, you’d be forgiven if you found it hard to see past Butler’s domineering personality to find a former role player who has the skills to mesh with just about any team in the league. Butler was in the 92nd percentile of all NBA players at scoring off of cuts in 2015-16 with the Bulls, generating 1.53 points per possession on 126 possessions; that number fell to an average of 65 possessions during the next two seasons. He is one of the smartest cutters in the league, and will be in a position to maximize his offensive output with easy buckets on feeds from Simmons and Embiid.
“This, right here, right now, feels like the start of something big,” Marc Zumoff, the NBC Sports Philadelphia play-by-play broadcaster, said before Wednesday’s game. It very well could be. The Sixers have as much front-end talent as any team east of the Mississippi. But if there’s one thing the past decade of basketball has taught us, it’s that superteams take time. Unless you’re Kevin Durant joining one of the greatest teams in NBA history, incorporating a star into a prefunctioning system isn’t a matter of arithmetic. This may not be where Butler ultimately belongs, but he has all the tools to make it work. The pressure, then, might swing over to his teammates.