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The Jimmy Butler Era Can’t Fix Everything Wrong With the Sixers, but It’ll Try

Philly is still riding the high of its new star acquisition, and for good reason. However, the franchise is juggling a number of familiar problems just beneath the surface.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jimmy Butler had a song stuck in his head, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“Y’all have one of the catchiest things: The ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Sixer’ deal,” Butler said about “Here Come the Sixers,” the team anthem from 1975 that was dusted off a few years ago and has been in heavy rotation ever since. He always loved that tune, even when he was just visiting. But the Sixers play it only when they win, and hearing it back then meant Butler’s team lost. Not anymore. When he hears it now, like he did after his home debut on Friday in a close Sixers win over the Jazz, it’s different. It’s not just “y’all’s” song anymore. It’s his, too.

As introductions to a new town go, and especially as introductions to that town go, Butler’s has been smooth and fast. He scored a team-high 28 points (on 12-of-15 shooting), and added seven assists, three rebounds, and two steals against the Jazz. It took roughly 90 seconds for the crowd to chant his name, and when he made a late layup on an inbound pass from Ben Simmons to help seal the win, the fan base at the Wells Fargo Center lost its mind.

The night hit all the Philly sports sweet spots. Allen Iverson was on hand to ring the ceremonial pregame bell and served as Butler’s willing in-game hype man. Butler got to ring the ceremonial postgame bell himself. (Philly bell culture is spinning out of control.) And when Butler launched his first-ever game ball halfway across the arena, it landed in the hands of a 22-year-old Temple student who was overjoyed to look down and see that Butler had scribbled “I ♥ Philly” on the side. For all of the city’s bluster and its (not always unfair) reputation for being home to a bunch of raving obsessives, that’s all the people there not-so-secretly want — someone to love and love them back. Even if that someone has a history of detonating relationships and adores country music and minivans.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s off to a hot start, either. Butler had two recovery blocks in an overtime road victory against the Hornets on Saturday on the second night of a back-to-back. Both blocks were on Kemba Walker, and both were integral to the effort, but the second was especially impressive. Then Butler went and won the game with a 3 — he even called “game” on it because JJ Redick dared him.

Sixers play-by-play god Marc Zumoff gave his blessing after that: “Jimmy Butler, you are a 76er!” We’re only four games into the Butler era, but it feels like his Philly pledge period is complete. He’s already in. Just look at Butler’s chosen reading material. What could possibly be more Philly? I’m pretty sure the author sells those out of the back of a van behind the Chickie’s & Pete’s on the Boulevard. We’re basically one Instagram video of Butler wearing sweatpants to Wawa away from the city putting a statue of him outside the Museum of Art.

But while Philly is quick to swoon, it’s also fickle. In Butler’s first game, the Sixers blew a 16-point fourth-quarter lead on the road and lost to the Magic. They nearly wasted another 16-point lead against the Jazz. And they needed overtime to beat the Hornets and watched Kemba cook them for 60 points on 34 shots. The margin for the Sixers in those three games was plus-4. That’s thinner than Landry Shamet. Then, on Monday, they had to overcome a 15-point Suns lead to squeeze past one of the worst teams in the NBA at home. Philly is nothing but love for Butler and the Sixers right now, but it’s not hard to imagine the city flipping on them if those close wins become narrow losses. It’s been known to happen.

Brett Brown knows all that, which is perhaps why he cautioned against results-based thinking. (Forget everything anyone ever wrote; maybe the Process isn’t over after all.) The Sixers added an All-Star wing when they traded for Butler, but they also subtracted two integral pieces who doubled as Process folk heroes in Robert Covington and Dario Saric. That requires some adjustment. So does weaving two high-usage, ball-dominant players in Simmons and Butler into one seamless fabric.

“It’s a whole new gift I have, we have,” Brown said. “We can really put [Butler] in some stuff, the pick-and-rolls. Some elbow isolations. Pairing him up with Joel [Embiid], especially, interests me. You can see, we lean on JJ so much, and he gets hammered on some of those actions. It reminded me of the Celtics series. It was a physical thing. We really had a hard time getting to it at the end. With the inclusion of Jimmy, we’re going to have way more available to us to walk down a game.”

The Sixers did not run much pick-and-roll before Butler arrived, but they’ve already started phasing that in. Brown mentioned using Simmons as a screener for Butler at times, but mainly he envisions Simmons initiating the offense as the primary point guard. “We cannot forget that Ben Simmons has a chance, and he will, to connect the dots as our point guard,” Brown said. Then repeated it for emphasis. “Hear me. As our point guard.”

As Brown put it over the weekend, they’re still figuring stuff out. Brown likes to break the season into thirds, and he predicted it would take the rest of this third for the Sixers to do all that figuring.

The Sixers believe they got better when they added Butler — the line about them having three top-20 players now has been repeated so often that it’s become a kind of provincial Gregorian chant around here. It has been a long time since the Sixers had a wing who could create off the dribble, shoot, and play defense, rather than specialists who could do only one or two of those things. Or none. The last player who rated in all three categories was probably Andre Iguodala, and that was seven seasons ago. But acquiring top-end talent often comes at a price. The rotations have been a bit wonky to start — in part because Brown is still experimenting to see what works, but also because his mix-and-match options are limited.

“The ecosystem,” Brown admitted, “is rocky right now.”

When is it not? He was speaking of his rotation, but the sentiment goes double for the franchise as a whole. With apologies to the Wizards, the Warriors, the Lakers, and the puddle Butler left behind after roasting everyone in the Upper Midwest, the Sixers have authored or been party to more over-the-top plot lines than anyone else in the NBA. Forget the Colangelo coup, the Hinkie Manifesto, or even that time managing partner Josh Harris canceled a kids’ soccer game by landing his helicopter on the field. Just consider everything that’s happened in the past six months: They fired their general manager after an internal investigation into a bizarre social media account scandal first reported by The Ringer. They spent the whole critical offseason operating with a front office by committee, only to hire a new general manager, Elton Brand, who, as Embiid helpfully pointed out, was only two years removed from getting dunked on by the franchise center during Sixers practice. There were also outrageous, offbeat side stories like Redick’s caged-person cab ride, the video of a personal trainer and his paramour getting comfortable courtside, and the embarrassing but hilarious premature celebratory confetti in a playoff loss to the Celtics.

And around 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night earlier this month, before leaving for a road trip, and mere hours before acquiring Butler, the team announced yet another medical setback to yet another first-round pick, this one owing to an undiscovered sesame allergy that threatens to keep the rookie out for the foreseeable future. And through it all Markelle Fultz has been … Markelle Fultz. And that’s just the past six months. And now they have Jimmy Butler. And, and, and. There’s always an “and” with the Sixers — and they know it.

Sixers fans tend to be a bit jumpy when it comes to injuries, and doubly so when it comes to injuries suffered by Embiid. That’s understandable. Which is why the collective anxiety around here went up over the weekend. After another big game in a season full of them (Embiid was a plus-12 against the Jazz and filled up the box score), he casually said that his right hand had been bothering him that night and was “really swollen.” He said it was something that had to get worked on and looked at, which was only slightly less concerning than when he revealed he’d been dealing with the issue since the last time the Sixers played the Suns on the road. That was last New Year’s Eve. Embiid naturally did his Embiid thing and laughed it all off.

“I could have played left-handed,” he said. “So maybe next time I’ll play left-handed.”

Embiid played 40 minutes the very next night in Charlotte. Then he played 36 minutes on Monday against the Suns. He did not play left-handed. Through Tuesday, he led the league in total minutes and points.

Embiid’s performance and delightful shtick aside, it’s tough to be amused when it comes to the Sixers and undisclosed medical issues. Embiid’s lingering hand boo-boo is just the latest out-of-nowhere revelation. He’s been through a lot of those, from the time he was seen riding a hoverboard around Old City shortly before it was announced that he had to have surgery on his foot, to his excellent, half-naked dancing on stage at a Meek Mill concert the day before the team disclosed that the center had a meniscus tear in his left knee. That last story was initially reported by Derek Bodner, now with The Athletic, which prompted then–president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo to address the media. At the time, a team source told me it was “doubtful” that Colangelo would have given an update if Bodner hadn’t reported the story and forced his hand.

In fairness, attempting to control or soften the coverage wasn’t unique to Colangelo, and it isn’t unique to the Sixers, though the organization has gotten pretty practiced at it. (I was told the Sixers purposefully gave the first question at the Butler presser to an in-house reporter for the team website, in part to “control the narrative” and thereby avoid beginning the proceedings with queries about Jimmy-related drama.) The Sixers have a long history of being less than transparent about injuries to players such as Jahlil Okafor, Jerryd Bayless, Nerlens Noel, and Simmons, among others. Some of that happened on Sam Hinkie’s watch, and now it appears the Sixers are continuing the tradition under a third administration.

Rookie Zhaire Smith had foot surgery in August and hasn’t played a minute for the Sixers this season. That’s become a typical baptism for Sixers first-round picks. But the rest of what has happened with Smith is bizarre even by Sixers standards. They issued a press release on September 27 stating that Smith “underwent a successful thoracoscopy surgery” to “address an issue that stemmed from an allergic reaction to a food product.” The statement promised that “an additional update will be provided as appropriate.”

Nearly a month later, the daily medical update from October 22 listed Smith as out because of his foot injury. It made no mention of his esophagus issues. The same was true on October 26. It wasn’t until November 9, a month and a half after first mentioning Smith’s allergic reaction, that a team spokesperson and Brand unexpectedly briefed the media and issued a carefully crafted press release. It explained that Smith had received “additional medical treatment for complications derived from the allergic reaction that initially required a thoracoscopy” and there was “no timetable for his return to play.” The entire statement was 44 words long, and was delivered with Smith’s consent (which was required, given that his condition is not basketball related). On background, team sources told reporters that they were aware of Smith’s peanut allergy and prepared his food individually, but the team and the player were unaware that he also had a sesame allergy, and he may have eaten something from the facility with sesame in it that triggered a reaction. Reporters were also told that Smith would not play in 2018.

The timing of the Smith disclosure was strange, mirroring how Colangelo chose to reveal Embiid’s meniscus tear after Bodner’s report. Except this time, the team was proactive. A league source tipped me to Smith’s allergy issues on the morning of November 9. I spent the afternoon checking around and talked to people inside and outside the organization. I also reached out to Smith’s agent, who gave me a terse “no comment” before hanging up the phone. Then the team suddenly addressed the media late that night — before flying to Memphis for a game the next day and mere hours before news broke the next morning about the Butler deal.

I’m not sure what to make of that timeline. It might be coincidence, but it’s certainly curious. So was the way the information was ladled out by the organization. Several reports stemming from the November 9 background briefing mentioned that Smith had “lost weight” over the past month and a half, but I was told that he lost “upward of 20 pounds.” For someone who’s listed at 199 pounds on the team website, that’s significant. As is the difference between Smith not playing in 2018, as reported, and “being in danger” of not playing at all this season, which is how it was explained to me. I was also told that he had more than one procedure to address the issue, which is evidently what the Sixers meant by the fuzzy “additional medical treatment” line. (The team had no comment, according to a spokesperson.)

The vagueness around Smith’s condition is all the more troubling considering we’re more than a year into the Unsolved Mystery of Markelle Fultz and we’re no closer to cracking that case. (On Tuesday morning, David Aldridge reported that Fultz will see a shoulder specialist and won’t participate in practices or games until he’s evaluated. Following the Suns game, Brown said the backup point guard minutes would be divvied up based on matchups and opponents. After asking around, I get the sense that Brown and the team didn’t know this latest shutdown was coming, and that it was a Fultz camp decision.) Given how the Sixers tend to operate, it’s no wonder that the organization fields all sorts of wild questions about the health of its players — rumors had circulated that Fultz’s shoulder concerns were the result of a motorcycle accident, but they were batted down by Fultz’s agent — or that fans do deep-dive Twitter investigations on their own. In a since-deleted tweet earlier this month, Fultz’s former trainer, Drew Hanlen, wrote that the 2017 no. 1 pick is “still not healthy.” When Fultz was asked about it, he said “nobody is ever 100 percent healthy in this game” — then moments later added “everything feels good.” Because things weren’t murky enough.

If there’s anything amusing to come out of the Fultz saga — aside from Jae Crowder getting caught on camera the other night mimicking Fultz’s new hot-potato free throw form — it’s that ripple effects from the prolonged ordeal have really annoyed Philly media, a group otherwise known for handling everything with aplomb. On November 1, the Sixers issued a new team policy stating that “media are not permitted to congregate on the 76ers bench pregame. You may watch pregame warmups from the baseline or sideline across from the bench.” The statement signed off with a “thanks in advance for your cooperation,” which I thought was a genuinely nice touch, if a little naive. The Philly media is also world famous for its cooperation.

Not long thereafter, but before it was reported that Hanlen and Fultz were “no longer working together or on speaking terms,” Hanlen was seen sitting on the Sixers bench before a game. That naturally inspired one enterprising and super-cooperative Daily News columnist to harangue Sixers PR officials at length about it — not because Hanlen was enjoying a privilege that had been stripped from reporters, but because, by virtue of Hanlen sitting on the bench, which had been reserved for members of the team, Hanlen must therefore work for the team or at least be in league with it. The columnist demanded the Sixers produce Hanlen for questioning posthaste. That is weird logic, but I respect the hustle.

Jimmy Butler had a far-off stare as he reached down and held his calf. This was after the Jazz game. He was wearing a black zip-up sweater stamped with a white pattern, and he had a sweet sherpa-lined denim jacket on over it. He looked warm. Comfortable, too — except for the face he was making. A reporter asked him a question, a long one. At the end of it, Butler apologized.

“Man,” Butler said, “I got a serious cramp in my calf. So I don’t even know what you were saying. Can you please start over?”

Everyone laughed. The reporter started over:

Did you feel the need to talk to Ben at all when you first got here, you guys both being kind of ball-dominant players. And him being the young guy, you being the old guy?

“I’m not old,” Butler began. “I’m 29.”

He’s caught in a gray area. Butler is certainly a top-tier player deserving of a max contract, but he’s also in the age range where teams will have to consider what he has left in the tank on the back end of his eventual deal — especially because of all the miles and minutes Tom Thibodeau put on his odometer in Minnesota and Chicago.

Butler has said multiple times that it’s not about the money, but he’s going to get a lot of it from someone. The Sixers hope and expect to be that someone and would really like to sign him to the full five-year, $190 million max — provided he stays healthy and doesn’t try to burn down the Sixers the way he helped torch the Wolves. If he sticks around, the Sixers could still free up close to $30 million more in cap space to throw at another quality free agent, though they’d have to renounce all their other pending free agents and dump Fultz. And then they’d still need to extend Simmons, who will become a restricted free agent in 2020. If all that happens, they’d have the vast majority of their cap tied up in Butler, Embiid, Simmons, and Unknown Big Name X, which would zoom them into the luxury tax for the foreseeable future and probably leave the rest of the roster pretty thin. (With the never-ending dysfunction in D.C., perhaps they can pry Bradley Beal away from the Wizards now that everyone is reportedly available.) And that’s the best-case scenario.

Worst case, Butler walks. Some people have already tried to spin that as not as bad as it sounds because then the Sixers could potentially clear around $50 million in cap space and go on a spending spree. That number would look pretty on paper, but in practice it wouldn’t be so easy to allocate. The Sixers learned last offseason that shopping on the free-agent market is complicated, even for teams with bright futures and stacks of cash to toss around. Not to mention that they would have given up Saric and Covington (on a really good deal) for nothing.

No, for this to work, they need to retain Butler — and then it still has to work on the court, too. There’s a lot up in the air, and the Sixers will have to do some fast juggling to keep their future from falling and going splat. For now, Philly is riding its high for as long as it can be sustained. As personalities go, Butler clearly has a big one. That didn’t go over well in Minnesota, but so far, at least anecdotally, it’s been fine in Philly. Better than that, even.

After one of Butler’s field goals in the Jazz game, the arena played “Jimmy” by Boogie Down Productions. I looked around to see whether anyone else noticed — because the song is about a dick. Butler is the Sixers’ dick now — a we dick instead of y’all’s dick — which is precisely what Philly fans love to rally around and exactly what the Sixers needed. The team needed someone to puff out his chest and take over when games were close down the stretch. Butler — who is near the top of the league in fourth-quarter scoring — has already been instrumental in that regard, and he’s also one of their most versatile and willing defenders. He’s the closer the Sixers have often lacked, something that undid the team when they fell to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season. Of course, there’s only so much Butler can do at both ends of the floor without overexerting himself. It’s still only November. Keeping him fresh for mid-April and beyond is paramount. As Brown admitted before Monday’s game against the Suns, Butler “trying to save the planet and guard everybody and be all-league defense” while simultaneously operating in an offense predicated on movement is a big ask.

“Is it sustainable?” Brown asked rhetorically. “In my heart, no. And so you pick your moments and you say, ‘OK, it’s crunch time.’ Leave Jimmy alone.”

Still, early returns on the trade are encouraging; according to Bovada, adding Butler boosted their odds of winning a championship from 20/1 to 14/1. After Friday’s win over Utah, Butler and Simmons implied that the out-of-bounds play that helped them beat the Jazz was the product of early-onset mental telepathy between the two. Both said they just sort of looked at each other and nodded and knew how it would unfold. The team and its fans have seen flashes of just how well this arrangement can work out. They have their three stars, they have their closer and late-game stopper, and they have firmly entered the discussion as Finals contenders for the first time in nearly two decades. As Brown summed up, “it’s an evolving” environment. With the Sixers, isn’t it always?

This piece was updated after publication with more information.

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