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The Sixers Are Putting Jimmy Butler in His Comfort Zones. Is It Helping?

Brett Brown and the coaching staff have relented: Jimmy’s getting the ball in his hands a lot more than he did to start in Philly. It’s about more than just appeasing a famously prickly star. It’s looking ahead to the future, in more ways than one.

Jimmy Butler AP Images/Ringer illustration

Jimmy Butler got his wish. After “aggressively” challenging Sixers head coach Brett Brown over his offensive role during a film session on December 30, the headstrong Sixers star has been given more control over the team’s offense, running more pick-and-rolls and isolations lately than he had in his first month and a half with the team. “I have been calling way more play calls than I kind of ever have. Usually, we just let stuff chug out and the ball finds Joel [Embiid], Ben [Simmons] does his thing, and JJ [Redick] moves,” Brown said before Tuesday’s game between the Sixers and Lakers. “With the inclusion of Jimmy, I think it’s incumbent upon me to play him in different places from time to time.”

Brown is practicing what he’s preached. In the 10 games since Butler aired his frustrations to the coaching staff, he is finishing 4.1 possessions per game using isolations, which is more than double his 1.8 possessions per game between the time he was acquired by the Sixers and December 30. Butler has also seen a slight uptick in pick-and-rolls, from 6.7 possessions to 7.6 possessions per game. Overall, these numbers more closely mimic his usage from the past few seasons in Minnesota and Chicago.

Butler’s On-Ball Usage

Time Isolations Per Game Pick-and-Rolls Per Game
Time Isolations Per Game Pick-and-Rolls Per Game
Post-Meeting (12/30 - 1/29) 4.1 7.6
Pre-Meeting (11/14 - 12/27) 1.8 6.7
2018-19 Wolves (Pre-Trade) 3.5 11.1
2017-18 Wolves 3.6 11.4
2016-17 Bulls 4.5 15.7
2015-16 Bulls 3.4 12.5
2014-15 Bulls 2.3 5.1
Stats derived from Synergy Sports tracking data.

The Sixers didn’t need to acquiesce to Butler’s requests; they’ve long run a system that ranked near the bottom of the league in his preferred play types. The Sixers currently log only 25.5 possessions per game using pick-and-rolls or isolations; the 2017-18 Timberwolves, for example, finished with nearly double, at 50.9 possessions. The pick-and-roll isn’t a staple of Philadelphia’s offense, but it’s becoming a bigger piece of the puzzle. That Butler is already playing more like himself instead of a rich man’s Robert Covington, spotting up and cutting, suggests that the team is putting an eye toward the future, in more ways than one. “Some of it is thinking ahead about what a playoff situation could look like,” Brown said. “This isn’t a science project. These are things that we need to get done to help us win, and solidify a greater level of knowledge about how we need to grow our team.”

The Sixers ranked 30th in fourth-quarter offensive rating last season, which carried into this season. Before acquiring Butler, their offense ranked 27th in the fourth quarter. Though the Sixers only sparingly run pick-and-rolls and isolations, those play types are necessary in the playoffs. They are two of the most fundamental ways to generate offense, and there will come a time when the team will need to build its muscle memory in those play types. Opponents can game plan during a seven-game series to stifle a standard offensive set, and often, an isolation at the end of the clock will be the best play available. Simmons and Embiid can generate offense, but both have their limitations down the stretch. Butler, on the other hand, has all the tools you’d expect from a late-game creator: He can pull up to shoot from anywhere and make plays for his teammates. He’s the best pick-and-roll and isolation scorer on the roster. That’s exactly why the star-hunting Sixers traded for him, and why they’ve now begun tweaking the offense.

Brown occasionally calls plays meant to isolate Butler. Sometimes, it’ll come out of a timeout, where the ball is inbounded to Butler. From there, everyone else clears out. But that’s not exactly how isos tend to play out in Philly. “To just throw it to Jimmy and say, ‘Go to work, Jimmy, all by yourself,’ doesn’t really interest me,” Brown said after the Lakers game. Instead, Butler’s isos usually come within the flow of the offense, starting with an on-ball screen to get him mismatched onto a slower-footed player, like in the clip below against the Hawks’ John Collins and the Knicks’ Luke Kornet.

Since 2014-15, including the playoffs, Butler is scoring 0.89 points per isolation, which is comparable to Paul George, Devin Booker, and CJ McCollum. Butler lacks Kevin Durant’s shooting prowess from 3 and DeMar DeRozan’s from midrange, but his powerful frame provides him other avenues as well. Butler’s first option is to bull his way to the rim, where he finishes well and draws fouls at a high rate. If the drive isn’t available, he’s most comfortable pulling up from midrange. Butler has shot 32.4 percent from downtown off the dribble since 2014-15, which isn’t a stellar number, but against elite defenders, there isn’t anyone else on the roster who can create a 3 for himself as effectively. The rest of the team shoots only a combined 31.2 percent from 3 off the dribble this season, which would rank 20th in the NBA. Butler isn’t the best option leaguewide, but he’s the best one available to the Sixers.

These are the types of shots that Philadelphia will likely need down the line: It may end up coming against the Celtics’ Al Horford or the Raptors’ Serge Ibaka, and not a subpar defender like Kornet, but regardless, the Sixers need to know that they can count on Butler to rise and fire.

Isolations are useful for more than just going full Kobe. A lot of the time, especially in today’s league with such a premium on 3-point shooting, isolations are about finding an open teammate off penetration. “When the game is on the line and you need a bucket, Jimmy can produce. He’s capable of creating his own shot,” Brown said. “You think, ‘Give it to Jimmy and he’s gonna save the day,’ but it’s not always that. His instinct, to me, is he wants to pass at times more than he does shoot.”

In the clip above, the Sixers call a play to get Butler isolated onto Clippers center Montrezl Harrell. With guard Lou Williams helping on Butler’s drive, Landry Shamet is left wide open for 3. Shamet, a 39.4 percent spot-up 3-point shooter, misses; Butler’s teammates are shooting only 3-for-13 on his passes out of isolations. But this is the Sixers we’re talking about here—trust the process. Butler is creating open looks that should eventually fall.

With Butler handling the ball, the Sixers have been straining defenses by more frequently having Redick, an all-time great shooter, slip screens to position himself behind the 3-point line. Even if Redick doesn’t get the ball, it can shake defenses like a snow globe, leading to open players all over the court for Butler to find, or space for him to drive, like in the clips below.

Defenders won’t always switch screens, instead opting to “drop” the big man to the paint, which is meant to lure the offense into taking a jump shot. This is where Embiid can thrive, since he has his pick of how to break down the defense: He can roll to the rim, pop for a 3-pointer, or attack off the dribble.

Embiid is arguably the game’s best big man, but these pick-and-rolls are fairly standard. The Sixers have occasionally gotten quirky by running pick-and-rolls from the baseline close to the basket, using either Simmons or Embiid as the screener.

It’s an unusual look that teams rarely use (the Rockets dabble with Chris Paul; the Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo), but with both Butler and Embiid more comfortable closer to the rim, it’s something to watch for from the Sixers as the season develops and Brown’s coaching staff begins installing more and more sets to maximize the strengths of his players. It makes little sense for most teams to run this sort of play, but it’s a perfectly counterintuitive scheme for a counterintuitive core of stars.

Against the Lakers, Brown empowered Butler to initiate more offensive sets (though Simmons still was the primary point guard bringing the ball up and playmaking in the half court). Playing Butler at point frees Simmons to post and cut more. “It was cool. It takes a lot of responsibility off my hands,” Simmons said. Simmons was subdued talking about the revised role. Butler was effusive. “I’m not even going to stunt: I was hype. [Brown] came to me two days ago and let me know that I was gonna be bringing the ball up a little bit. I told him I was comfortable with it,” Butler said after the game. “It’s a different look. We got so many guys that do so many things.”

When you have multiple great players who can take on different roles, sacrifice is a prerequisite to winning at the highest levels. Butler will never be given more opportunities than Simmons to initiate the Sixers offense, but playing on a great team requires learning how to do more with less. If the Sixers become a true Finals threat, every player will need to give up a little bit of what they do.

Embiid gave one of the best quotes of the season Tuesday night: “I’m Joel Embiid. I don’t get disrespected. I do the disrespecting.” It was in reference to a play in which the Lakers left him completely open for 3. Embiid took it as a slight, though it was simply a defensive breakdown. But chances are it won’t be the last time it happens this season, and it’s certainly something that may happen during the playoffs when Butler or Simmons is handling the ball. As much as Embiid likes to post up, he’ll often need to disrespect teams by launching from 3.

The same goes for Simmons: Playmaking is to Simmons as action movies are to late-career Liam Neeson, but he’ll need to learn how to be comfortable being a supporting actor sometimes, by being the screener. He’s certainly capable: Brown raved about Simmons’s growth as a screener, both on and off the ball. “He’s manhandled switches,” Brown said. “Ben puts his footprint all over an NBA game.” And sometimes, Butler will have to moonlight as a shooter and cutter instead of serving as an alpha-and-omega go-to scoring presence. “Everyone’s kind of feeling each other out,” Simmons said.

Butler can opt out of the final season of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer, which made dealing Covington and Dario Saric a significant risk. At the time of the trade, it was reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that the Sixers expected to re-sign Butler long term unless there were “physical issues” or Butler failed to “fit into the Embiid-Simmons dynamic.” Well, it’s been anything but seamless, which has sounded the alarms of Sixers fans. Spike Eskin, the cohost of an influential Sixers podcast called The Rights to Ricky Sanchez, wrote a column on January 13 that argued the Sixers should trade Butler before the deadline. In the days prior, Butler had been deliberately avoiding taking spot-up 3s, instead driving to the rim even when he was wide open. It was strange, to say the least. It’s unlikely that Sixers ownership would approve trading Butler, but Butler might bolt anyway. League sources expect the Clippers and Nets—two teams that run a lot of pick-and-roll—to pursue Butler this summer. Butler is a star who needs to be kept happy about his role in the offense, but that kind of coddling funnels into preparations that the Sixers will have to start making anyway.

What the Sixers need now is depth. Brown said that general manager Elton Brand is exploring ways to add depth to the roster, and league sources say the Sixers have been scoping the market for wings and a backup center. Hawks center Dewayne Dedmon has been marked by sources as one player to watch. The Cavaliers have also made Rodney Hood and Alec Burks available.

It seems likelier that the personnel changes the team seeks won’t come until the buyout market opens up. Until then, the Sixers will keep experimenting for the postseason, with Butler handling the ball and isolating more often. “I don’t want people to get too distorted with my desire to give [Butler] the ball. This will be small doses,” Brown said. “I’ll give him the ball as a point guard and we will continue to isolate him from time to time.”

Brown said coaches strive to have a “clean system,” though that’s not always possible. “Clean is effective when you’re in a regular-season rhythm,” Brown said. “When you have to beat somebody four times in a seven-game playoff series, that’s not how it works.” By playing Butler at the point, and letting him isolate, the Sixers are just getting ready for when the game gets dirty.