Jimmy Butler is at it again. Less than two months after forcing himself out of Minnesota, he is reportedly pushing for a bigger offensive role in Philadelphia. There are some differences between the two situations, but the underlying issue is the same. Butler has once again been awkwardly grafted into a Big Three with two younger players at a different stage in their careers. There’s no way to keep Butler happy without negatively affecting the development of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, just as there was no way to keep him happy without negatively affecting the development of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The 76ers, like the Wolves before them, are caught in the horns of a dilemma, but Butler doesn’t care about that. He just wants to win now.
Lost in the drama is the fact that trading for Butler has made Philadelphia better. They went from 8-6 before the trade to 18-8 after, and their net rating jumped from minus-0.9 to plus-3.8. But that still isn’t enough to make them a legitimate title contender. The 76ers haven’t created any separation from the other top-five seeds in the Eastern Conference. They might not be favored in a playoff series against any of them. The biggest issue is the lack of talent in their supporting cast, but Butler has valid complaints about the way he is being used by his new team. They traded for him to push them over the top, and they haven’t given him a chance to do it.
Butler’s stats (18.0 points on 46.2 percent shooting, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game) are down across the board from his time in Minnesota. He isn’t handling the ball in the pick-and-roll as often. The percentage of his offense that comes out of the two-man game has dropped from 35.7 percent to 24.1. Butler fits perfectly into the spread pick-and-roll offense that has taken over the league, but the 76ers run a more unorthodox system based around getting post-ups for Embiid and drives off movement for Simmons. Running more sets for Butler with a big man diving to the basket and shooters around him would give them a late-game offensive identity they currently lack.
The problem for Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown is that it isn’t as simple as dialing up more plays for Butler. Using one of Simmons or Embiid as a screener for Butler would take the ball out of their hands, and there isn’t anywhere to put the other on the floor. No one has much space to operate when Simmons (who hasn’t shot a 3 all season) or Embiid (who is shooting 29.7 percent from 3 on 3.8 attempts per game this season) is playing off the ball, since defenses will gladly leave them open on the perimeter. The 76ers have tried to put Simmons in the dunker spot on the baseline to make the spacing work, but that still requires pinpoint passing from all involved to pull off successfully.
None of those issues particularly matter to Butler. There is a simple solution if Simmons and Embiid can’t both be on the floor when he is running pick-and-rolls: Take one of them out. Three high-usage players can be a crowd. The 76ers have been more effective when Butler is playing with one of his costars than with both.
Philly Big Three
|Butler, Simmons, Embiid||334||plus-4.2|
|Butler, Simmons, no Embiid||255||plus-5.4|
|Butler, Embiid, no Simmons||58||plus-20.8|
The benefits to playing without Simmons are obvious. Embiid and Butler are two of the best one-on-one scorers in the NBA, and a pick-and-roll between the two can force defenses into an impossible decision, as long as the opposition doesn’t have the option of keeping a third defender in the paint to blow up the play. The role distribution becomes much simpler in those Simmons-less lineups, since everyone else in the 76ers rotation will at least attempt open 3s. Simmons needs the ball in his hands to be effective so anyone who plays with him has to move into more of a secondary role, even if there are other stars on the court that put more pressure on the defense than he does.
There are also benefits to playing without Embiid, which would be more apparent in a playoff environment. While the Cameroonian is an elite interior defender, he isn’t as effective when guarding in space on the perimeter. The 76ers typically drop him back in the pick-and-roll and try to funnel penetration toward him, but that leaves them vulnerable to teams who spread the floor with five 3-point shooters, which happened in their second-round loss to the Celtics last season. A lineup built around just Butler and Simmons can play far more aggressively on defense, using their versatility to switch every screen.
If winning a championship was the only concern for Philadelphia, it would probably move toward a center platoon at the end of games, with Embiid coming off the floor in certain situations and Simmons coming off in others. The problem is that it can’t be. The 76ers signaled that “The Process” was over when they traded for Butler, but it’s impossible to throw player development out the window when two of your best players are under 25. Markelle Fultz was the obvious scapegoat at the start of the season, but it’s not like Embiid or Simmons are finished products, either. No one is wrong in this situation. Butler has a right to be frustrated with the holes in their games, and the Sixers’ two young stars each have just as much reason as Butler to be frustrated with the structure of the offense. If Brown starts benching either Embiid or Simmons in crunch time, the chemistry experiment in Philadelphia will start to look like a meth lab.
Embiid has already complained about the way his offensive role changed in the wake of the trade. He would much rather play in the paint than pop out to the 3-point line to create driving lanes for Butler. He’s one of the most dominant interior scorers to come into the league in a generation, and he has made a substantial leap as a passer this season. Taking him off the floor isn’t the only counter if opposing teams run pick-and-rolls at him in the fourth quarter. The 76ers could just pound the ball inside to him on offense, since few big men with the ability to pop out to the 3-point line also have the physicality to bang with him in the paint. Embiid doesn’t need to become a glorified version of Clint Capela. He’s good enough to where Butler could play off him.
It’s the same story with Simmons, who would be most effective in an offense similar to the one the Bucks have built around Giannis Antetokounmpo, with four shooters spread out along the 3-point line, creating acres of space for him to drive into the lane. Part of the theoretical appeal of the Butler trade was the way it would unlock Simmons as a screener, but becoming a supersized version of Draymond Green may not be all that appealing to him, either. He’s only in his second season in the NBA. Giving up control of the offense and moving into more of a complementary role may not be in the best interest of his career.
What happened to Towns in Minnesota is a cautionary tale for both of the young stars in Philadelphia. Towns was widely seen as a future MVP candidate before playing with Butler. He averaged 25.1 points on 54.2 percent shooting, 12.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game as a 21-year-old in a low-pressure environment where winning was not the top priority. His numbers dropped once Butler arrived, as he went from being the centerpiece to part of the supporting cast, while his diminished role on offense exposed some of his defensive limitations. His reputation around the league is still recovering.
Towns has been significantly better since Butler’s departure, with his averages over the past 26 games (23.1 points on 50.8 percent shooting, 12.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.8 blocks) moving back toward where they were pre-Butler. The Wolves are only 15-12 with a net rating of plus-4.0 in that span, but a team whose best player is 23 doesn’t need to contend for championships immediately, anyway. They just gave Towns a five-year, $190 million extension. Their biggest concern should be finding the players that fit around him, not trying to fit him in as a sidekick to a player who doesn’t have as much talent as he does.
It’s possible that Towns may never be good enough to be the best player on a championship team. His career trajectory could end up resembling Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, jump-shooting big men who accepted a smaller role to play for a championship contender. But both Bosh and Love made that transition in their mid-to-late 20s, after spending years as the primary option on a rebuilding team. It’s a lot easier to sacrifice when you know what you are giving up, and you have ownership in the decision. Towns didn’t ask for his role to be reduced so that his team could appease Butler any more than Embiid or Simmons did.
There’s a life cycle to NBA stardom. Young players want to maximize their own potential. They haven’t made any real money yet, and their salary once they hit free agency (as well as their earning potential off the court) is largely determined by their statistical production. Their production, in turn, is determined by their role on the team, and whether their teammates complement their game. What even the greatest players eventually realize is that they can’t win championships by themselves, and that putting up massive stats on average teams is only so satisfying. It’s all part of the natural maturation process, and there’s only so much a team can do to force that process along.
Simmons and Embiid are still figuring out who they are in the NBA. They need more freedom to experiment and grow different aspects of their game, not less. The fit between them, both on and off the court, was uneasy even without Butler. Simmons is at his best in transition, where his lack of a jumper is less of an issue, while Embiid would be even more dominant at a slower pace that gives him more time to establish position inside. It might have been possible to stagger their playing time so that each had an opportunity to play their preferred style over the course of the game, but the 76ers can no longer structure the team to facilitate their development.
Butler doesn’t have time for that. He’s a 29-year-old in the prime of his career. While he may be a chronic malcontent who would be unhappy wherever he goes, he also didn’t ask to be traded into another uneasy power-sharing arrangement. His list of preferred destinations (the Nets, Clippers, Knicks, and Heat) prior to the Sixers trade consisted of organizations who would have made building around him their top priority. The 76ers aren’t in the same position. They might actually be better if Butler (who is shooting 38.4 percent from 3 on 3.6 attempts per game this season) took more 3s and moved into more of a secondary role behind Embiid and Simmons, since his shooting ability makes him more suited to it than either of them. The problem is that a team built around those two probably isn’t ready to win a title, regardless.
A team whose three best players are on different timetables is inherently unstable. Butler might never be as good as he is this season again, but it’s just another step in the road for Embiid and Simmons. The former won’t be the same age that Butler is now until 2023. The latter until 2025. Butler may not even be in the league at that point. He needs them to get in line behind him and make an all-out push for a championship. They need him to be patient and start trusting the process. All three have different priorities, and there’s no way to satisfy all of them at once. Something may have to give in Philadelphia.