A lot has changed for the Sixers in the past year, from the roster to the front office, but the main message coming out of Philly has remained consistent: They need more. The organization has been remarkably candid about that. Brett Brown said as much after the Celtics bounced them from the postseason. Elton Brand echoed the sentiment before and after the team acquired Jimmy Butler in November. And now, nearly three months after that fateful trade, Brown is pushing the point once again.
“I think what we all recognize,” Brown said while the Sixers were in Los Angeles last week, “is there’s a belief that we need more.”
Brown has been on that corner for a while, and he doesn’t look like he’s moving off it anytime soon. Between everything they’ve said publicly, and all the behind-the-scenes rumors and whispers, it sure seems like the Sixers would like to be active ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline.
“Elton has been fantastic about exploring ways to get us better, to get us deeper, to get us more capable to advance deep in the East,” Brown said.
In the interim, while Brown waits for Brand to send reinforcements, the Sixers have begun tinkering with how they deploy their personnel. In a fairly easy win against the LeBron-less Lakers, Brown played Mike Muscala at the four and the five, Wilson Chandler at the three and the four, and Corey Brewer at the two and the three. Ben Simmons saw some more time at the four. And, most interestingly of all, Butler played the point for stretches. When he told media about the plan, Brown made sure to insist it was no “science project.” The idea, he explained, was to try different things now in order to be prepared for the playoffs later. In a perfect world, Brown said they’d have a “clean” system. He called that the “optimal word that most coaches strive for.” But as he admitted, that’s not how the world works, and it’s certainly not how the playoffs work. And so the Sixers will keep trying different things to prepare for the postseason—though thinking ahead is only part of the explanation here. The Sixers are also experimenting because they have to and the current roster demands it. The Sixers aren’t set yet. They aren’t clean.
When the Sixers traded for Butler, the company line was that it gave them three top-20/25 players. Going into Tuesday’s game against the Raptors, the Sixers are 25-13 since acquiring Butler. That includes a statement win against the Warriors in Oakland on national TV in a game in which Butler didn’t even play that well. Before acquiring Butler, the Sixers had a 106.7 defensive rating (ninth in the NBA) and a 106.6 offensive rating (19th), per NBA.com/Stats. That worked out to a minus-0.1 net rating, which put them at 16th in the league. Since Butler came on board, they’ve slipped a little and have a 108.5 defensive rating (tied for 12th as of Monday), but their offensive rating has jumped to 113.2 (sixth), which has pushed their net rating to 4.6 (sixth). The Sixers got better by making the Butler deal. They also got thinner.
Butler, Simmons, Joel Embiid, and JJ Redick are all averaging more than 30 minutes per game this season. After that, Chandler has had the most playing time (26.4 mpg), but the Sixers just shut him down for two to three weeks with a quadriceps strain. That momentarily meant more playing time for Brewer (20 mpg), but after signing him to two 10-day contracts, the Sixers declined to keep him on for the rest of the season. They cut Brewer loose on Monday, which made him a free agent and the Sixers even more desperate. Rookie Landry Shamet has exceeded expectations, but he still averaged fewer than 20 minutes last month. In the frontcourt, the options are Muscala (21.9 mpg), Jonah Bolden (12.7 mpg), and Amir Johnson (9.6 mpg). In the backcourt, they have T.J. McConnell (21.1 mpg), Furkan Korkmaz (14.2 mpg), and the specter of Markelle Fultz’s confidence (N/A). That is not a lot to work with, and it’s caused Brown quite a bit of consternation. The Sixers have obvious holes, but not many pieces with which to plug them.
“Depth,” Brown said last week, “is the holy grail.”
Indeed. Which is why it’s fair to wonder whether the Sixers made an Indiana Jones–style mistake and chose poorly when they grabbed Jimmy Buckets. The irony of that deal is that, right about now, they sure could use some quality rotation players like Robert Covington (who’s recovering from a right knee bone bruise) and Dario Saric to soak up minutes as the regular season funnels into the playoffs. They made the Butler trade to acquire a fourth-quarter closer, but they have to field a deep enough team to make sure their best players aren’t totally gassed by the time the fourth quarter arrives.
The Sixers saw an opportunity to alter the roster in a significant way and took it. It made sense then. It might make less sense now, though. One-off regular-season wins against Golden State aside, the Sixers know full well that beating good teams in a seven-game series is difficult and complicated. And before they can dream about facing the Warriors in the postseason, they’d first have to get past some combination of the Bucks, Raptors, and Celtics in the Eastern Conference. That’s no small task. If they can’t add any substantial pieces by Thursday, are the Sixers good enough as currently constituted to overcome those obstacles and reach the Finals? They’d certainly have a shot, but simply having a chance feels inadequate when measured against the “our time is now” declaration.
The question of what to do at the trade deadline is tethered to another pressing issue: Butler’s upcoming free agency. People in and around the organization have expressed concern to me that Butler could bolt this offseason. They’re right to worry. In the past week alone, Anthony Davis said he wants out of New Orleans, Kristaps Porzingis was shipped from New York to Dallas, and Kyrie Irving—who previously stated “I plan on re-signing” with Boston when he becomes a free agent this summer and also cut what is now a hilarious commercial hinting he wants his Celtics number retired one day—reversed course. When questioned about his commitment to staying in Boston, Irving told reporters to “ask me July 1” and said he’s going to do what’s best for his career. It’s gotten to the point that even the most loyal Celtics fans are openly suggesting that Boston should probably trade Kyrie. It’s a hard point to argue considering Irving’s unambiguous declaration about his pending free agency: “I don’t owe anybody shit.”
I would imagine Butler also does not think he owes anybody shit. That does not feel like a stretch. He clearly did not think he owed the Timberwolves shit, and before that he made it plain that he did not owe the Bulls shit. It seems unlikely that, when he makes his decision this offseason, he will consider how much shit he owes the Sixers. To date, the only shit Butler has owed or given is to himself. If he walks and the Sixers get nothing for him, that would be a disastrous outcome for the organization. The Sixers could try to spin Butler’s departure by pointing to the approximately $50 million in cap space they would have—enough to court top-tier free agents, but that would be an awfully optimistic way to view what would be a glass-half-empty scenario.
The Sixers had oodles of cap space last offseason and couldn’t even get a meeting with Paul George. They were so desperate to be in the free-agency mix that parts of the ownership group flew across the country just to take a meeting with LeBron James’s people even though the king himself never granted them an audience and everyone already knew James was headed to the Lakers. Lots of teams figure to have lots of cap space this summer including the Knicks, Clippers, Lakers, Nets, Hawks, Kings, and Pacers. With so many players in their pre-agency period being super aggressive about where they want to go, it behooves organizations to be equally aggressive and proactive in the trade market so they aren’t left without a chair later on when the free-agent music stops.
This is a crucial time for the Sixers. The next few months could go a long way toward shaping the next few years. As the deadline approaches, and as the Sixers grapple with the stated admission that they need more, they ought to wrestle with a different question, too: Should they consider rerouting Butler?
Before they faced the Sixers last week, Lakers head coach Luke Walton ticked off all the things he likes about Butler—good size, plays defense, hits big shots. As Walton reminded everyone, the Lakers saw Butler up close while he was with the Wolves in the West.
“He gives [the Sixers] an element,” Walton said, “that’s going to put a lot of stress on a lot of coaches.”
Brett Brown is not immune to this stress. By now the story of Butler “aggressively challenging” Brown during a film session in Portland has become legend. According to ESPN, witnesses described it as “disrespectful,” though Brown blew it off and said he only cared about “the ability to communicate candidly, to co-exist.” Communicating has never been a problem for Butler; co-existing is another matter entirely. How Butler gets on with his teammates and coaches has been a source of anxiety for each of his three professional employers to date. It’s something reporters continually and understandably ask about—and something the Sixers brace for in advance.
After practice at UCLA’s Student Activities Center last week, Brown and Butler were talking one-on-one on a far court when the team ushered us in for media availability. The conversation looked cordial enough from a distance, but it went on for a while. When we talked to Brown, one journalist mentioned that we saw him and Butler chatting and tried to preface his question by saying he wasn’t “trying to get back to the stuff from before.”
“But you will,” Brown said. Then, with a little laugh and a shrug, he told the reporter to “ask whatever you want.” The eventual question was about terminology and communication between Butler and Brown, which led to the Sixers head coach saying that part of their relationship is “still ongoing.”
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s part of my enjoyment of coaching him,” Brown said. “We talk. It happens every day. [Face to face]. Court. Whatever. This [conversation] happened to be about spacing and where we want to put Ben when we’re doing some things with him with the ball. Stuff that you listen to where players have an opinion.”
It’s no secret that Butler loves to play with the ball in his hands and has complained about how seldomly the Sixers utilize the pick-and-roll. On the day after the two of them chopped it up at UCLA, Brown announced that Butler would get minutes at point guard. That might have been a coincidence, and it might have been motivated by the aforementioned mission statement to plan for the playoffs. But it was also hard not to notice how pleased Butler was by the development.
”It felt good playing the point,” Butler said that evening. “It’s a different look. We’ve got so many guys that do so many things well that it allows us to get to the basket more.”
The “so many guys that do so many things well” part was a bit of a stretch. They have four guys who do things well, but one of them is a shooting specialist (and an ace Ringer podcaster) and the other one doesn’t shoot much at all. But beyond that, it was telling that Butler plainly enjoyed having the ball in his hands more, and it was interesting that he mentioned how it helped facilitate getting to the basket.
Before the Lakers game, Kevin O’Connor said he noticed how the Sixers have been running more isolations for Butler lately. Brown replied that he has “been calling way more plays” than ever before. “With the inclusion of Jimmy,” Brown said, “I think it’s incumbent on me to place him different places from time to time.” But Brown, perhaps anticipating how all of this might be interpreted by me and the other reporters on hand, was quick to caution that he didn’t want anyone to “get too distorted with my desire to give [Butler] the ball from time to time.”
That’s fine. But will “from time to time” be enough to keep Butler placated? Because it’s a good bet that Brown’s definition of what qualifies as satisfactory on that front probably varies from Butler’s. As KOC pointed out in his piece, Butler has averaged around 0.9 points per isolation since 2014-15, which is right in line with Paul George, CJ McCollum, and Devin Booker. Butler is good at getting to the rim and finishing or, when he doesn’t, drawing fouls and converting at the free throw line. Considering how the last two stops in his career went, it’s natural to question how Butler will respond moving forward if he isn’t deployed in a manner to which he’s accustomed and enjoys. It’s not hard to imagine potential friction there, especially because, as the dustup in Portland revealed, there’s already been some.
Which brings us back to the what-if-he-walks conundrum and whether the Sixers should try to preempt that possibility by rerouting him to another team this week. Considering the questions about his fit in the current system and lingering concerns about his often unique approach to interactions within the workplace, it’s at least worth entertaining. Back when Butler was still giving the Timberwolves tough love, the Rockets reportedly offered four first-round picks for him, while the Heat reportedly put together an initial package that included Josh Richardson. At the time, as many as eight teams were supposedly interested in Butler, including the Pistons, Nets, Clippers, and Blazers. Maybe one or more of those organizations would still consider it if he became available.
But while I think it’s well worth it to explore what he could fetch in return if you moved him, Butler probably isn’t going anywhere. More likely, the Sixers will look to add a wing or a backup center at the deadline. If they fail there, they’ll go bargain shopping on the buyout market and hope to find a good value or two like they did last season when they lucked into Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. (Wes Matthews would make sense if he becomes available on the buyout discard pile.) The Sixers made their play to add another star when they traded for Butler, and my guess is they want to at least see how this whole thing looks when they reach the postseason—even if that’s a risky play.
The best-case scenario here comes complete with a worst-case component. If Butler decides to stick around, that means signing him to a five-year max deal that won’t include language preventing future emotional flare-ups and, crucially, won’t expire until he’s 34. When the most desirable outcome is spending crazy money on a guy who will be post-prime when the contract is up, it’s worth rethinking your plan.
The alternative here is equally unappetizing. It’s a real possibility that Butler flees Philly for another NBA outpost this summer, which is a potential plotline that has the Sixers rightly concerned. If there really were as many as eight teams initially interested in him earlier this season, some of them might still be intrigued this summer. And while we’re on the topic, follow me deep into the madness. What if Kevin Durant and Kyrie pass on New York and the Knicks are suddenly scrambling to pay someone, anyone, to come along and gobble up some of that newfound cap space they have? In that scenario, Jimmy Buckets might look like an attractive max-money consolation prize. Butler would get the spotlight in New York and a team all his own to terrorize. And the Knicks would … stay the Knicks. The mind reels.
But for now at least, Butler remains a Sixer. As long as that’s true, they’ll try to keep him happy and squeeze as much production out of him as possible. Brown said he likes the idea of Butler at point guard because “he’s an adult” and “there is a physicality” that he figures will be useful in the playoffs. But Brown also said he has to be careful not to lean on Butler too much. If that sounds like a delicate and difficult balance—giving him enough to do without overdoing it—it is.
“In general, and I’m a part of it, you think ‘Let’s just give it to Jimmy and he’s going to save the day,’” Brown said. “It’s not always that.”
No. It is not always that.