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Philly Special? What the Jimmy Butler Deal Means

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Praise Jebus — our long national nightmare is over. Jimmy Butler — AKA General Soreness — finally got his pre-agency wish as Minnesota traded him (along with always-injured young big man Justin Patton) to Philadelphia, where his hardscrabble, competitive nature should fit in seamlessly with the team and the city. In return, Minny received Dario “The Homie” Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless’ salary, and a 2022 second-round pick. There is so much to unpack, and while some of it is on Minnesota’s side, for now let’s break it down from Philly’s perspective. The trade means many things to many people, but where else can I start other than the centerpiece…

JIMMY BUTLER: In the end, Jimmy Buckets got what he wanted: out of Minnesota, and to a more competitive situation, while keeping his Bird Rights intact with a franchise for whom he might be interested in signing long-term. So long as the on-court fit with franchise cornerstones Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is not problematic, the expectation is Butler will decline his player option next summer and re-sign with the Sixers for five years and approximately $190 million, making Butler the obvious “winner” in the whole sordid mess, even if he had to torch every professional bridge he’d ever built, along with his reputation, in the process. [Not to be confused with The Process, which is now officially dead and buried, even if it’s effectively been over since the moment former GM Sam Hinkie left the building. But that’s a whole other matter, and it’s been covered ad nauseum elsewhere.]

While playing alongside Simmons and Embiid — and for a real, live, not-stuck-in-2007 head coach in Brett Brown — should require Butler to do less of the heavy on-court lifting, he is also now squarely in the superstar cross-hairs. On his third team in three years, and having been given everything he asked for, if he can’t make it work with Philly, it becomes more than fair to wonder if the problem lies not with the organizations who couldn’t properly cater to his talents, but rather with the man himself. There are no more excuses, and no more nonsense is likely to be tolerated. It’s ‘put up or shut up’ time.

THE ROTATION: Starting a lineup featuring three of the top (roughly) twenty players in the league unquestionably raises the team’s ceiling, but it doesn’t mean the transition is going to be seamless. There are some questions to answer with this rotation. Saric and Covington were nobody’s idea of superstars, but they were players who filled specific roles and responsibilities, and they played — A LOT. Saric was averaging 30.5 minutes per game, even as his production fell off to start the year following his promising sophomore campaign in ’17-’18. Covington was deployed even more heavily at 33.8 minutes per game. After subtracting out the Thibodeau Minutes Tax, it’s easy to see Butler (36.1 mpg with Minny this year) slotting directly into Covington’s minutes, leaving a Croatia-sized hole in the rotation at power forward.

Wilson Chandler could move into the starting lineup and essentially split combo forward duties with Butler. Neither is truly a power forward, but both can fake it for stretches of time while providing added switchiness on defense. While Chandler has a pretty long track record as a solid player, at this point in his career, handing him additional minutes may amount to more of a Band-Aid than a deserved promotion. Mike Muscala has averaged 21.3 minutes over nine games, which is already about the upper bound of what his role should be. Amir Johnson, somehow in his 14th pro season but still only 31 years old, remains superficially useful (especially on defense) but is best suited as a low-minutes backup center. Rookie Jonah Bolden isn’t ready for primetime yet.

The in-house answer could be to leverage the versatility of Ben Simmons, making him the full-time defensive power forward and distributing Saric’s minutes among the guards and wings, while allowing Simmons to continue to run the show at the offensive end. JJ Redick is about maxed out (31.1 mpg), but rookie Landry Shamet has been a pleasant surprise (and seems to have a nice rapport with Simmons), and TJ McConnell (and his never-ending well of grittiness) could handle more than the 14.7 minutes he’s garnered to this point. There are options, but how they replace all those starters’ minutes will go a long way in determining the success of the trade.

You may have noticed I neglected to mention one of the guards in Philly’s rotation. Trust me, I didn’t forget about him; I’m contractually obligated to give him his own section. OK, deep breaths…here we go…

MARKELLE FULTZ: Welp. Anyone who tells you he knows how this will all turn out for Fultz is full of shit. At first blush, replacing a low-usage, sharpshooting wing (Covington) with a ball-dominant one who does not historically space the floor as well (Butler) would appear to be a death blow to Fultz’s chances of succeeding in Philly. In addition, besides the potential spacing issues and role dysphoria, from a psychological standpoint, after the crap he just pulled in Minnesota, is there ANY player on Earth who Philly’s front office should be more wary about putting in the same zip code of Fultz and his fragile psyche than Butler? It doesn’t take much imagination to draw the MJ/Kwame parallels. What could possibly go wrong?

Brett Brown has already been trying to pull off a balancing act, giving Fultz (somewhat undeserved) minutes to help build his confidence while attempting to win games more or less in spite of him in the meantime. The challenge of serving those competing aims is only ratcheted up when the rotation shortens AND the guy you add has proven himself to be a hyper-competitive maniac who will gleefully take a blowtorch to the team’s chemistry in exchange for a few more wins. The combination does not feel like a recipe for success, and if dead weight has to be cast off, Fultz seems like the obvious candidate.

To be fair, I do not think Fultz is a lost cause as an NBA contributor. He’s 20 years old, and he was drafted first overall for a reason: his potential is tantalizing, if only the player Philly thought they were getting out of college would finally show up. Perhaps that player is still in there somewhere, but the odds he comes out while wearing a Sixers’ uniform are getting longer by the day. If I were a lottery team with a gaping hole at point guard (Phoenix and Orlando, I’m looking in your directions), I would certainly be sniffing around about acquiring Fultz on the cheap. Both squads have logjams in the frontcourt, so it might make some sense (read: DOES make A LOT of sense) to trade out of some of that depth to take a flier on a top-of-the-draft talent who may just need a change of scenery to get a new lease on his NBA life. Even if Fultz turns out to be a colossal, Olowokandian bust, would those teams really be much worse off than they started?

Suffice it to say, I do not envy Fultz for the trials he is about to undergo. Things will probably not end well for him in Philly, but I am here for every second of the drama.

JUSTIN PATTON: Just a brief note on Patton. I really liked him coming out of Creighton. In college, he was long, springy, and surprisingly effective away from the hoop. He reminded me of a poor man’s Marcus Camby. Unfortunately, injuries have completely derailed his pro career to this point. I hope he and Jimmy Butler get along, since their professional destinies seem to be indelibly linked. [The pick which became Patton was also a throw-in by Chicago in the Butler-to-Minny trade last year, for reasons which have never been adequately explained.] Mostly, I hope he eventually gets healthy so we can see if he becomes a useful NBA player, rather than being remembered as nothing more than Jimmy’s perpetual trade appendage.

OFFENSE: Adding a star is generally the rising tide that lifts all boats, but after subtracting two of the team’s only reliable floor spacers, it does have to be asked: where is the outside shooting going to come from now? And will the lack of spacing cramp the offensive styles of Simmons and Embiid?

Going into Wednesday’s game, the Sixers are 10th in 3-point attempts per game (33.3), but only 23rd in 3-point percentage (33.7%). Saric was responsible for some of the delta in willingness vs. ability, having taken 5.4 3PA per game but only hitting at a 30% rate; he did shoot 39.3% from range last season, though, so some regression to the mean was to be expected had they not traded him. Covington was a rock-solid shooter, canning 39% on 5.9 attempts per game (actually down from 6.9 attempts per game last season). Throughout his career, he has shown no ability whatsoever to create offense for himself or his teammates, but if all you need is a low-usage, 3-and-D wing, there are few better options out there than RoCo.

The good news is Jimmy Butler has been a more willing AND able outside shooter so far this season than in previous campaigns. His 3PA per 36 minutes this year (4.5) would easily be a career high over an entire season, and he is also shooting a career-best 37.8% from downtown. His typical three-point attempt is also likely to be of a more difficult variety than the standard catch-and-shoot Covington normally sees, so it’s not crazy to think Butler could even see a further uptick in his outside efficiency when afforded the types of looks he’ll get from all the defensive attention drawn by Simmons and Embiid.

What happens in Saric’s spot is another question. As I mentioned, The Homie was not shooting well to start the year, but his theoretical floor-spacing ability did help to draw defensive gravity his way, and he was always a guy who could attack a closeout and keep the play moving. Again, Wilson Chandler is the obvious candidate to soak up some of the role, but he’s a career 34% shooter from behind the arc (on nearly 2,300 attempts, so he is what he is) and not quite a playmaker on Saric’s level, so one suspects teams will sag off and force him to can open shots in lieu of conceding space to Philly’s other, more dangerous options. Shamet is already almost exclusively a 3-point shooter, attempting 8.1 triples per 36 minutes of court time while converting at a Chandler-ian 34.2% rate, so he could take on some of Saric’s minutes and role, if Brown is willing to sacrifice some size, rebounding, and experience at the other end of the floor. Young Turkish wing Furkan Korkmaz has shot 35% from distance on limited attempts, so perhaps he gets an audition for a bigger role as Butler acclimates.

Adding another playmaker should be a boon for Ben Simmons, as he’ll be able to spend more time as a screener and a decision-maker in the short roll, where he excels. He’ll offer no floor spacing when Butler attacks the rim, but Simmons is a savvy cutter off-ball and could see an uptick in easy looks at the rim off actions where Butler is the primary ball handler.

The bigger question is what happens to Embiid. The Process is putting up young Shaq numbers this year, and is garnering MVP consideration (as I thought he might). He is doing it, however, in a not-terribly-efficient manner, shooting “only” 48% from the field and 30% from three (on 4.2 attempts per game, probably more than a guy as physically dominant as he is should be shooting) with a heavy Usage Rate (31.9%, 6th in the league). The hope would be the possessions Butler siphons off from Embiid are the low-efficiency variety — the handful of “go ahead, shoot it” threes, pull-up 2’s, and off-balance runners JoJo seems to toss up every game, to the exasperation of fans everywhere — and he instead focuses on doing more of the things at which he dominates.

I talked about Fultz already, but within the context of the offense, it’s difficult to see him getting a lot of run and having much success playing with the revamped top unit, so I would expect a move to the bench for him, even if his minutes remain steady. Putting the ball in his hands more frequently against second unit defenders could help to build his confidence as well as to stagger his minutes with Simmons. Fultz has struggled when sharing the floor with Simmons, so a move to a bench role, while not a long-term solution, could help boost Markelle’s production in the short-term, as well as his potential trade value, should new Sixers GM Elton Brand determine Fultz’s situation is simply untenable.

On the whole, the Sixers’ offense has been middling: 10th in scoring offense, 20th in offensive rating. On paper, the addition of an All-NBA player sporting a 22.7 PER should propel the offense into the upper echelon of the league, but it’s going to take time, and the questions of fit are going to pop up incessantly if things don’t quickly coalesce.

DEFENSE: The main question here is not one of talent, but rather of continuity. Trading out RoCo for Butler is swapping one All-Defense player for another, and Saric is no one’s idea of a lockdown defender, so whoever fills his minutes shouldn’t have a terribly difficult time replicating his production. The top unit, however, had developed a nice defensive chemistry, and the Sixers were sitting at a respectable 9th in Defensive Rating this season after climbing all the way up to 4th last year. Rebuilding that chemistry will take time, and any stumbles in the meantime could end up costing Philly valuable playoff seeding to the likes of Milwaukee, Toronto, and Boston. The long-term gain is worth the potential short-term pain, but it’s something to watch as Butler settles into his new digs.

THE FUTURE: So what happens next? First, we see if the on-court experiment actually works. Assuming it does, then the cap and roster gymnastics begin. As it stands right now, the Sixers are still in a pretty enviable cap situation. Even with Embiid’s 5-year max extension kicking in this season, Philly is still well below the luxury tax line and has one more season after this one on Ben Simmons’ palatable rookie scale salary figure. He will undoubtedly sign a max extension next fall, kicking in for the ’20-’21 season. Butler has the well-chronicled player option in his deal for next season, which he will obviously decline to become an unrestricted free agent. At that time, if the Sixers are willing to do so (a bigger ‘if’ than one might think), he can sign a five-year/$190 million max deal which would carry him through his age-34 season. Including Butler, Philly would have only seven players under contract next season — Chandler, Redick, McConnell, Johnson, Muscala, Patton, and Korkmaz will all be unrestricted free agents — so in addition to the big, fat raise Butler will theoretically accept, they’ll have to fill out the rest of the roster with role players while also attempting to leave room under the tax line (assuming ownership really cares about such things) for the coming bump to Simmons’ cap number. Things are rosy now, but it’s going to get tight quickly.

On the plus side, filling out the rotation may not be as tough as it seems. With three stars locked in for the long haul, the front office would probably have an easy time selling ring-chasing vets and buyout guys on taking a discount to compete for a title. They also have the bargain basement contracts of rookies Landry Shamet and Zhaire Smith (yet to play this year due to injury but a potential big wild card for them) locked in through ’21-’22, assuming the team exercises all options on both guys. They have Fultz locked in for two more years after this one, even if the final team option year in ’20-’21 gets a little pricey at about $12.3 million. [Can you imagine if they DECLINED the team option on the #1 overall pick? He’d probably be traded before it got to that point, but it’s not impossible.]

Beyond managing the cap, how else can Brand look to improve the roster going forward? Now that The Process has officially concluded, the organizational mandate to hoard draft picks could be turned on its head, and the Sixers still have quite a bit of additional draft capital they could choose to cash in on trades. In addition to all their own future firsts, they hold Sacramento’s first-rounder in 2019, but only if it falls at #1 overall, which is unlikely given how shockingly competent the Kings have looked thus far. [Boston gets the pick otherwise, because of course they do.] They also have Miami’s unprotected first-rounder in 2021 — acquired when they broke Mikal Bridge’s heart on live TV and moved down in the draft this past year to select Zhaire Smith — an asset which has the potential to be wildly valuable. Finally, they still are owed as many as EIGHT second-round picks over the next five years — Sam Hinkie loved nothing more than extracting future second-rounders other GM’s figured they’d never miss — any of which could be used as deal-sweeteners.

They have young, potentially valuable players on the roster other teams might covet: Smith, Shamet, and…gulp…Fultz. They even have a couple mid-tier veteran contracts (in the $9-$15 million range) often necessary to facilitate deals by making the salary cap math work. Redick, at $12.3 million this year, isn’t going anywhere; his shooting is too valuable. Wilson Chandler is an expiring deal at $12.8 million, so he is the most likely salary casualty if he can’t handle a larger role and an upgrade becomes available at power forward.

Based on the way they pushed their chips to the center of the table for Butler, and the current state of the roster in its aftermath — specifically the festering hole at the 4 — it feels like the Sixers aren’t done dealing just yet. I mentioned Orlando earlier. Who says no if the Sixers offer this deal:

In my fake trade, Philly also throws in the Miami 2021 first-rounder, as well as Chicago’s 2019 second-rounder, which is looking like it will wind up in the mid-30’s. Gordon’s length, athleticism, defensive ability, and decent shooting (he’s at 35.6% from three so far this year) would fit in beautifully with Philly’s other pieces. It would help Orlando clear out the logjam in their frontcourt, give them a long, low-cost look at Fultz, and stock their draft pick cupboard for the future if things don’t improve. Gordon’s extension, which kicked in this year, also features a descending salary structure over its four-year course, essentially making it designed to be traded, and simultaneously a big benefit for a Philly team that will still need the flexibility to add pieces around the margins in future years as they bump up against the tax. As an opposing team, would you want any part of a starting five of Embiid, Gordon, Butler, Redick, and Simmons? Me neither.

This is just one example. It may have stung a bit to cash in Saric and Covington in the Butler deal, but even so, this team still has a ton of avenues to improving the roster further, and now, seemingly the motivation to do so as well. The Eastern Conference, left for dead only a few months ago when LeBron bolted for Hollywood, is now the scene of a full-fledged arms race at the top. Buckle up.

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