After a mildly disappointing 8-5 start to the 2018 season (now 8-6), the Philadelphia 76ers decided to take a gambit and trade for the disgruntled superstar, Jimmy Butler. Butler — who joined the Timberwolves last year to play with two 20-year-old potential superstars — is headed to an eerily similar situation with the Sixers and its own youthful star duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
Evidently, the Wiggins-Towns-Butler trio failed. Tom Thibodeau — even with prior experience in coaching Butler — wasn’t able to crack the code. Brett Brown can’t simply plug-in Butler and expect to skyrocket to the level of the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors. He needs to maximize Butler’s creating, spot-up, and cutting ability.
The main issue and persisting storyline will be how Simmons and Butler split possessions as the primary creator. Butler is a high-usage player in isolations and pick-and-rolls, which makes him a more awkward fit than Paul George or Kawhi Leonard — in a vacuum — because both those previous potential targets excel off the ball, as spot-up shooters.
Butler isn’t technically a point guard, but his touches render him a guard who needs the ball. Butler first quipped he was a lead guard with the Chicago Bulls in 2015. Since then, his touches have hovered around the mid 60’s to low 70’s — territory occupied by ball-needy players such as D’Angelo Russell, DeMar DeRozan, and Rajon Rondo this season.
The problem is obvious, as Brett Brown already has a guard who demands the ball. It’s possible the Sixers stagger Simmons and Butler’s minutes, but when push comes to shove, in late game stretches, they’ll need both players on the floor. If Butler has the ball, how will Simmons fare without the ball?
Simmons isn’t useless off the ball, as he improved his post-up footwork over the summer and results have followed — he’s improved from 0.69 PPP last season to 1.0 PPP this season. But otherwise, aside from trying to improve at the free throw line, he hasn’t focused on becoming a better shooter from his rookie season.
For Simmons and Butler to co-exist, it ultimately comes down to how Brett Brown alters his playbook. As a disciple of Gregg Popovich, Brown should already have a few tricks up his sleeve.
In the offseason, Brown added a healthy mix of cross-screens to get Simmons involved down low. The next step would be to deploy Simmons as the screener in pick-and-rolls — think a supercharged Boris Diaw.
A common play passed down in the Popovich lineage is called “Iverson STS.” Mike Budenholzer, Kenny Atkinson, and Brett Brown use it to varying degrees based upon their personnel. Budenholzer tries to spread the floor and isolate Giannis, while Atkinson prefers Dinwiddie in pick-and-rolls. When Manu Ginobili played, Gregg Popovich utilized him in high pick-and-rolls.
In Brown’s iteration, though, the play usually ends in Embiid’s hands on the low block with four shooters stagnant around him.
Imagine Landry Shamet is Jimmy Butler on this play. Butler would beat Oladipo off the dribble and force Domantas Sabonis to help. Embiid would be open on the block or Tyreke Evans would rotate down. Either way, spacing is created by Butler, which has been a problem when Markelle Fultz is in the game.
This play resembles how Jimmy Butler can transform Brown’s playbook. In Iverson STS, Brett Brown can deploy Butler in a high pick-and-roll like Manu, isolation like Giannis, or through an elevator screen like JJ Redick.
And unlike prior years, this team isn’t restricted by personnel. The lack of a secondary creator is the main reason the Sixers rank last in pick-and-roll and isolation frequency this season. Even if you combine the drives of Redick, Shamet, and Covington this season (4.7), they aren’t half of Jimmy Butler’s drives (13.6). Markelle Fultz averages 6.7 drives, and shoots well on them at 48.9% — but unlike Butler, more like Simmons — he is allergic to shooting.
Butler provides creating ability in the pick-and-roll. He dissects his defender’s footwork. If the defender ices — forces baseline — Butler denies the ball-screen and probes until the helping big man is forced into a bind of either a) switch onto Butler, or b) let Butler zip past him.
When his defender plays him straight up, Butler accepts the screen. In doing so, he keeps the defender riding on his hip. He’s always one chess move ahead, ready to whip impossible cross-court passes or thread the needle to the roller.
Butler pairs elite ‘stop and go’ speed with a devastating pull-up jump shot. Only a handful of players — not even Paul George or Kawhi Leonard — have Butler’s ability to rise up and shoot from any spot on the court.
Covington could spot-up and shoot, but when defenders run him off the line, he can’t create. Butler has improved more as a spot-up shooter than Covington has as a respectable creator.
In that sense, the Sixers made the right move to grab a third star. The Sixers, at a bare minimum, grabbed a star player who Brown can trust with the last shot. As Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer pointed out, the Sixers are 29th in offensive rating in the fourth quarter, after finishing 30th last season.
In many ways, Jimmy Butler is what the Sixers hoped — expected, perhaps — Markelle Fultz would be at this point. Fultz hasn’t morphed into the secondary creator and third wheel to the stardom of Simmons and Embiid. In pick-and-rolls, defenses allow Fultz to shoot, clogging the paint by utilizing drop coverage.
While the losses of Saric and Covington are a blow to the team’s depth, Butler’s shooting and creating chops give Brett Brown more flexibility to experiment with lineups. Now, Brown can stagger Simmons and Fultz. Placing Fultz in the backup lineup will get him necessary reps as the featured ball-handler, in turn, driving up his confidence.
The Sixers will need to play Simmons off the ball, but, more often than not, Butler will be playing off the ball. That shouldn’t be a problem, as he made his name known off the ball — back when Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were the primary and secondary ball-handlers.
This team is in desperate need of the off-ball player Jimmy Butler once was with Chicago. Because when Joel Embiid gets the ball down low, he isn’t looking for cutters, he’s looking to score. As a result, his teammates don’t cut — the Sixers are 13th in frequency and 17th PPP on cuts. Butler adds the dimension of a shrewd and steady cutter — last season he scored 1.55 PPP on such plays to place in the 93th percentile. Here, he notices when his defender is over-helping and dives into the lane as a result.
When lanes aren’t open to cut through, Butler shuffles the perimeter and knocks down jump shots. Again, Covington’s spot-up shooting — 1.27 PPP placed him in the 78th percentile — will prove irreplaceable, but Butler adds enough spot-up shooting to negate any worry.
With Simmons and Fultz’s drive and kick ability, and Embiid’s improving cross-court passing, Butler will be shot-ready in the wing or corner.
Statistics and film aside, this trade brings its fair share of risks. Butler conflicted with the young stars in Minnesota; who’s to say it won’t happen again? The Sixers bet two young starters — also two valuable assets, mind you — on Butler’s antics being wholly coincidental and not manifesting a second time.
But if problems do arise, it opens a wormhole of issues. What happens if Butler demands Simmons shoots from the outside? What happens if Butler wants to be the alpha dog?
This is Elton Brand’s first move, yet also a defining one. Butler’s antics could lead to Simmons and Embiid feeling alienated by Brand and management.
Ultimately though, Jimmy Butler’s vast ability provides more for the team than did Covington and Saric. If all goes right, Butler becomes the third star the Sixers craved all along.
Statistics courtesy Basketball Reference, Second Spectrum Data, and NBA.com.