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Reviewing the Jimmy Butler Trade: Let Us Celebrate

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Minnesota Timberwolves Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

After the trade was announced, and after I finished a couple of hours of exulting on the phone with my Dad, my brother, my best friend from Philly childhood, and my hoops buddy Eric Sidewater, I came to LB to enjoy some further celebration with the community. Imagine my surprise when around half the comments on the trade were supercritical! I mean, I seriously, seriously doubt there is anyone on Earth not linked by blood or romance with Robert Covington who thinks more highly of his basketball skills than I do. I have about 300,000 words of text up on LB to prove my devotion. But, people, come on! This is Jimmy Freaking Butler we’re talking about!

I later saw that the pros also had doubts. Kevin Pelton of ESPN graded the Sixer move a C. Spike Eskin sounded deeply disappointed. So, herewith, my summary of why I’m so thrilled with the deal, even though I so, so wish we could have kept Rock Covington in the fold.

I generally use RPM as a first cut for player evaluation, so if I used something else here, it would seem I was cherry-picking. Hence, here are the top five players in the NBA in RPM last year:

  • Chris Paul: 6.99
  • James Harden: 6.71
  • Steph Curry: 6.65
  • Jimmy Butler: 6.39
  • Nikola Jokic: 5.97

I.e. Butler was approximately as good as the best player in basketball last season. Was it a one-year fluke? Let’s check the year before: Butler 2016-17: 6.61.

Looks like it wasn’t a fluke; he was actually better the year before! And while RPM isn’t out for this year, he appears based on traditional stats to be as good as ever, if not better. OK, you may be thinking, but is he in decline? Hardly!

  • Butler 2016-17: 4.01
  • Butler 2015-16: 4.36

So he seems to have just had his two best years, but by the same token he’s been incredibly consistent, over 4 every year. Believe me, that is rare. Oh, hell, I’ll look it up: here’s the complete list of players who were over 4 each of the past 4 years, unless I missed someone:

  • Jimmy Butler
  • LeBron James
  • James Harden
  • Chris Paul
  • Stephen Curry
  • Russell Westbrook
  • Draymond Green

It’s a good group!

Let’s list some reasons to be excited.

Reason no. 1: Butler is a +6 player. It’s hard to overstate what a huge deal that is. Look, check out the highest SGs in RPM last year:

  • Jimmy Butler: 6.39
  • Victor Oladipo: 5.91
  • Tyreke Evans: 3.46
  • Kyle Korver: 2.70
  • Donovan: 2.15

Those are the only ones over 2.0. And one is Jimmy, and two others — Tyreke and Korver — I bet you don’t have that much faith in. Obviously Donovan Mitchell is likely on his way to major stardom, but there’s really no one else beside him, Dipo and Jimmy to feel great about. Klay and DeRozan are below 2.0. Jaylen and Beal are barely above 1. Jimmy Butler added almost 5 times as much value over and above an average player as Bradley Beal did last year. FIVE TIMES! Over three times as much as Klay. Getting Jimmy is like getting 3 or 4 low-level All-Stars. I know it’s hard to believe, but as noted above, he’s up around this level every year, and these other folks are also around these levels pretty consistently; it’s not as though Klay is usually a +3.5 or anything. Maybe Klay is better than these stats show, it’s tricky untangling which of the great GS players is adding all the value. But Bradley Beal doesn’t have that problem; he’s just a very good player, maybe a +2 but no more than that. He may not be worth merely a fifth of Jimmy Butler, but there’s no way he’s worth half; a quarter or third is more realistic.

Now, Covington is a fine player too; last year his RPM was over +5. Even I don’t expect Cov to play +5 ball this year; as his Biggest Fan Ever I think he’s probably a +4 looking ahead, and if I had to bet the over, I’d want the line to be +3. If Cov is +3 and Butler is +6, then the difference between them is equivalent to the difference between an average player and Bradley Beal last year, PLUS the difference between an average player and Klay Thompson last year. Are you getting the picture? Honestly, I shouldn’t have to work this hard to explain the phenomenon. When Jimmy Butler played last year, the Wolves were a borderline-elite team. When he was injured, they were nothing. Do teams fall off the cliff when Bradley Beal and DeMar DeRozan go out? They don’t! Butler is worth multiples of those guys, and you’ll find that every single way you study it. And now he’s ours!

None of which is to deny that I wish we could have done the deal by including, say, the Miami pick instead of Cov. But it didn’t happen, so there’s no use in me crying about it. Well, I’m not saying I didn’t cry a little....

Reason no. 2: WE ARE NOT DONE. This is the second huge point it seems many commenters are missing. I keep reading remarks like “now we need to start Wilson Chandler or Mike Muscala, which will really hurt us.” Muscala and Chandler are not great. To be honest, Dario was not great; even last year, before his recent slump, he was a below-average starter, and we all know there’s reason to worry that his value in the playoffs is quite low. But Chandler and Muscala are downgrades, plus of course if one of them starts, the bench is weaker. But understand this: the Sixers will not be heading into the playoffs with this roster.

Actually there are two points here. The first is that the Sixers are armed for bear. Among their trade chips, if the right opportunity comes along, are:

  • The Miami pick
  • All our own first-rounders
  • Many high seconds
  • Markelle
  • Shamet
  • Zhaire
  • TJ
  • Justin Patton
  • Jonah Bolden
  • Furkan — probably not worth much, but you never know!
  • Pasecniks — don’t laugh, (he’s playing quite well in Europe this year).

Those are all assets we can trade without it costing the team anything much on the court in the short run. So, let’s say it’s the trade deadline, and the team concludes, as I do, that Trevor Ariza would be a big upgrade from Chandler. I’m pretty sure there’s something from that list we could add to Chandler to get a deal done. I’m thinking 2 low seconds or one high one might be enough, but maybe I’m wrong; maybe they’d demand a late first, or Bolden or something. If so maybe we’ll say yes, or maybe we’ll trade with the Clips for Joel’s buddy Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Maybe it’s Kyle Korver we’ll pursue, or Patrick Beverley. It depends on who’s hurt, who’s playing well, who’s meshing. But there are going to be a whole bunch of tanking teams looking to run a little mini-Process in which they accumulate assets in return for giving up good players, and we’ll be in that market. Or perhaps we’ll get players even cheaper, by waiting until they are bought out, as we did with Illy and Beli last year.

But all that is just the beginning. We can keep the star hunt going! Let’s say Charlotte falls out of the playoff picture, and they want to get what they can for Kemba Walker. Some say Kemba wants to finish his career in Charlotte, and maybe so, but things change, so let’s say he’s being shopped. Well, we can be in those discussions. Markelle and Chandler for Kemba? I don’t know, but it’s not like it would be totally crazy, right? Or Chandler, Muscala, the Miami pick, plus some smaller assets? That probably only works if we’re doing a different deal for frontcourt quality as well, but what’s stopping us from doing that?

And mind you, this is just the 2018-19 part. The really exciting opportunity is in the offseason. Because with Joel, Jimmy and Ben, we have the potential to be a destination any free agent would be excited about. How about this set of transactions:

  • Renounce JJ, Chandler, and all other free agents on the roster other than Butler
  • Trade Markelle Fultz to whomever offers the best package of draft picks; depending on how he plays that could be very little, or quite a lot
  • Then make a max or near-max offer to Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant!

Based on the numbers I’ve seen we’d be a little short of a full max offer, and it’s probably too much to hope that a megastar would cut us a break over that last few million. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done; we may just have to trade some useful young guys like Shamet. It’s all worth it if the outcome is pairing Joel-Ben-Jimmy with another top-tier player.

So, look, we’re going to add depth for this year, and in the offseason we will at minimum add depth, and at maximum add another star. And this is another reason you have to do this deal: because I have failed in my mission to persuade the world that Robert Covington is a top talent! And that means that while Kawhi would almost certainly not consider coming to play with Cov, once you have Jimmy Butler in the mix, it’s a totally different conversation.

Reason no. 3: Keeping Joel and Ben happy

Joel Embiid has made The Leap; he is now one of the NBA’s true elite players. Ben Simmons has not yet taken that last step — he’s two years younger than Joel, after all! — but it could happen anytime. The Sixers simply cannot be in the position of telling those players “do your best for now, and in 5 or 6 years when Markelle and Zhaire are heading into their prime, we’ll be championship contenders.” You can’t keep NBA talent around with that story; the players know it can all end any day, just takes one bad injury; they can’t afford to be that patient. So now everyone knows: this is a team that is looking to win titles, this year, next year, every year for the foreseeable future. That’s going to go a long way towards maximizing the probability Joel and Ben are still here and giving 100% five years from now.

Reason no. 4: Fitting the pieces together

Some have argued that Butler is a poor fit with this team, as Ben, Joel, and Markelle, as well as Jimmy himself, are “ball dominant.” Well, maybe, I guess we’ll see how it plays out. But I have to say this critique seems absolutely bizarre to me. I am the internet’s #1 proponent of the idea that getting bucketz is overrated, that Robert Covington and Otto Porter are not just better players than DeMar DeRozan, but much better players. But even I recognize that the Sixers had a problem in late-game, late-in-the-shot-clock, and playoff situations because there is no one you can give the ball to who can consistently create a shot from nothing. Joel can create if you can get him the ball down low, but passing in there is far from riskless, as the opponent is guarding against that play, knowing how few alternatives we have. Ben can drive, but without the shot threat teams are not that frightened, and if they foul him the free throws are still an adventure. We all know this stuff. As far as I know there was 100% agreement among fans and pundits as of dawn Saturday that the Sixers would benefit hugely from obtaining a self-creator.

And then they got one of the very best in the league, and now folks say he’s too ball-dominant?!?! I don’t get it! Can someone list for me the great self-creators who aren’t ball dominant in the way Butler is? Isn’t that list going to have between 0 and 3 names, none of whom were available?

I have always been, and still am, a believer in quality over fit. It’s the coaching staff’s job to take great talent and find a way to use it effectively. Now of course if you craft a team with 8 great centers, no coach can do much with that. But Butler, Ben, and Joel? A great self-creator, a phenomenal passer, and the league’s best big man, all of whom play great defense so you can put mostly-offense guys like Redick on the court with them and have it be OK? You’re telling me it’s too difficult to build a successful offense around that set of talents? On what planet?!

Let’s go through some plausible objections one could make to the deal:

Q) Randy, you’ve been telling us for years just how great Robert Covington is. Now we gave him up for an older player who may only stay a year. How can that be worth it?

A) I have consistently argued that Covington is a top-30 player, and I’m not backing down from that. And I recently posted a model that showed him as a top-15 asset. Such models always have error, and when they rank a player like Cov so much higher than others’ opinions, they probably overrate a bit. But Cov is, in my opinion, a top-30 asset as well. And if I believed we were only getting Butler for one year, I’d hate the trade. But when I see Woj and others reporting that an understanding is in place for a long-term deal, I have to assume such a deal is extremely likely to happen. Cov is awesome, but, as discussed above, Butler is a lot more awesome.

And then there’s this: what Cov offers is still underrated. And that means it’s more possible to replace his contribution than it is to get what Butler offers. For example, Kyle Anderson, who is not as good as Cov but is similar in type and also very valuable, was available as a free agent last summer for only $9M/year. Sadly Memphis got him; we didn’t pursue him because we already had the similar-and-better Covington. Trevor Ariza, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, PJ Tucker, these are all sub-Cov talents who are available from time to time at manageable cost. Personally I’d like to replace Cov with the most similar player in the league to him, Otto Porter. Porter isn’t available for nothing, and he earns more than Cov, but he’s gettable in a way that Butler-similar players like James Harden and Victor Oladipo are not.

Q) But we had to give Dario too!

A) Dario’s value is just not that tremendously high. He only has two more cheap years left, and then he’s going to be fully paid by somebody, almost certainly not us. And even if we keep him, it’ll be at his full value, so the net is not much of anything; i.e. we could just as easily sign a free agent who’s as good as Dario, for the same money. He has some value for the next two years, and some value in his Bird rights, but basically he’s in that mid-level of player who just doesn’t help you all that much, but is still expensive. I love him because he came over, because he gives 100% on every play, because of his sincere effort to give great interviews. But if he shoots 40% from 3 he’s a below-average starter because of his defense, and if he shoots 35% from three he’s kind of bad, and I think the latter is about as likely as the former. So I don’t see losing him as a deal-breaker; there are a lot of power forwards at his level that can be obtained in any given year. We saw it with Ersan last year, and if we’d been willing to spend a little more we’d be seeing it now with Bjelica. He’s a great loss as a person, but a minor loss in cold, hard basketball terms.

Q) But Butler is 30!

A) No he isn’t. He just turned 29 in September. He’s just over one year older than... Robert Covington!

Q) OK, fine, he’s 29, but he has tons of miles on his odometer.

A) This is one of those weird situations where something that is the precise opposite of the truth becomes enshrined as conventional wisdom.

Player: Age/Minutes in thousands:

  • Butler: 29/15
  • Durant: 30/29
  • Klay: 28/18
  • Russ: 30/26
  • Beal: 25/14

That’s right, Kevin Durant, who is similar in age to Jimmy, has played almost exactly double the minutes. Now that’s tread on the tires! Bradley Beal has played about as much as Butler despite being 4 years younger!

Why would anyone think Butler has played a ton? We know he stayed a long time in college by NBA standards. We know he didn’t play much his first couple years because his coaches didn’t realize right away how good he was. We know he’s missed a lot of games to injuries. And against all that we have, what? That he played 38 minutes a game a couple times, years ago? While normal SGs play 36? People think that extra 2 minutes a game — and by the way he only exceeded 37.0 twice in his whole career — would make up for all that other stuff? It’s ridiculous! And it’s wrong. Butler is a low-minutes player, and this is a big advantage. If you have a theory that it’s not total minutes that matter, nor is it maximum minutes in any one game, but rather maximum average minutes per game in one season, well, please explain the theory, and the physical process you think drives it, and the evidence for it. Because I never hear anyone say teams shouldn’t want Durant because of all the mileage despite his having played TWICE THE MINUTES!! Oh, did I mention that KD played over 39 minutes a game one year? And then again another year? And that he was over 38 several other times? This Butler-minutes thing gets weirder and weirder the deeper you go.

Q) What about the fact that he’s always getting injured?

A) He’s had some injuries, and that’s a negative. But his games-played record prior to last year was actually rather good. From his second season, when he first played regularly, through 2016-17, he played 5 seasons and averaged 72 games played. That’s pretty normal I’d say. Last year he only played 59 games, which was a bummer. He’s an injury risk compared to, I don’t know, LeBron James, but compared to the typical Sixer player, he’s Lou Gehrig!

Q) How can this be a good move when the Sixers, a team that needs shooting, traded two good shooters for a bad shooter?

A) So, so much wrong with this argument!

First, Butler is a very good shooter. Going backward from this year, he has shot from three:

  • 38%
  • 35%
  • 37%

which is plenty good. And that’s especially true in light of the kinds of threes he takes. I don’t have the data to break this down properly — maybe Sidewater can do a post — but it’s not fair to compare the 3P% of guys who create their own threes, and guys who get their three attempts by teammates passing the ball around, risking a turnover.

But the real point is the one I noted briefly above. It’s not about getting a shooter; we have plenty of shooters; JJ, Shamwow, Furkan, you name it. The problem is getting shooting on the floor while keeping your defense strong, and still having some creation. In last year’s playoffs, we had no trouble putting shooters on the floor, because we had Belinelli and JJ both. The problem was, when we played them, they were relentlessly hunted by Boston’s offense. Butler spreads the floor, offers great D, and provides self-creation. So now you can use the other wing spot on a guy who shoots brilliantly even if he doesn’t create for himself, and even if he has to guard the opponent’s weak link. We have that guy, in JJ, and maybe we have a second such, in Shamet. Of course when the constant picks come in the playoffs, trying to get JJ switched onto Kyrie and Kawhi, it’s still going to be a problem. But it’s not a problem created by Jimmy Butler!

And simultaneously, against Boston we didn’t have enough weapons in close-and-late situations, as a result of which we lost all three close games, instead of one or two as one would normally expect. I support the motion offense, but it really does create problems in one unusual but super-important situation. Say you’re down 1 with 20 seconds to go. What you want is to drain 19+ seconds and then get up a shot that is reasonably likely — say 50% likely — to go in or lead to a foul. That’s something Westbrook or Kyrie or Jimmy Butler can get you, but it doesn’t fall naturally out of a motion offense. If you whip the ball around, and then JJ gets it with 9 seconds left and he’s wide open, he has to take that shot. But then if he misses, we lose, and if he makes it, we still have to defend a last attempt from Kemba or Dwyane or whomever. Basically we’re 1/4 to win in that situation, instead of 1/2.

So fundamentally I am puzzled by the “fit” criticism, because the thing we were lacking was an efficient shot creator who doesn’t hurt you on D and who can hit enough threes to spread the floor, and we got someone who checks all those boxes with a vengeance. It’s as close to an ideal fit as one could reasonably have hoped for. Yes, we’re a little thin, but, resisting the temptation to fall into Kawhi fantasyland, let’s think about two realistic scenarios:

  • we add Trevor Ariza this season as a rental in return for modest draft capital, or
  • we add Tobias Harris with our 20-some million of cap space this offseason

Actually there’s a hybrid where the Clippers decide to tank so as not to have to give their first-rounder to Boston and so they trade us harris and then we keep him as an RFA; obviously that will cost us more than a second-rounder, but let’s say they trade him to us for legit draft assets; say the Miami pick top-5 protected or something, with them getting the Sixers natural pick if the Miami selection is top 5. That seems like a strong offer for a player with only a few months left on his deal. So then our starters are:

C: Joel

PF: Tobias

SF: Butler

SG: JJ

PG: Ben

I just don’t see the fit problem. It looks to me as though there’s plenty of shooting and floor-spreading there, plenty of creation ability, plenty of passing. And excellent D. Frankly the fit/ball-dominant argument just seems like people saying we have too many good players. And I don’t think you can have too many good players in today’s NBA.

Q) Isn’t Jimmy a jerk?

A) I honestly don’t know! My sense has always been that he’s just fanatical about hard work and winning, like Jordan and Kobe. Not that he’s as good as those guys of course. But, we’ve all read the Michael Jordan stories — how do you think he would have treated the young guns of recent Bulls and T-Wolves teams, if he’d been on them in his prime? Not well, I’m guessing. I do suspect, as some have said recently, that some of Butler’s frustration lately has been seeing others dog it while they earned far more than he did. Hopefully getting max money will cure that part of it. And certainly there are real benefits to a team to having a star who is obsessed with everybody doing what it takes to succeed. Years ago Slate published a piece by a player who was of camp-body quality about his time battling to make teams in the NBA and around the world. He told of playing in a scrimmage with Kevin Garnett. When it became clear that he was incapable of playing up to KG’s high standards, Garnett told him in no uncertain terms to get the hell off the court. Now, by all accounts KG is a good guy and a great leader. I’m not saying Jimmy is KG. What I’m saying is, that aspect of a player’s personality can cause problems, but it has upside as well. His personality is something of a risk, how much of one I cannot say. But I think it’s a manageable risk in the grand scheme of things.

Overall, I’d say this trade is so good, in terms of where we are versus where we were, that it’s almost miraculous. Spike Eskin, whom I love dearly, has been saying consistently since the playoffs of the Sixers that “we’re fucked.” The C’s are just too good, and we can’t compete. Overnight things have changed, and while the Celts have a fine team and a stellar coach and may well defeat us some years, there is no reason whatsoever to see their situation as better than ours. We now have easily the two best players among the two teams, and we have the brightest very young prospect (Simmons) as well. The Celtics have the depth, and that’s great, but it makes their team very hard to improve — if they got Trevor Ariza for nothing, what good does it do them, when it just takes time away from equal-or-better players like Smart and Rozier and Morris? To get better, they need to pull of an AD trade or similar, and that’s not easy. Whereas all the Sixers need to do to improve is employ their cap space and young/draft assets intelligently. Based on the skill we’ve seen from Elton, Brett, Alex, and the whole management team, first with their terrific draft night and now with this superb trade, I fully expect them to deliver. With a little luck on injuries, chemistry, and player development, that should lead to a team that is competitive with the very best in the East in the short run, and with the best in the league in years to come. Let’s celebrate!