The Philadelphia 76ers drafted Markelle Fultz to be their dynamic off-the-dribble creator and pick-and-roll maestro. A player with the precise skill set needed to complement Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Fast forward a year, and we’ve seen a series of wild events unfold that no one could have predicted. Now, 19 games into the 2018-19 season, Markelle Fultz is on the bench and the Jimmy Butler era has arrived to fill the creator void.
As is the case with any new acquisition, especially a top-10 player that completely shakes up the starting lineup, it takes time to integrate them. For the Sixers, there’s also the question of shooting to deal with. How their trio of stars — who are at their best when they have the ball and, in the case of Simmons, can’t space the floor — develop together is one of the NBA’s best new storylines.
It’s obvious that shooting and depth aren’t strengths for this team. The Sixers lost some firepower in that department when they traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric. Losing Saric for Wilson Chandler in the starting lineup will be the most noticeable change. As ugly as Saric’s slump has been to start this season, he still asserted himself as a dangerous marksman in 2017-18, hitting two 3s per game at a 39.3 percent clip. Chandler — despite being the best fifth starter with his size, versatility, and touch of scoring on drives and against closeouts — has only tallied 1.6 makes at a 35.1 percent rate over his last five seasons.
Butler’s shooting has been questioned by some as well. He isn’t at his best spending too much time off the ball, like Paul George, for instance. Butler is in his element as a creator. But while his efficiency (and volume) from beyond the arc doesn’t jump off the page, he shot 38.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last season and 41 percent the year before that. He’ll be just fine spotting up alongside Simmons and Embiid.
And where Butler really provides an upgrade in gravity from the perimeter is through his ability to create in isolation. He’s comfortable taking the kind of shots off the dribble that no one else on the Sixers could make. It’s winning games already:
Still, the Sixers need to do what they can to strengthen their supporting cast of role players and shooters around their stars.
A few rotation adjustments
Continuing to utilize Landry Shamet’s movement and silky shooting (he's second on the team in made 3s at 31), and giving Furkan Korkmaz more of a chance (who’s played well when given the chance recently) is a start. They both have obvious weaknesses, but have skill sets that are needed.
Cutting down the minutes of Amir Johnson, who's been a major negative in recent games, is another way to help with spacing. The Sixers' swing from a +4.4 net rating without Johnson on the floor to -10.9 with him, not to mention him having the second-worst offensive rating (98.1) on the team, is telling of how ugly things have been.
On top of that, frontcourts of Johnson and Mike Muscala need to stop. Out of 52 two-man combinations that have played at least 50 minutes together, they're the fifth-worst in offensive rating at a mere 94.9. They take away potential four or five-out shooting lineups with Muscala at center, and don’t even have sound rim protection to make up for it. Playing Muscala more at the 5 can help (he’s spent only 18 percent of his minutes there so far), which will be made easier when Chandler can spend more time at the 4 without any minute restrictions.
But these tweaks obviously can't solve everything.
Whether it’s through trade or buyout, the Sixers need to make a move. The name on everyone’s Twitter fingers is Kyle Korver. According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, the Sixers are still “highly interested”. For more, Adam Aaronson has explored some possible options — ranging from Justin Holiday to Trevor Ariza — who could help. Perhaps a bold trade for Otto Porter could even be worth exploring.
For now, though, there are other ways the Sixers can elevate their new offense.
Maximize Simmons’ movement and screening
Seeing as 3-point shooting doesn’t seem to be on Simmons’ agenda for the foreseeable future, the best way to perfect his play with Butler is by tapping into the ability he has as a screener and cutter. It’s the most important matter for Brett Brown and Simmons to tackle when overcoming questions of fit.
Increasing Simmons’ usage as a roll man will be key. Even before Butler’s arrival, Simmons’ explosiveness and remarkable passing ability on short rolls was waiting to be unleashed more often.
The Sixers ranked dead last in pick-and-roll usage last season. With their personnel, highlighted by a non-shooting point guard in Simmons, Brett Brown never opted to use it much. With Butler, Brown has confirmed that’s going to change.
Redick-Simmons pick-and-roll has shown us flashes of how Simmons can fly to the rim the second an extra step of space opens up. Redick’s pull as a shooter alone can do that in moderation. Put Butler in his place, who demands a whole new level of attention thanks to his playmaking and ability to create off the bounce, and defenses will be hedging and scrambling far more often, freeing up openings for Simmons.
On this play, Simmons’ screen puts Joe Ingles a step behind, Derrick Favors drops to cover Simmons’ roll, and Rudy Gobert is forced to drop back to handle a potential drive from Butler. Instead, Butler stops and drops in a floater, something he does with ease to catch reeling defenders off guard (he’s shot 50.2 percent between 3-10 feet over the last two seasons):
Similarly, Simmons’ dribble hand-off connection with Butler can pick apart teams. Against Utah on November 16, the Sixers went to it early and found plenty of success. You can see how Butler finds room to drive when Ingles is forced over the screen, and how quickly Butler can use space to shoot if Ingles goes under:
The Sixers utilize dribble hand-offs to great effect anyway as a staple of the Redick-Embiid two-man game. With Butler’s ability to attack downhill and create his own shots off screens, a wealth of new options are available. And by using Simmons more as a screener like this to set up Butler, he’s spending less time simply watching plays off the ball or waiting in the dunker’s spot.
Before joining the Sixers, Butler was averaging 63.4 touches per game with the Timberwolves. Through his first three games in Philly, he was down to 50.7 touches. Part of that drop is expected for a player moving to a new team with two new co-stars. However, as much as he needs opportunities to run pick-and-rolls and create in isolation when need be, remaining active without the ball will be essential next to Simmons.
And that shouldn’t be a problem. Butler ranked in the 93rd percentile on cuts last season thanks to his instincts, timing, and physicality to power his way through traffic. It’s how he dealt a lot of his damage in his Sixers debut, relocating off Embiid and seeking out mismatches under the basket:
Butler knows how to find windows of space to make himself available — in transition or half-court settings — and Simmons can thread the needle anywhere he wants:
Meanwhile, Embiid’s passing has been his main area of improvement this season. Through 18 games, his assist and turnover percentages are both at career-bests. His decision making is a little sharper and he’s taking better care of the ball. As he (hopefully) continues to develop this facet of his game, distributing from the post and the top of the arc is one way he can help Butler fit in with plays like those above.
Through the tiny four-game sample size we have since the trade, lineups with the foursome of Simmons-Redick-Butler-Embiid have a 19.7 net rating.
“It’s so fun to win. It’s so much more fun to play with these guys,” Butler said after the 113-107 win against the Jazz. “Everybody wants to win. When somebody messes up, you talk to them, they don’t take it personal. They do their job...
“I love these guys,” Butler added.
This partnership is off to a good start. Already, Butler is playing fierce defense, creating in ways that the Sixers couldn’t without him, and showing how he can be a weapon off the ball. Of course, a team that’s changed this much will need time. But if the Sixers can bolster their depth, there’s no reason why they can’t return to having one of the most dominant starting fives in the league and become a genuine Finals contender.
There’s that much talent, with Butler’s perimeter creativity as the missing piece, to overcome any less-than-perfect questions of fit.