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Unlocking Jimmy Butler’s Role and Potential on the Sixers

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Brett Brown is still working on utilizing Jimmy Butler in the most efficient way. The Brooklyn Nets game showed a glimpse of what that looks like.

Utah Jazz v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Star-hunting is a liquidation of short-term assets which yields the superstar capable of steering the direction of your franchise. As rewarding as it is, a difficult adjustment period follows.

Teams that capture their star prey build the player’s role by relying on precedence. For the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, then, the blueprint was proverbially laid and only smaller wrinkles needed to be ironed out. Before Kyrie Irving, was Isiah Thomas. DeMar DeRozan paved the path for Kawhi Leonard.

The Sixers don’t have a past to lean on.

Playing next to Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler’s role is secondary creator. Prior to his arrival, the Sixers leaned on secondary-creating by committee. Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz played the role in spurts and J.J. Redick and Landry Shamet have even heard their names called.

The Brooklyn Nets game resembled a turning point in the adjustment period, as Butler attempted 20 shots, whereas he shot 12.8 per game in the prior 8 games with Philadelphia. In addition, he shot 7 times (and made 7) in the fourth quarter, an increase from the 4.3 he’s attempting as a 76er. All underscored by the superstar cloning his clutch gene for the second game-winner of the short season.

To NBC Philadelphia after the game, Butler spoke to his fit in the new system, “I try to play within the offense for the most part,” Butler said, flashing his shiny teeth, “and when the time comes, shoot the ball, create your own shots, iso if that’s what need be. But I’m new here, man. I want to fit in, just like anywhere else.”

It’s essential the Sixers use the Brooklyn Nets game as a building block and don’t revert to the stagnant nature of the prior 8 games. In that stretch, Brett Brown bore the brunt of the blame, as he limited Butler to a diminished role.

Brown just plopped Butler in the corners — treating him like a forgotten and withering sunflower in the shadows of your grandma’s house:

The third play of the sequence above is an elbow play Brett Brown ran tons last season. The play relies solely on capitalizing on a mismatch in the post with Simmons versus the opposing point guard.

This time, though, Ben Simmons is fronted on the high-low pass causing Amir Johnson to be stranded on an island. Wilson Chandler is the last-ditch effort, but he’s also the only option. And Butler and Shamet remain glued to their respective corners, so Jrue Holiday can simply sink into the lane without worrying about them. Ultimately, Amir Johnson has create for himself, which, you know, is a recipe for disaster. He stumbles like a chicken with its head cut off into the hourglass build of Julius Randle and the stretchy Holiday.

The play is evidence of Brett Brown neglecting Butler as a cutter. Simmons has never played with a cutter of Butler’s talents. If he staggers Butler, the advantage is erased. So I am averse to staggering the two. After all, the marriage seems to be thriving, with Simmons’ offensive rating jumping 12 points, and his assists rising in conjunction.

Redick and Shamet don’t have the innate cutting ability Butler does. This season, Redick averaged a measly 0.4 cuts per games and is, statistically, one of the worst cutters in the league — averaging 0.50 points per possession. Shamet’s 0.3 cutting possessions and 1.33 points per possession (which would land in the 49th percentile if he qualified) render him similar quality.

This play, Butler’s first prerogative is to isolate Harris, but eyes Rondae-Hollis Jefferson on help-side. So he resets it to Simmons. He then floats to the arc, lulling Harris to sleep, only to awake him with a lightning-quick cut and thunderous slam:

His cutting is magical in transition, too. Butler cuts beneath the teeth and into the gums of the defense. Simmons does Simmons things, brushing past his defender and whizzing the rock to Butler:

Last season, Brett Brown rarely utilized cutters — shown in the Sixers’ middling cutting statistics. Butler and Simmons have serious show-time potential, and while the Sixers push the pace like a rocket, cutting begets half-court speed.

The same way Brett Brown has neglected Butler as a cutter next to Simmons, he has misused his vast pick and roll powers. Like life in itself, precedence should provide a blueprint and more positive outlook.

Butler was given the keys to the car in Chicago and Minnesota and accelerated his teams’ potential — his on/off offensive rating rated plus 6 and 6.2 in the last two seasons. The problem is not the quantity in which Butler is used, but the quality.

Thus far, Brown is using Butler as ball-handler in 0.5 more ball-screens per game than last season on Minnesota, yet his percentile in regards to points per play has dovetailed from 77th percentile to 38th percentile.

The New Orleans game is a good example of blatant pick and roll misuse. If the Brooklyn game acted as a turning point, then the New Orleans game was the time machine — reversing old and uninviting trends.

First, rewind to last season’s second-round playoff series, when the Boston Celtics deployed “drop coverage” feeding Ben Simmons space to eat up. With strong (and strong-willed) guards in Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, Boston would switch screens without giving thought to mismatches down low.

New Orleans leverage that same line of thinking, equipped with E’twaun Moore and Jrue Holiday. Also, Anthony Davis is of the Al Horford variety — quick enough to match up with guards, big and long enough to hold their own in the paint.

Here’s New Orleans, guarding Butler with four (!) defenders:

Julius Randle is not Al Horford, but he doesn’t need to be for the wheels to spin. Anthony Davis left Simmons alone, even as the point forward crept closer to the mid-range. Jackson is willing to leave Wilson Chandler to corral the ricochet.

Against the Nets, Brown introduced a few pick and roll sets that negate drop coverage. The one below, details Butler coming off a pin-down screen, into a pick and roll. It recalls the elevator screens to get Shamet and Redick open three-pointers, but with a unique wrinkle. Ultimately, Dinwiddie is able to contest Butler because of a couple of lousy screens, but the idea remains:

Another play is a Simmons screen from the block (yep, you read that right). Usually, screens are set on the outskirts of the arc, but Simmons’ lack of a jumper forces the Sixers to get creative and dissuade the defense from sagging into drop coverage:

The 8-13 Brooklyn Nets — a league pass team, but not a cutthroat contender — are an ideal team to experiment against. The next two games against the Knicks and Wizards — with a combined record of 15-27 — should birth even more experiments.

Jimmy Butler is a stark contrast from J.J. Redick and Landry Shamet, a superstar that can transform an offense simply by touching the court. Brett Brown has shown progress in utilizing Butler, but more needs to made to unlock Butler’s otherworldly potential.

Statistics courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports.