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Jimmy Butler could benefit from more minutes without Ben Simmons

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Butler and Simmons have been playing well together already, but Philly giving their new star more minutes by himself could maximize his skill set.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler is a closer. Against Brooklyn on November 25 he put together a perfect demonstration of how to finish a game. In the fourth quarter, he poured in 18 points on 7-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-4 from 3 and the game-winning step-back triple. Everything in his repertoire — everything that the Philadelphia 76ers wouldn’t have without him — was on display. He finished with 34 points, 12 rebounds, four steals and 20 field goal attempts — all individual highs since he joined the Sixers.

Butler’s creativity hadn’t been fully utilized until that point that, though. Before his emphatic showing against the Nets, he had only averaged 12.8 shots per game since coming to Philly, down from 15.7 with Minnesota to start the season. Fast forward a few games, and he’s still only increased that total ever so slightly to 13.4 as a Sixer.

Beyond just simple shot averages, his amount of touches has dropped significantly as well, falling from 63.4 per game with the Timberwolves to 46.6. Even his time in control when he does have the ball is way down, falling from 4.07 seconds per touch to 2.61. His pick-and-roll and isolation opportunities have dropped significantly.

Some of this is expected. Butler is on a new team with two stars who need the ball to maximize their own talents. With quick-hitting actions like dribble hand-offs being a key part of his offense so far, along with smart cuts alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (as they should be), Butler’s time on the ball was always going to take a hit. And that’s ok. He’s clearly made an effort to be active off the ball and do his best to complement his fellow stars, too, while often passing out of drives when he could look to bully his way to the rim.

But while the nature of an adjustment period and some of Butler’s own passiveness is part of the reason for this, he hasn’t been always been put in the best position to showcase everything in his arsenal.

305 of Butler’s 328 minutes in Philly so far have been with Simmons. They’ve been practically inseparable. Brett Brown has put emphasis on their collective strength, much like he has with Embiid and Redick’s two-man game. Yet, as imposing as the new starting five has been with a +18.2 net rating (the best mark among 5-man lineups with at least 100 minutes played) and as well as Butler and Simmons have been connecting — as our Andrew Favakeh looked at in detail here — there’s room for Butler to do more.

This is still true when they share the floor. Butler can run more isolation and pick-and-roll (which can include Simmons as the roll man) either way. But the easiest way to let Butler up his usage as a ball handler, without forcing Simmons to spend too much time off the ball, is by giving Butler time to lead to the offense by himself. So far, this has mostly consisted of a few brief stints at the start of second quarters. Even giving Butler 7-10 minutes per game by himself would make a notable difference.

Of course, there are going to be possessions built around a dribble hand-off for Redick or an Embiid post-up which only require Butler to spot-up or cut if an opening arises. That said, Butler has still spent a lot of plays idly standing at the perimeter, watching as Redick or Simmons close out possessions, or even TJ McConnell handles the ball instead:

More Embiid-Butler pick-and-roll would be one perk of increased staggering. There isn’t as much space to work with when Simmons is off the ball, making it easier for defenses to play off him (you can see in the second play in the clip below how Simmons’ man can sag off and help on Embiid’s roll). Whether Butler hits Embiid diving inside, surveys the floor for shooters, or pulls up and attacks into the lane, he can do more off the dribble than anyone else on the roster:

Beyond pick-and-rolls, creating in isolation is something Butler can’t do nearly as much if he’s always with Simmons. While it shouldn’t be a go-to for the Sixers, it’s necessary at times when a play breaks down or the shot clock is about to expire. Besides the ability to shoot off the dribble — a new luxury for the Sixers — Butler has a terrific blend of speed and strength for attacking the rim and powering his way to the free throw line. He’s down from 7.6 free throw attempts per game over the last four seasons to 4.4, with a decline in drives from 13.5 per game with Minnesota at the start of this season to 7.9.

His fourth quarter performance is a testament to how formidable he can be when taking charge.

He won two of his first seven games in Philly with pull-up 3s, he put together an 18-point fourth quarter with perfect shooting against Brooklyn on November 25, and he scored 13 points in the fourth against Memphis on Sunday. Thanks to being featured in these scenarios, Butler has averaged 7.1 fourth quarter points on 54.8 percent shooting since joining the Sixers. Increase his overall touches and minutes without Simmons, and Butler would have further opportunities to produce like this throughout games:

All of this isn’t to say Simmons and Butler haven’t been good together, because they have been. They’ve developed chemistry in a hurry, and the Sixers have an impressive 112 offensive rating when they’re on the court together. But as effective as their two-man game has been — from transition and dribble hand-offs, to cuts and flashes of pick-and-roll success — it doesn’t mean Butler’s skill set can’t be maximized.

Unleashing his creative talents as a lead ball handler is something the Sixers could do more often, and it’s necessary when their offense needs a jolt, or help in lineups with McConnell at point or Mike Muscala in for Embiid at center. After all, the longer you have at least one star ball handler on the floor to run your offense, the better. It’s not a bad adjustment to develop in preparation for the playoffs either, giving the Sixers multiple looks to lean on if Simmons’ absent jumper is a problem again.

If Brett Brown can work with Butler to give him a more assertive role that supports his strengths every night, the Sixers’ big 3 will be even tougher to stop.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.