Making the decision to sign a superstar in free agency is, honestly, rather easy. “We’re going to make a run at LeBron James!” is not a conclusion that requires a galaxy brain to arrive at. Trading players with value to obtain a superstar needs more consideration, because it requires giving up value. Jimmy Butler is the latest NBA superstar to demand a trade, and given the Sixers’ public proclamation of their intention to “star hunt,” they would inevitably be mentioned in any trade scenario for any disgruntled top player.
That said, given a number of factors - Butler’s expiring contract, the expected cost, and the question of passing on similar opportunities - it requires a deep dive to really parse out all of the questions and come up to a more informed thought on what the Sixers should do. That is what we’ll attempt to do, here, starting with an admission of failure.
Punting on Free Agency
Any trade for Jimmy Butler should reflect the reality that the return is for a one-year commitment and an acknowledgment that free agency is not a realistic path to superstar acquisition for the Sixers. Philadelphia is not LA, not Miami, and not New York, which makes it something like everything else in the NBA. The Sixers’ most impactful signee in team history is their current general manager, and even he’d acknowledge he signed with the team because it gave him a 5-year contract coming off a devastating Achilles tendon rupture that no one else would match.
The Sixers, if they make a deal, will be tasked with selling Butler on their culture and on a long-term deal. Is he the third superstar the team is hunting for? We’ll talk about fit shortly.
That said, trading for a player the caliber of Butler will likely redirect the Sixers’ intentions next summer. Rather than star-gaze at Kawhi Leonard or settle for a sub-star player like Khris Middleton, the team would instead focus on retaining a free agent rather than chasing one. The success rate for teams with retention is typically much higher than the success rate of catching someone’s eye. Given the strikeout from this past summer, this appears to be a prudent move.
Does Butler Fit?
Unless we’re talking about the Warriors trio of perimeter savants, the issue of fit with superstars when playing together is a relatively common trope. LeBron and Wade. Shaq and Kobe (and Payton and Malone). Harden and Dwight. The prototype second (or third) star is someone who complements the existing star structure. There’s a reason that Kevin Durant is Beta-Max and not Alpha-Max.
Butler is not, and maybe more importantly does not see himself as, a second fiddle. He isolated on 13% of his possessions used per NBA.com, which in a world where the Houston Rockets cease to exist would be high. He’s an alpha who would be joining a team already consisting of two less established alphas. It’s not drastically different than the situation he found himself in while in Minnesota, which is looking to be more and more of a disaster by the moment.
But two major differences in situation stand out. The first is obvious - Embiid and Simmons are very different players than the Timberpups duo, and they play consistently harder than their counterparts. Butler’s criticism seemed to stem on his going all-out, all the time especially on defense while Wiggins and Towns had indifferent thoughts and subsequent actions toward the defensive craft. Minnesota finished an embarrassing 27th in defensive rating, per Basketball-Reference, despite having a defensive-oriented coach and two plus-plus defenders in Butler and Taj Gibson. Even dating back to his Chicago days, his criticisms of teammates seemed to stem on his refusal to believe that effort on defense is optional. The Sixers, meanwhile, finished fourth in the league in defensive rating, led by Embiid, Simmons, and Robert Covington (who we’ll come back to, for obvious reasons, shortly).
The second reason, just as important, is that the Sixers run the most egalitarian offense in the NBA now, which does not figure to change now that the team has another realistic option to use in its offense. Philadelphia led the NBA in passes per game but a not-insignificant margin in 2017-18, per NBA.com’s tracking stats. While it would surely require adjustments by Butler, he would see the ball as often as he did in Minnesota, which made 60 fewer passes per game than the Sixers last year. Sharing may very well equal caring.
How Concerned Should We Be About Butler’s Minutes and Injury History?
I’m sure you’ve either heard this or could have guessed it based on all the discussion surrounding him, but Jimmy Butler has played the most regular season minutes among all NBA players over the past five years, averaging nearly 38 minutes per game.
That said: I think the minutes and age issue, while notable given the youth of Simmons (22) and Embiid (24) and difference in ages among them, is a bit overblown. Butler did not see major NBA minutes himself until he was 23, and due to nagging injuries and a lack of team success, his minutes workload has not been, say, LeBron-like.
Butler’s career trajectory has often been compared to his predecessor in Chicago and now-current teammate, Luol Deng, who suffered from a performance fall-off at around age 30 largely attributed to overuse by his coaches. However, Deng played heavy NBA minutes starting at age 19, four years earlier than Butler. He averaged 43 minutes over the course of a 16-game conference finals run and nearly died due to a botched spinal tap. He played in high-pressure situations consistently due to his team’s competitive level. And he played extensively in an era where player conservation was frowned upon. The situations are more different than they’ve been led to be, in my opinion.
Due to nagging injuries, Butler has only played 70 games twice. Due to being surrounded by sub-par talent for much of his recent career, he hasn’t played deep into the playoffs since 2015, While the injuries aren’t great, it’s again reduced the number of minutes he’s had to play, and none of the injuries have been catastrophic or individually causes for concern.
Am I excited about paying Butler four-plus years at the max as he progresses into his mid-30s? No, of course not. But I don’t think the early part of that contract is as risky as others, especially since the Sixers do seem to care about workload and health, unlike Tom Thibodeau.
How Good Is Butler, Anyway?
Very, very good, an elite two-way player. Among qualifying players (50+ games and 15> minutes per game) with a high usage (25% or more), he finished 11th in true shooting percentage at 59.0%, my preferred metric for evaluating shooting efficiency. His percentage is within range of Damian Lilliard’s (59.4%), a player considered an offensive centerpiece. Falling behind Steph Curry, LeBron, and Anthony Davis among others is not a crime. But he did finish ahead of offensive notables such as Victor Oladipo, Paul George, and Embiid. You can add Bradley Beal, Lou Williams, Kemba Walker, Devin Booker, and DeMar DeRozan to the same list. Same with Donovan Mitchell and C.J. McCollum. You get the picture - he’s a better offensive player than you probably thought. He’s a better defender than every guard I listed above, too.
Shooting fit is a question mark, but it’s not a terribly foreign thing for Butler. He put up a then-career year teaming with shooters the caliber of... Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. He can play with Ben Simmons. If Embiid can improve his perimeter shooting, and if he can share the floor with shooting savants like J.J. Redick, he’ll be perfectly fine.
Unless you subscribe to the idea that max contract slots should be saved for opportunities to grossly underpay superstars who would in a max-less world be worth the entire cap (which is, honestly, not an unreasonable take if you’re a team that’s considered a destination for such players or have been fortunate enough to draft one), then he’s worth what he’ll be paid at least at the onset of a max contract.
The Trade Scenario
Based on the above, I think there’s enough reason to be intrigued about a possible trade. Multiple teams are expected to have interest in Butler, per reports. His preferred free agency destinations - Los Angeles, New York, and Brooklyn, the real big markets I alluded to before - are all among those. Because the Sixers cannot expect Butler to sign with them in free agency, unlike those teams, the Sixers will need to put together a competitive offer. His agent basically said as much when he leaked his preferred destinations to Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic and Woj, who is Woj.
Butler is under contract for approximately $20.5 million this season, which is a bargain. The Sixers will need to get within five million on the low end to make the trade work.
The Sixers can get there with expiring contracts and young/draft assets, but that may not appeal to Wolves owner Glen Taylor. A trade of Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, and one of the Sixers young first rounders (Zhaire Smith, Furkan Korkmaz, or Landry Shamet) work. You can even sub Bayless for Chandler and make a Smith trade happen. Not including the 2021 first round pick acquired from the Miami Heat on draft night is probably a non-starter, even though it seems further draft reform won’t occur until 2022 or 2023. That said, Minnesota shedding Butler for pennies on the dollar, like in the scenario above, seems unlikely for a team that fashions itself a playoff contender in the near future.
Robert Covington will inevitably be discussed - he would otherwise likely be displaced as a starter upon completion of the trade, and his long-term contract, defense, and shooting would be a welcome sidekick to the newly extended Karl-Anthony Towns. It would also be fate that a player who is clearly better than Andrew Wiggins would be the main return on a Jimmy Butler deal. Covington and the 2021 first is a rich deal for a rental, especially in a world where the Golden State Warriors exist, but in the event where the Warriors falter due to injury or some unknown cataclysmic occurrence, it might be worth it to establish the team as the second-best team. I doubt the deal gets done unless Covington, or a similar-level talent (Saric?), is involved.
That said, is four years of Covington on a team-friendly contract (a first-team all defense player and valuable floor spacer) too rich to give up for a rental, even a superstar rental? Normally, I’d say yes. But Butler and Covington play the same position, and Butler is a ready-made defensive replacement for Covington’s production while offering much more on offense. Butler represents a true step-up without creating a weakness out of a previous strength. As much as I’d hate to admit it, I’d pay that price.
Furthermore, the price may not need to be more than Covington. An elite defensive player on a good contract may be the best offer Minnesota receives. The Timberwolves owner’s decision to resolve the conflict before training camp opens early next week gives other negotiating teams extra leverage in making the trade work quickly, which should deflate the trade return.
Is This the Final Chance to Trade for a Star?
Given the history of the NBA, probably not. If the Sixers choose not to get it done, or can’t for whatever reason, it’s not a time to panic. Star-level trades have become more and more common as players have opted for shorter contracts and contract lengths have decreased. Teams that haven’t made recent upward progress - think Portland or Washington, as examples - will inevitably have to shake things up. Players may clash with coaches and teammates. No one is immune to it. An opportunity to make such a trade will come up during the season or next summer.
Two factors do increase the urgency to make said deal sooner rather than later, however. The first, more obvious one is a much-anticipated max contract extension for Ben Simmons, which will make next summer the final one for the Sixers to offer a max contract to a free agent or make an imbalanced trade in the near-future. The second, less obvious one is that Dario Saric is on the same timeframe for a contract extension. Simmons is essentially an untouchable, but as much as we love our Large Adult Podcasting Croatian Son, his time as a realistic trade centerpiece is slowly but surely beginning to expire. He has one of the best rookie value contracts in the NBA, making just $2.5M on the cap this year and about a million more next year. When he’s making Covington money, or more, his trade value inevitably will be tied to the higher salary for a really good role player. He doesn’t need to be involved in a trade for this to matter either - it just reduces the number of options the Sixers have to pull the proverbial trigger.
Jimmy Butler may not be the perfect fit, but he may be the best fit among acquirable talent. He’ll help now, possibly to the point where the Sixers should be considered a conference favorite, and the Sixers will at least have the option to make or pass on a future commitment. That’s enough reason to strongly consider a trade, and given Minnesota’s lack of leverage, the price might actually be right.