When news broke that Jimmy Butler would be heading back to the Eastern Conference by way of the Philadelphia 76ers, there were questions about his fit with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The optimistic lens then, which holds true now, is that maximizing this trio’s offensive harmony would require creativity and adaptability from each star, along with head coach Brett Brown.
For a few weeks, concerns were quashed. Butler and Simmons formed a headband fraternity, Embiid’s dominance was intact, and the Sixers were winning. Then, Embiid expressed disdain with his usage as a floor-spacer — a sentiment he later walked back and explained was misconstrued.
”I think a lot of people misunderstand me when I complain about ‘I want the ball. I want the ball,’” Embiid said. “I want the ball because I want to make things happen, I don’t want to take more shots. When I already take more than 20 shots, I already feel kinda bad about myself.”
”When I say that I want the ball in my hands, it’s because I want to create. I want to be able to move the ball, set screens, hand it off to JJ [Redick], play pick-and-roll out of it, find guys that are open.”
Three weeks later came the disastrous crunch-time offense on Christmas Day filled with clunky Butler-Embiid pick-and-rolls and Embiid post-ups swarmed by Boston Celtics green. And on Friday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported Butler has challenged his duties in Brown’s offense.
Philadelphia wants to make this grouping work both short-term and long-term. If it comes together and on-court results are no longer shadowed by news reports, there is the outline of a dominant Big Three guiding the franchise deep into the playoffs, and perhaps even to a title.
But to do so, flexibility from every major piece is needed. It is unlikely Embiid, Butler and Simmons’ individual talents are amplified together. Manifesting the collective upside will include sacrifice.
The concordance with which the Golden State Warriors’ All-Star quartet operates has warped the perception of these situations. Rarely does it look that seamless. Even the Miami Heat’s championship nucleus of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — once all ball-dominant talents — underwent growing pains before twice delivering the ultimate prize.
”We’ve all been spending a lot of time together trying to find comfort zones, where people operate best and how they interact as teammates,” Brown said. “It takes time.”
”You’re always trying to find ways where you can help your players and put them in a different position to succeed.”
To a degree, Butler is correct in challenging Brown. Letting this news go public is an entirely different discussion — and that’s not even to say Butler or his camp were the ones responsible. Either by choice or natural occurrence, he has tailored his game to Brown’s free-flowing, non-traditionalist approach. While his 23.1 percent usage rate closely resembles last year’s 24.9 percent mark, he is being deployed in a different way.
(Chart courtesy of fellow Liberty Baller Adam Aaronson)
The two staples of Butler’s arsenal, ball screens and isolations, have been trimmed in favor of hand-offs — a favorite of Brown’s — and spot-ups — a play reflective of off-ball cameos. Letting Butler create for himself in his preferred actions more often is a worthwhile goal moving forward, though not to the same degree. Brown should work to maximize the spacing around Butler-Embiid units, or even call for more Butler-Mike Muscala pick-and-pops.
The challenge, as highlighted on Christmas, is that any shrewd help-side defender will shatter Butler-Embiid screen-and-rolls if Simmons is on the floor. And there haven’t been many opportunities to test the waters without Simmons; Butler and Embiid have played just 57 minutes together sans the second-year guard. Exploring that dynamic with a mix of Muscala, Landry Shamet, JJ Redick, Furkan Korkmaz, and Wilson Chandler flanking them could help shift Butler’s usage closer to his liking. But the reality is even then, it’s not going to mirror his pre-Sixers days.
There are too many average, poor, or non-shooters in the rotation currently to think defenders won’t sag off and clog driving lanes. Playing alongside another perimeter-oriented star in Simmons isn’t conducive to Butler’s grind-it-out touches of yesteryear. Keeping Butler happy by allowing for added on-ball responsibility and featuring his shot-creating talents is imperative. Yet at the same time, he must also lean further into his valuable off-ball tendencies.
Despite connecting on 38.8 percent of his 3-pointers, Butler is attempting just 3.6 per night. Because he has a penchant for one- or two-dribble pull-ups, the gravity most 38-plus percent marksmen command is absent.
Waltzing into fewer of these suckers — replaced with quick-trigger triples — would eventually force the opposition’s hand:
Too often, defenders scoot off of Butler to provide help, knowing he’s likely to pound rhythm dribbles and leaving them ample time to challenge the shot. Asking him to fundamentally redesign his shot profile is unrealistic, but trading in some long twos for 3-pointers isn’t. Per Cleaning the Glass, he ranks in the fifth percentile in 3-point frequency (21 percent) and 88th in the mid-range (44 percent). That won’t cut it. Over time, changing his shot profile would stretch the floor for Simmons and Embiid, serving as an efficient, moderate-volume hoister, rather than the low-volume guy he is now.
Beyond just watching and waiting, Butler could zip to the rim as a cutter more frequently, having registered only 22 such possessions in 21 games with Philadelphia. When the lane is inviting or defenders are hypnotized by Simmons and Embiid, slicing inside to provide an outlet is a recipe to better idealize this team’s star power.
Sometimes, those efforts will go unrecognized, even though Simmons is a near-omniscient floor general and Embiid takes strides every season in that facet. But similar to the shooting, developing a consistent knack for cutting against undisciplined defense has a chance to alter how he is guarded, commanding attention as a (relatively) high-value off-ball mover.
Maximizing Butler within the Sixers’ offense also stands to potentially alienate Simmons and Embiid at times. Simmons has improved his scoring capabilities this season, seeking out mismatches and vaporizing them in the post. Still, the ever-present question persists with his jump shot. In the interim, bordering he and Butler with three shooters during non-Embiid minutes leaves the door ajar for every blogger’s favorite concept: Simmons as the roll man.
Prior to Butler’s arrival, Philadelphia didn’t boast the requisite personnel to actualize this on a regular basis. The absence of a lethal ball-screen dynamo also contributed to Brown’s desire to rarely execute pick-and-rolls through a ball handler (30th in frequency the past two years). Now, Brown has one in Butler. Despite missing the vertical explosiveness or diverse array of finishing moves, Simmons’ passing chops and efficiency at the rim make him a tantalizing partner with Butler. It offsets his lack of shooting and still provides chances to feature his distributing to gunners on the perimeter.
Simmons can’t be involved in every action, though, and his inability to stretch the floor will remain an issue for the near future. Stationing him in the dunker’s spot enforces a serious cap on every half-court possession if his defender can pay him no mind and seek to help off. That is not to say he should never be there. He’s in grand position for offensive rebounds and dump-offs for dunks.
Utilizing his 6-foot-10 frame to spring free shooters or cutters with off-ball screens is another path to value. Secondary activity hasn’t always been a strength of Brown’s offense, so this is also a resolution for him in a sense. To truly elevate his personal and team-wide ceiling, Simmons has to develop some type of jumper.
“To get to the level we wanna get to, he’s gonna need to [shoot],” Brown said. “So, the time has always been now, and it will continue to be an emphasis from me to him. And seemingly, and more importantly, from him to himself recently.”
For Embiid, the mandate is simple: embrace periodic spot-up shooting — defenses tend to respect him enough out there; plus, he’s capable of Euro-stepping his way for slams — and sustain improvements as a low-post passer. That second point is key. Torch defenders when they send help by slinging the ball to shooters for open looks. Obvious growth has been made but double teams still mitigate his scoring effects.
He is the franchise centerpiece and the Sixers’ best player; his adaptation exists on a smaller plane. Everyone else, to varying levels, is an ancillary piece designed to maximize his impact.
Based on recent comments, it appears he recognizes sacrifice for the betterment of the team may be imminent — and to no chagrin.
”It’s not about feeding your best player 30 shots a night. It’s all about moving the ball if the ball finds you,” Embiid said. “There’s nights where the ball finds you and there’s nights where it’s not gonna find you.”
Along similar lines, Embiid emphasized the team’s offensive culture rooted in ball movement and unselfishness. Those are pillars for Brown and ones his superstar center is preaching. Integrating Butler is an ongoing process. He is not going to suddenly come out and revert back to his tendencies with Minnesota and Chicago. Not every suggestion of mine — probably most — won’t make its way into the playbook. But the organization has attached itself to this trio. Ideally, this is a partnership among everyone spanning longer than just the 2018-19 season. Adding more NBA-caliber rotation pieces — the Sixers are short on those — should alleviate a few issues, too.
Brown constantly champions Butler for his spirit, work ethic, and willingness to learn. There is distinct joy and admiration in his voice when he speaks about the All-Star wing. The current offensive strategy will be retooled. This core philosophy, however, will shine through.
“We’re gonna move it, we’re gonna share it and we’re gonna play together,” Embiid said. “We’re gonna be happy for whoever goes off as long as we get the win.”
Quotes in this piece were transcribed from pre- and post-game comments during the team’s December 30 game in Portland and January 2 game in Phoenix.